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Long Island Rail Road about to take on enemy No. 1: Mother Nature

The snow removal machine dubbed Darth Vader, seen

The snow removal machine dubbed Darth Vader, seen at the Ronkonkoma LIRR yard, will be geared up as the snow season starts. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The Long Island Rail Road is gearing up for another fight with its toughest enemy: winter weather.

Headed into what is traditionally the railroad’s toughest stretch of the year, LIRR president Phillip Eng said his agency — as part of its LIRR Forward service improvement initiatives — has stepped up efforts to combat some of the problems that come with frigid temperatures, ice and snow.

“Our focus is always to operate trains as safely and efficiently as possible, while communicating with our customers, to ensure we get them where they need to go,” Eng said. “We’re constantly evaluating ourselves, taking lessons learned from the past, and strengthening our internal coordination to deliver the service our customers deserve, regardless what Mother Nature has in store for us.”

The first major test of the railroad’s winter strategy was expected during the Monday evening rush hour, when up to 4 inches of snow was forecast to fall on parts of Long Island. The LIRR was reporting "good service" on all branches Monday afternoon, but did issue a winter weather advisory, telling customers to allow extra travel time and to use caution when walking on station platforms and staircases. 

The LIRR reported some issues during the evening rush, including delays on the Ronkonkoma line because of signal trouble east of Central Islip.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — said Sunday that the railroad would preposition staff throughout the system to remove snow and ice, and had its “storm-fighting equipment” ready, including nine snow jets, two snow brooms and three cold air blowers.

"All MTA agencies are closely monitoring this storm, and we will be ready for whatever winter conditions come our way,” MTA chairman Patrick Foye said in a statement. "We have a comprehensive plan in place that includes using equipment and personnel to keep tracks, stations, platforms and roadways clear of snow and ice, so our system can continue to operate."

Among the additions to the LIRR’s winter arsenal this year are 20 switch heaters — for a total of 80 — to keep ice and snow from disabling some of the railroad’s most heavily-used track switches. The railroad also has installed third rail heaters at 30 high-priority locations, and completed the replacement of 3,300 faulty “threshold plates” on train doors that were known to cause door malfunctions during the winter.

And to prevent delays caused by storms knocking debris onto tracks, the LIRR has cut back 225 miles of overgrown vegetation near its tracks, and worked with PSEG to replace 200 utility poles.

Railroad officials also said crews have spent the past several months servicing, testing and deploying snow equipment, which includes two new snow plow trucks, for a total of nine, to help clear station parking lots.

LIRR union chief Anthony Simon said, while important, the railroad's pre-winter preparations "is no replacement for the intense physical work" ahead for the railroad's labor force.

"They know our system and know what it takes to keep it running safely," said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation workers, which represents about half of all LIRR union employees.

Severe weather long has been a vulnerability of the LIRR, which attributed 4,113 delays — 17 percent of its 23,551 delays in 2018 — to “weather and environmental” causes. The weather challenges contributed to the railroad posting its worst annual on-time performance in two decades.

Deer Park commuter Pat Bocchino said he believes the railroad has been doing “a fairly good job” of addressing weather emergencies as of late, with one exception. Bocchino said that whenever it dips below freezing overnight, he anticipates waking up to service disruptions caused by broken rails — a common problem for railroads during major swings in temperature.

“They always seem to be caught, like, ‘Oh my God. We’re so surprised that this happened.’ It’s an every year thing,” said Bocchino, 50. “They’re always woefully unprepared.”

LIRR officials said they’re taking other measures to reduce disruptions for riders. After curtailing weekend service for several months to carry construction and maintenance work throughout the system, Eng has said that there will be no planned major weekend service outages the rest of the year.

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