Shutting down a transportation system the size of the LIRR -- the nation's largest commuter railroad -- could take from a few hours to two days, depending on the length of a strike, an expert says.
Preparing for a strike like one that the Long Island Rail Road faces beginning at 12:01 a.m. Sunday is akin to preparing for a hurricane, Professor Steven Harrod said Monday.
It would only take a few hours if the strike lasts a few days, said Harrod, who will start a job with the Department of Transportation at Technical University of Denmark next month.
All workers are required to do is park the trains, put on the brakes and secure them, provided they don't park the trains on tracks the LIRR shares with Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.
"It would be really disruptive if workers park the train in Penn Station and say 'We're done,' " Harrod said.
But for long-term storage of trains past a month, Harrod said, it could take from 24 to 48 hours, depending on what workers plan to do.
"Now you have to worry about the toilet system; you have to worry about lubing and greasing things up so they don't rust, and you have to worry about mold and humidity."
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast likened a weekend shutdown of the LIRR, which provides 300,000 rides daily, to efforts the railroad made before major storms like superstorm Sandy.
"If a strike occurs, the primary action the railroad takes is to secure the railroad," Prendergast said Monday. "We try to get all the equipment laid up and in a secure location."
Prendergast also said that even during a strike, some nonpassenger trains would continue operating because "electric trains like to be run and track circuits like to be exercised."
The MTA said nonpassenger trains running during a strike would be operated by management employees.
LIRR union engineers are not involved in the current contract dispute.
The Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest organized labor group -- said Monday that although workers will not walk off their jobs before 12:01 a.m. Sunday, "riders should be aware that the winding down of service will begin well before then, as early as Wednesday, as the railroad needs to secure its equipment."
However, an MTA spokesman said the agency expects the last departures before a possible Sunday strike to begin about 9 p.m. Saturday. Trains traveling shorter distances could leave later.
"There's some point in time in advance of that the railroad needs to be effectively closed down," said Prendergast, adding that weekend travelers should plan ahead. "Certainly if they are going to go out somewhere and come back somewhere over the weekend, it will affect them."
In a statement, the LIRR Commuter Council said it was "greatly concerned" at the prospect of LIRR service being curtailed before a strike, and urged the agency to provide information about anticipated service changes immediately.
"This information is vital to commuters," council chairman Mark Epstein said. "The time is now, the need is now. Riders deserve to know now."