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Poor visibility, equipment issues lead to LIRR delays, train cancellations

On their way home during Friday afternoon rush hour, commuters at the Babylon Long Island Rail Road station talked about the blizzard and how it affected their travel. Videojournalist: Jessica Rotkiewicz (Feb. 8, 2013)

Poor visibility and blizzard strikes on railroad equipment delayed and led to some train cancellations Friday night as the Long Island Rail Road waited to see if service should be suspended systemwide.

Most of the trains were operating on schedule, LIRR said, but there were delays -- up to 77 minutes for a westbound Stony Brook train -- due to switching problems and areas with single tracks in use.

The commuter rail canceled service for late night trains east of Speonk due to poor visibility and said service would be suspended systemwide if snow accumulated more than 10 to 13 inches on the tracks, frustrating their attempts to clear the rails.

Before the blizzard began sinking its teeth onto the Island, scores of LIRR commuters took advantage of extra trains added early Friday afternoon to get home before the worst of the storm.

"People really responded to our call," LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena said. "Those early trains were packed."

The railroad reported some delays from "congestion caused by a high volume of customers traveling." There have been other weather-related delays, but Arena said that so far the Friday evening commute is going "as good it could be."

Arena said the LIRR is using some equipment to battle the weather, including de-icer trains that coat the third rail with antifreeze and track switch heaters. He said the LIRR will have 1,200 employees dedicated to storm response over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the LIRR's sister MTA railroad, Metro-North, had planned to reduce service at 8 p.m., but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Friday night said deteriorating conditions meant service was suspended at 10 p.m. to reduce the likelihood of stranded trains and allow crews to clear snow.

On the New Haven Line and Harlem Line, there will be half-hourly service out of Grand Central and hourly service toward Grand Central. On the Hudson Line, there will be hourly service in both directions.

"There is the potential for further service reductions as the severity of the storm intensifies," Metro-North said in a statement.

The LIRR provided eight extra eastbound trains out of Penn Station on Friday afternoon for riders leaving work early. The extra trains departed between 2:09 and 3:48 p.m. on the Babylon, Port Jefferson, Port Washington and Far Rockaway branches.

Trying to beat the storm like so many others, Joan Fusco, 74, was getting out of the city before the added trains left the station: She was waiting for the 12:31 train to Huntington, having gotten to her desk at a book publishing firm by 7:20 a.m. Friday morning.

Her boss came by about 10:30, said Fusco, of Westbury, and said, "I didn't expect to see you."

Looking around the concourse, Fusco said, "Now it's nice. I wouldn't want to be here later."

Heavy snowfall and high winds can interrupt train connectivity with the electrified third rail, freeze track switches in place, bring electrical and signal wires down, damage crossing gates, and limit visibility for train engineers, LIRR officials said.

The MTA New York City Transit subway system similarly geared up for the storm. It deployed snow throwers and blowers and de-icing cars, to keep the third rail and outdoor tracks clear of snow and ice. Workers shoveled outdoor subway station steps and platforms. Diesel trains were available to clear snow from tracks, officials said. During heavy snowfall, the MTA might have to store some trains below ground on express tracks, limiting some express service.

Nassau's NICE Bus had implemented its Emergency Inclement Weather Plan, which stepped up weather monitoring, communications, response and customer notification. NICE spokesman Andrew Kraus said that the agency expected that bus service from Friday afternoon through Saturday would be "severely impacted with delays and possible service interruptions," and urged customers to plan accordingly.

"The North Shore becomes the most problematic in snow conditions," Kraus said. "If the storm becomes severe, routes may be altered or suspended due to unsafe road conditions."

Kraus said NICE supervisors were out on roads assessing the safety of problematic routes, and staying in close contact with dispatchers and with Nassau County officials.

Suffolk County Transit would not begin any bus runs after 6 p.m. Friday because of blizzard conditions. Suffolk County Accessible Transit will also cease operation after 6, except for medically necessary trips and to pick up returning passengers who were transported earlier in the day. Both Suffolk County Transit and Suffolk County Accessible Transportation would have a delayed opening Saturday and expected to start up at noon.

"Given the size of the storm anticipated, service may be canceled," Suffolk Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said. "Riders should stay tuned to local news reports, call our Suffolk County Transit Information Hotline at 631.852.5200, and/or check the county's website for further information."

The storm had also caused Amtrak to suspend service in both directions between Boston and New York Friday afternoon. Officials have said they are concerned about large amounts of snow on rails and overhead wires.

"Amtrak crews are closely monitoring the storm to prepare and restore service as quickly as possible," Amtrak said in a statement.

The Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Ferry suspended operations in both directions at noon on Friday. The Cross Sound Ferry also canceled all ferries for the rest of Friday, and expected more cancellations Saturday.

Huntington's HART Bus will suspend paratransit service on Saturday, but had not made a determination yet on whether it would cancel fixed route buses Friday evening or Saturday. Some buses will travel on alternate routes.

"We don't want to strand anybody so we're not going to be quick to pull the buses off the roads," said Steve McGloin, Huntington's director of transportation and traffic safety. "We'll make a decision for tomorrow pretty early."

With Patricia Kitchen and Ellen Yan

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