Long Island Rail Road commuters’ accounts of crowding at Penn Station during and after the agency’s storm-related service suspension on Tuesday has raised new concerns about the LIRR’s ability to maintain safe social distancing among passengers in an emergency.
But railroad officials say they’re doing all they can to keep riders safe, including by requiring the use of face masks and by advancing several infrastructure projects that will reduce the frequency of major service disruptions and expand capacity at Penn Station.
LIRR spokeswoman Meredith Daniels defended the railroad's storm response — "a heroic feat," she said, that included "immediate and ongoing customer communication throughout the storm.”
“Station and train conditions were thoroughly monitored to ensure customer and employee safety while hundreds of employees, in the field, worked to aggressively clear downed trees and repair equipment," Daniels said.
With fierce winds that reached nearly 80 miles per hour in parts of the railroad’s territory, the LIRR suspended all train service at the height of the storm Tuesday afternoon, and did not fully restore it until early Thursday morning. The shutdown resulted in a steady buildup of commuters waiting for the resumption of service at Penn.
“We knew this storm was coming for days, but now people stranded in Penn Station with no place to go. No shuttle busses. No social distancing. Nothing,” Twitter user @TThemoviejunkie posted shortly after 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
Others shared photos of dozens of riders gathering near Penn’s departure boards — despite having plenty of open space in the station.
With cancellations, delays and branch suspensions lasting through Wednesday, so did the congestion in parts of Penn Station. In one photo shared Wednesday on social media, dozens of commuters are packed shoulder-to-shoulder on a Penn Station LIRR platform.
The cramped conditions in some areas of Penn came despite the railroad still carrying only about a quarter of its usual ridership, which has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s led some to further question the railroad’s ability to promote social distancing once riders return in larger numbers, and another major service outage impacts Penn.
Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council — the railroad’s state-regulated rider watchdog group — said the likelihood of Penn Station experiencing hourslong delays every few months is “invariable,” and complicated by the fact that riders have fewer options than usual to pass the time.
“It’s not like you can go upstairs or out on the street to a bar, because everything is closed,” Bringmann said. “This whole thing is like a no-win situation. You want to get ridership back, because of the revenue. But as you get ridership back, there’s less chance of social distancing.”
Bringmann said riders’ inability to keep a safe social distance makes it doubly important that they wear face masks. He also urged the railroad to more closely consider Penn track assignments, so as not to have too many riders on a narrow platform at once.
Railroad officials said this week’s systemwide shutdown was an anomaly, brought on by the most damaging storm the LIRR has experienced since Sandy eight years ago. They noted that, thanks to its LIRR Forward initiative, which addresses infrastructure issues at the root of service disruptions, such major services outages are more infrequent, even in severe weather events.
In 2019, the railroad reported 2,868 delays lasting over 15 minutes, a 52% decrease from 2017 — the year before the LIRR Forward plan was enacted. Over the same period, train cancellations fell by 45%, from 1,376 in 2017 to 757 last year, according to LIRR statistics.
And larger infrastructure investments being made will further ease the pressure at Penn Station, LIRR officials said. They include the planned opening of a second Manhattan station, at Grand Central Terminal, by 2022 as part of East Side Access, and the expected completion of several upgrades at Penn later this year, including a new entrance with escalators and stairways at 33rd Street.