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Commuters: Storm communication woes still dog LIRR

Long Island Rail Road personnel monitor security and

Long Island Rail Road personnel monitor security and weather in the situation room at LIRR headquarters in Jamaica. (Feb. 13, 2013) Credit: Barry Sloan

The Long Island Rail Road put to use two years of planning during this month's weekend blizzard, getting new snow-fighting equipment on the tracks to keep trains running and restoring most service by that Monday's rush.

But some customers and the head of the LIRR Commuter Council said that while the strategies worked well, they could not make up for shortfalls in communication.

LIRR officials said the agency is proud of its performance leading up to, during and after the overnight blizzard that started Feb. 8. When the storm left snowdrifts as high as 4 feet on some tracks in Suffolk County, the LIRR was ready with a bolstered fleet of snow equipment, new policies and priorities that allowed the railroad to keep trains running even during the height of the storm, and a $1.3 million new situation room from where the entire operation was run.

"We've always tried to put back as much service as possible" after a storm, LIRR customer service vice president Joe Calderone said. "I think the main difference is that we're a little more organized. We're communicating better, both internally and externally."

One of the keys, LIRR officials said, is the new "sit room" at the agency's Jamaica headquarters, where about two dozen LIRR staffers monitor 700 miles of track and the weather around the clock.

"We have a central place where key operations can be evaluated and we can operate under one direction," said LIRR president Helena Williams, adding that the room contributes to "good decision-making."

LIRR rider Matthew Hickerson, 49, of Northport, said he thought the agency performed better during the heavy snow than in past weather emergencies, but said he still struggled to find reliable information about cancellations, delays and service schedules.

"I've been riding the train since 1995, and I just remain befuddled about how they can't get communications right," said Hickerson, a marketing professional.

The LIRR started overhauling its snow response plan in 2010, but did not get to use many of its new tools during the mild winter of 2011-12.

Among the most important decisions made by the LIRR during a storm is whether to reduce service, where to reduce it and by how much. The agency in 2010 adopted a policy to suspend service as needed when more than 10 inches of snow accumulates on tracks.

The policy was a departure from the "run and rescue" approach used for centuries. Railroads would try to operate during the harshest of winter conditions, even at the risk of stranding passengers.

The LIRR implemented its new policy during a December 2010 blizzard. But as the railroad phased service back in after suspending operations, customers complained about the lack of reliable information regarding service. Electronic billboards at stations took several hours to be loaded with accurate schedule information.

Since then, the LIRR has created specific snow emergency timetables that could be quickly communicated to customers. The agency switched to one of its preplanned modified schedules immediately after the blizzard, running trains every two hours on its four busiest lines -- Babylon, Huntington, Port Washington and Ronkonkoma -- and suspended service on its other lines.

That allowed the railroad to clean up the rest of its system, with the help of three jet-powered snowblowers purchased in the past year and a powerful, $1.5 million snowplowing and ditching machine nicknamed "Rocky."

Most LIRR service was back by Sunday, Feb. 10, and was near-normal by the Monday morning rush hour Feb. 11. Service was fully restored by Tuesday morning, Feb. 12.

"If you don't learn from your mistakes or from things that went wrong in the past, you're being a fool. And I don't think the railroad was a fool here," said MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook. "To make sure they got almost the entire system running by Monday morning, I think, was a very significant achievement."

Mark Epstein, chairman of the commuter council, said the railroad benefitted from the storm arriving after the evening rush on a Friday. He said holes in the LIRR's communications strategy have been evident during smaller weather-related disruptions in recent weeks, including when heavy winds knocked down a utility pole near the Hicksville tracks Jan. 31.

The incident caused major cancellations, delays and confusion, as affected riders could not get reliable information about what was happening.

"It's still a coordination of communication problem," Epstein said. "The least expensive and most valuable commodity to commuters is information."

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