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LIRR commuters play waiting game on frustrating day

Morning commuters crowd platform as they wait

Morning commuters crowd platform as they wait for a westbound train at the LIRR Mineola station, Jan. 25, 2016. Service was erratic due to conditions caused by the severe winter storm over the weekend. Credit: Howard Schnapp

They stood, bundled up, side by side, on train platforms Monday morning, and waited for their rides to work.

And they waited. And they waited.

For many commuters it was chaos on the first morning of the workweek — after a powerful weekend snowstorm prompted the Long Island Rail Road to idle its trains.

While the LIRR worked overnight Sunday into Monday to clear the rails in time for the morning commute, refreezing of rails and switches delayed the planned 5 a.m. restart of trains; right at about 5 a.m. the service said all lines were shut down but service would resume at 7 a.m.

Then, at 6 a.m. the LIRR restored service on six of its 12 branches, including Babylon, Ronkonkoma and Huntington — three of what is known as the big four lines.

“It’s frustrating,” said Claudine Campbell, 40, a Huntington resident who had been waiting for the 5:28 a.m. train out of Huntington to get to her job as an occupational therapist in Manhattan. “I think the MTA and the LIRR need to be more responsible . . . This is a main line and for them to just say we don’t have a train after we said we would is unacceptable.”

It was 7 a.m. and she and many others were still waiting.

At the Mineola station, on the Ronkonkoma line, Jim Trocchia said he walked back and forth for more than three hours between his home and the train station while waiting for a train.

Every train from 7 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. either was “canceled or packed,” said Trocchia, 45, a human resources worker from Mineola.

“Waiting for it to lighten up,” he said, shortly before boarding a train at 10:21 a.m. Announcements at the station said a train to Penn Station was running 31 minutes late.

Trocchia said he had never seen such problems on the LIRR.

“I’ve been taking the train for more than 20 years,” he said. “Nothing to this degree.”

Angel Lorente, 45, of South Huntington, said he got up at 4:30 a.m. to be there for the 5 a.m. station opening in Huntington — only to learn of the delayed restart.

“I could have slept a couple hours more,” said Lorente, a controller for an investment bank in Manhattan. “You expect delays after snow, but the problem is the communication gap.”

No train came, so he left the station and went back home at 7:15 a.m., “frustrated” from “waiting without any clarity.”

Of course, the train arrived five minutes after he left.

He’ll try again Tuesday.

LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan acknowledged commuter frustration on a morning when service was down on half the commuter rail’s branches.

“We are doing the best we can to provide the maximum amount of service and to communicate that information, despite extremely difficult conditions,” Donovan said about 9 a.m.

Donovan said the LIRR realizes the crowded platforms and the number of delays and cancellations on the six operating branches are tough on customers.

“We know there is additional crowding, so we urge customers to be patient and build in extra travel time,” he said.

After the chaotic morning commute, the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council called on the LIRR to improve its communication with riders.

The rider advocacy group said it “is extremely disappointed in the completeness and accuracy of communication provided by the LIRR to its riders. The LIRRCC appreciates the considerable efforts of LIRR workers in restoring service and the changing conditions that they face. In many cases, however, service announcements and alerts issued by the LIRR have not accurately reflected the service that is actually being provided.”

In Massapequa on the Babylon line, some riders were in a forgiving mood as they waited for trains, saying they understood the railroad was grappling with a major storm and doing the best it could.

Trains at Massapequa started rolling in by 6:15 a.m., with more following quickly. Within about 20 minutes, four trains arrived and departed for Penn Station.

“I’m not upset because it’s Mother Nature — it’s unavoidable,” said George Xenofontos, 37, of Massapequa, a stage hand at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan as he waited for the morning’s first train, adding that the LIRR tries “the best they can to keep it going.”

When the first train pulled in at about 6:15 a.m., it was a pleasant surprise for many commuters. When asked their reaction as they boarded the train, one shouted, “It’s great!”

After the announcement of the delayed start, the arrival of a 6:15 a.m. train was relatively good news for many commuters.

“It will come, and I’ll arrive in the city whenever I can,” said Helene Richard, of Massapequa, director of client services for a software company in Manhattan, as she waited for the train. “I know those guys do their best,” she said of the LIRR.

Corporate chef Lenny Traversa, 52, also of Massapequa, showed up at 5 a.m., then heard trains would not be running until 7 a.m. and went home. Then he got a text saying service was on — so he rushed back and got on one of the first trains.

He usually starts work in Manhattan at 6:30 a.m., but wasn’t sweating the fact he’d be late.

At other stations, where the wait for restored service was longer, commuters were less forgiving.

Frustration grew Monday morning among commuters waiting in the freezing weather on the platforms of the Huntington stop.

Northport resident Dean Diaz summed up his commuter experience among people waiting for LIRR trains in Huntington: “Bad as expected.”

The train was already two hours late from the announced opening and there was no sign of movement on the tracks.

“Communication is pretty horrible,” said Diaz, 50, a credit analyst who works in Manhattan. He said he spent the night trying to decide “whether it would be worth the effort” to get to the station and had been disappointed once more.

He expected a three-hour commute: “You just have to deal with it, not let it get under your skin.”

A barrage of automated announcements at the Huntington stop promised trains to Penn Station, Hunters Point and Atlantic Terminal at 5:28, 6:28, 6:50 and 7:19, but a local LIRR station manager told commuters not to mind those as deadlines kept sliding.

“We apologize for the announcements. Please do not listen to those,” said a voice on the loudspeakers.

The first train bound for Penn Station arrived in Huntington at 7:20 a.m. and left six minutes later — without bank controller Lorente.

Commuters, who had mostly lined up on the platform along the northern track, rushed up and down stairs to pack into the train. A loudspeaker announcement said it would be making all local stops.

At the Hicksville station, commuters aired a familiar complaint about the LIRR — worse than waiting is the lack of communication.

The 7:06 a.m. train — the first of the day — was jam-packed when it left, leaving dozens of other commuters stranded for more than 40 minutes waiting for the next train. In the meantime, two empty trains passed through the station without stopping, and another was canceled.

“We understand it took time, but they should be able to communicate better,” said Stephen LaRosa, 55, of Old Bethpage, a hedge fund manager who works in Manhattan. He said the 7:06 train was too crowded for him.

“I don’t get on when it’s like that,” LaRosa said. “It’s unhealthy” because he’d have to stand all the way to Penn Station.

He and dozens of others finally got on a train that left Hicksville at 7:55 a.m.

In Port Washington, dozens of stranded passengers seemed confused over delays and service not being available Monday morning.

Paul Olsen, 56, of Port Washington, rides the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station everyday, but couldn’t do so Monday because the first train wouldn’t depart from there until the afternoon — if then.

A passenger could, however, catch a bus from Port Washington to Mineola, where a LIRR train to Penn Station was available.

“This is the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced here,” said Olsen, a 15-year resident.

By 8 a.m. about 40 people were standing inside the train station trying to figure out their next moves. About 15 people were waiting to catch the bus.

“It’s frustrating,” said Leyla Alkan, 22, of Port Washington.

She said she works at a bank in Manhattan and had several meetings at work today.

“I wanted to go to work,” she said, walking out of the station. “I’m going to call in and go home.”

With Deon J. Hampton and Chau Lam

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