New York Senator Charles Schumer calls on the Long Island...

New York Senator Charles Schumer calls on the Long Island Rail Road to establish a commuters' bill of rights as he speaks at the Mineola LIRR station on Monday, October 10, 2011. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road should change its evacuation policy and get passengers off stranded trains during extended delays, Sen. Charles Schumer said Monday.

Schumer proposed the LIRR adopt a "commuter bill of rights" that would include requiring the railroad to safely evacuate trains if it's going to take a "long period of time" to restore service.

Thousands of riders were stuck on seven trains for more than three hours Sept. 29 after lightning knocked out signals and switches. It was the latest of more than a dozen major service disruptions since August 2010.

"It's simply not acceptable for commuters to wait on trains for hours and hours at a time with no opportunity to disembark," Schumer (D- N.Y.) said at a news conference at the Mineola station Monday.

The policy would be modeled after the 2009 federal airline passenger bill of rights, except the LIRR's compliance would be voluntary, not enforced by penalties, he said.

It would also call on the LIRR to better inform customers of delays and transit alternatives, and make stranded customers more comfortable, such as by providing bottled water.

In a statement, the LIRR said it "shares Senator Schumer's concern" and vowed to work to make sure customers are kept better informed and more comfortable. The statement did not address Schumer's call for mandatory evacuations.

After the Sept. 29 disruptions, LIRR president Helena Williams and senior vice president of operations Raymond Kenny defended the decision not to evacuate stranded riders.

They said doing so would have been dangerous and further delayed repairs to the system because third-rail power would have had to be shut off to allow people to walk on tracks.

David Rangel, deputy director of the Modoc Railroad Academy in Pleasant Grove, Calif., an organization that trains railroad workers, agreed it's usually safer for riders to stay put on stranded trains. Even with the third rail shut off, he said, a railroad right of way is dangerous terrain, made up of rocks, cables, switches and other obstacles that frequently injure even trained railroaders.

"Imagine an office worker in high heels trying to walk the tracks. That's a broken leg for sure," said Rangel, adding that evacuating trains could take several hours.

Schumer did not specify just how long a delay should trigger a requirement for the LIRR to get passengers off a train.

"I don't think that if it's a few minutes or even a half-hour, they should be evacuated," he said. "But if people are on trains for a very long period of time, they have to consider evacuation."

The LIRR has emergency evacuation protocols but without specific time triggers.

Schumer argued that setting a time limit for how long passengers can be stranded would dissuade frustrated customers from illegally jumping off trains themselves. LIRR officials said at least two people did that near Jamaica Sept. 29.

Diana Difiglia of Massapequa watched one person jump off her train 100 feet from the Jamaica platform that night. Four years earlier, she was on a train that dozens of passengers abandoned while it was stranded in Valley Stream for more than two hours.

"They're not going to self-evacuate if they trust the railroad to do the right thing," Difiglia said.

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