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The battle-hardened troops of the Long Island Rail Road

A Long Island Rail Road train pulls up

A Long Island Rail Road train pulls up to the platform at Penn Station on June 28, 2019. Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

“Why does everyone run the second a track is posted?” my sister-in-law asked about Long Island Rail Road riders.

A retired teacher who commuted by car from Seaford to Lawrence for 30-plus years, Pat made her comment after an evening rush-hour trip from Penn Station.

“Because we’re trained to do so,” I replied.

Like a soldier who has served multiple tours, I’ve done three decades of LIRR commuting. I’ve trudged through un-air-conditioned Penn Station, gotten stuck in tunnels, and survived 2017’s “summer of hell” during track work.

These battles have honed my skills.

During one skirmish at Penn, I was stationed at the sugar-and-cinnamon counter at Starbucks when I heard two Metropolitan Transportation Authority fluorescent vests discussing the 5:40 p.m. track assignment on the Babylon branch in the wake of signal trouble. With this intel, I proceeded to platform 15. Immediately, a wall of hot air hit me, and I dropped my water bottle as comrades rushed an open door on the train.

“This car has seats!” came the cry from the front lines.

When positioning for track announcements during service disruptions, I rely on past maneuvers to gauge platform deployment. One evening in July — having heard the order “Do not descend to platform level until your train has been posted and announced” — I embarked on a reconnaissance mission to track 12, typically New Jersey Transit territory. I thought I was the first to discover the 5:24 p.m. train. However, after waiting on the platform for a few minutes and hearing the announcement for the actual platform, I had to make a dash to correct my position.

But when all service is suspended, the Penn citadel overflows with troops of commuters cursing at the MTA alerts on their cellphones. As a veteran, I know that the quickest egress from the shoulder-to-shoulder chaos isn’t on any MTA map of Penn — it’s through K mart.

I recall one such situation clearly: A communiqué lights up my cellphone. Limited service has been restored. Then the “canceled and combined” corps takes over, trying to jam two trainloads of flustered commuters into one. Track assignments are sketchy. Massive invasions are met with unfriendly fire between combatants: “Stop shoving!”

Hearing the command “Local Babylon train on track 19,” I advance along the central corridor, walk downstairs and position myself in the middle of the platform, anticipating a short train. But we’re seven deep. As the train slows, the troops sidestep this way and that, attempting to align with the doors. “That’s my foot!” someone shouts.

As the doors open, I’m lifted off the ground like an involuntary crowd surfer. Competing commuters try to outmaneuver me. Having failed to secure a targeted seat, mission unaccomplished, I stand in the train aisle in defeat.

It’s a slow ride through the tunnel, but light finally fills the car as we emerge in Long Island City. We’re gonna make it!

Suddenly an announcement pierces the homebound quiet: “Brakeman go to channel 4!” The train slows. Muffled communications between LIRR personnel emerge from the loudspeaker. I overhear the order: “Terminate at Jamaica.” A communal groan rises. The troops realize that they’ll have to transfer to another transport. It’s a long ride home tonight.

Reader Paula Ganzi Licata is stationed in Bellmore.

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