Snow is the Long Island Rail Road's enemy.
Nothing preys on the vulnerabilities of the nation's largest and oldest commuter railway like winter weather. Ice on electrified third rails leaves trains powerless. Antiquated track switches at Jamaica Station, the railroad's most critical junction, are severely compromised. The system's modest capacity limits its ability to simultaneously run trains and snow equipment.
While the LIRR is making improvements in its snow response plan, the reality, experts say, is that riders' winter frustrations won't go away any time soon.
Multibillion-dollar capital projects that could ease the LIRR's snow troubles are a decade or more away. Those include reconfiguration of tracks and switches at the Jamaica bottleneck, and track additions in other parts of the system to increase capacity. And the snow-sensitive third rail isn't going away.
The LIRR's chief said she'd like to add equipment to fix the problems, but that could create more issues.
So, for riders on the system's 700 miles of track, the foreseeable forecast is familiar: cancellations, delays, crowded cars and spotty communication.
For some, that's not good enough.
"This is not Atlanta or Boston or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh," Patrick Foye, the Nassau representative on the MTA board, said Wednesday. "This is New York. And people expect to get to work, even if they have to schlep and slog through it."
The LIRR's biggest winter weak spot is its 100-year-old third-rail system. During snowstorms, snow and ice can build on the third rail and prevent it from conducting electricity to trains.
Unlike most major U.S. commuter railroads, which are powered primarily by diesel locomotives or overhead catenary wires, about 80 percent of the LIRR's fleet uses the electrified power source more typically seen in transit operations, including New York City's subway system.
The third-rail system was installed to allow trains to travel inside tunnels, where steam and diesel emissions are prohibited. The LIRR says it is generally reliable and it is not considering replacement of the system.
Meg Reile, spokeswoman for Chicago's Metra system, the nation's second-largest commuter railroad, said the LIRR, like other railroads of a certain age, has to make the most of the system it has. "With a lot of this infrastructure, it goes back so far that the costs of changing everything out are prohibitive," she said.
Other antiquated features hamper the LIRR's performance during snowstorms. At the busy junction of Jamaica Station - through which 10 of the railroad's 11 lines must pass - mechanical track switches designed a century ago get stuck in place during snowstorms, and high winds blow out the gas-powered heaters used to thaw them out.
The "Jamaica Reconfiguration," a plan to update and reconfigure tracks and switches there, would help the system beat snowstorms by replacing 90 gas-powered switches with electric ones that are less susceptible to freezing. That project is an estimated decade away from completion.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally said Jamaica's limitations can have "a major impact" on the LIRR, even when the rest of the system is running well.
"Somebody who's out in Ronkonkoma and has no snow wants to know why their train can't get into the city," Pally said Wednesday.
"There may be a good reason, but they're not seeing it."
The LIRR's snow-response plan underwent a significant overhaul a year ago with a new policy to suspend all trains as necessary when 10 to 13 inches or more of snow accumulates on tracks.
The policy, put to use during the Dec. 26-27 blizzard, was a significant departure from the typical "run and rescue" operation historically employed by railroads, and has been praised by industry leaders and commuter advocates for putting safety first.
"I think in the past many railroads would push too hard. But you do run the risk of stranding passengers in some pretty rough situations," said Jeff Knueppel, chief engineer for Philadelphia's Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, who applauded the LIRR's new snow-driven suspension policy.
After a suspension is lifted, it takes awhile for service to get back to normal. The LIRR works to restore some service first on its four busiest lines - Babylon, Huntington, Port Washington and Ronkonkoma - before gradually bringing it back on other lines.
The LIRR recently made other changes to improve its snow performance, specifically by dedicating a team of workers to key track switches at Jamaica.
The railroad also is working to improve communication with riders during storms. In weeks to come, it will publish a "snow recovery schedule" to tell riders what trains are expected to run during a storm.
What can be done
With just three snowblowers to cover more than 700 miles of track, some commuters have questioned whether the LIRR is properly equipped to dig out from snowstorms.
"Within a 24-hour period after snow starts, we should be able to have service back. The question is: What do we need to do that?" said Ira Greenberg, the LIRR Commuter Council's representative on the MTA board.
Exploring new equipment
LIRR president Helena Williams said she has put together a committee to explore buying new and better snow equipment. But she noted that federal regulations prohibit trains from operating too closely to snow equipment, so operating a snowblower or broom on a track means a train cannot operate there simultaneously.
"Specialty snow equipment is useful. I don't want to underestimate that in any way. . . . But sometimes our best weapon against Mother Nature is running our own [trains]," Williams said.
Problems in communicating with customers may be difficult to resolve. Electronic scheduling signs at stations currently can take up to 10 hours to update. The LIRR is working to improve technology to get that down to four hours.
For all the challenges the LIRR faces during severe weather, many experts agree it has come a long way in how it responds to snowstorms, particularly considering limitations of its infrastructure and equipment.
"I think that Long Island . . . really does a heck of a job considering that they almost have one hand tied behind their back," said David Rangel of the Modoc Railroad Academy in Sacramento, Calif. "When there's a hiccup, all hell breaks loose."