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LIRR adds 'Darth Vader' to snow response arsenal

The Harsco Spreader Ditcher machine, owned by the

The Harsco Spreader Ditcher machine, owned by the Long Island Rail Road and referred to as "Darth Vader," rests on tracks in the Upper Holban Yard in Hollis, Queens. The machine is used for snow removal but also to level track beds during construction and repairs. (Nov. 22, 2013) Credit: Craig Ruttle

The Long Island Rail Road's deployment of a 53-foot-long, 80-ton steel snow removal vehicle caps a three-year effort to bolster the agency's winter weather arsenal.

The $1.5 million machine with an imposing prow, has been dubbed "Darth Vader" by LIRR workers for its similarity to the "Star Wars" movie character. It is the crown jewel of a $3 million effort that began in 2010 to expand the railroad's snow equipment.

Designed by Camp Hill, Pa.-based Harsco Track Technologies, the vehicle's huge plow features large wing blades that spread out to push snow clear off train tracks.

"For very large drifting and heavy snow, this is the ultimate clearance machine," John Hasley, the LIRR's chief engineer of track operations, said while standing next to the new equipment at a Hollis, Queens, rail yard. "Anything in its way, you're going to move."

The machine, which will be pushed by two locomotives at no more than 20 mph, will primarily be used on the LIRR's diesel territory in eastern Suffolk County, where snow drifts as high as 15 feet have formed during storms. In the past, tackling the towering drifts with less-powerful plows and snow brooms could take several days, resulting in longer service disruptions for Suffolk commuters than those on other lines.

The National Weather Service Sunday night issued a winter weather advisory for the region, including sleet, freezing rain and as much as 2 inches of snow in some areas.

Using "Darth" to take on the tallest drifts will free the rest of the LIRR's snow fleet, which includes three new jet-engine powered snowblowers, to be deployed elsewhere and clear the railroad's 700 miles of track more quickly.

"Certainly the storms of 2009 and 2010 demonstrated that we needed some additional equipment, and we now have it in-house," said Joe Calderone, LIRR customer service vice president, who emphasized that the snow-fighting fleet is only one part of the railroad's evolving winter weather strategy.

"Every storm is different. Every year is different. And we're constantly learning from the last storm how we can better prepare," Calderone said.

Among the strategies adopted by the LIRR are suspending service when 10 inches of snow accumulate on tracks, creating a specific snow emergency timetable to give customers some predictability during service disruptions, staffing a newly built "situation room" at the railroad's Jamaica headquarters around the clock during a storm, and putting up workers overnight in hotels so they can be near critical locations once a storm arrives.

Peter Haynes, president of the nonprofit LIRR Commuters Campaign, applauded the agency's enhanced snow response efforts, but said they haven't always hit the mark, especially in snowed-in Suffolk.

"The equipment is not everything, but it is certainly important. If you don't have the right piece of equipment to handle the job, it doesn't matter how good your plan is," Haynes, of Bayport, said. "Whether this new machine lives up to its expectations remains to be seen. . . . I hope it will."

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