Passengers wait at Penn Station after a lightning strike hit...

Passengers wait at Penn Station after a lightning strike hit electrical equipment that shut down signals near Jamaica, forcing the LIRR to a halt on Sept. 29, 2011. Credit: Photo by Craig Ruttle

The primary thing the Long Island Rail Road must ensure its customers when something goes wrong is safety. That should be the priority of any commuters' bill of rights.

This week Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) proposed a plan to guarantee other rights to commuters: being evacuated from stuck trains after a set (but unspecified) period, for instance, and receiving bottled water and similar comforts during long delays, as well as more information. The idea hit the mark in terms of starting an important conversation, but missed it as far as specifics.

Schumer's plan is modeled after the 2009 Federal Airline Passenger Bill of Rights that guaranteed, among other things, that fliers could be delayed in a plane on the tarmac for no more than three hours. But linking the two fails to recognize that while stranded planes are at the airport, stranded trains are often stuck amid tough terrain, in the dark, along a phenomenally dangerous electrified third rail.

And airlines generally haven't responded by letting lots of people disembark from planes waiting to take off. That's too difficult operationally. They've responded instead by canceling flights at the first hint of trouble, before passengers ever board. Given a choice, many ticket-holders for canceled flights might prefer the old system.

The LIRR is often caught in the same quandary with inclement weather: Shut down to avoid trouble or try to get people where they need to go -- and risk that some will be caught between stations. The line has tried both, and had mixed results with both.

LIRR commuters suffered through a lot of mishaps and breakdowns over the past year, and patience is wearing thin. Last winter was a commuter horror show of repeated snowstorms. Fears of Hurricane Irene shut the system down completely before the tropical storm arrived. And on Sept. 29, lightning took down the railroad's brand new -- and, it had been hoped, surge-proof -- switching system.

This most recent incident left thousands of riders stranded on trains for hours and brought Schumer out swinging. The railroad couldn't send rescue or tow trains because the switches were out, and officials feared evacuating passengers onto an obstacle-filled right of way in the dark. The least-bad solution was keeping passengers on board, but they erred in not giving them more information.

Railroad officials say they are going to embrace this moment as the right time to address passenger rights. But if giving passengers more rights is going to work, riders will have to accept responsibilities, too. Passengers have the right to know how long they're going to be stuck on a train, yes. And they also have the responsibility not to jump off when they hear it will be two hours, or even three.

The LIRR also says it needs to get police to trains that are going to be stuck for a while, to keep order and provide assistance, and if necessary, have emergency workers bring water and other essentials.

Making a firm rule that you have to let passengers off a train after a certain amount of time, no matter the situation, won't work. But letting passengers know what's wrong, how long it will take to fix, and what their options are in the meantime will -- if riders do their part. It's these, and other commonsense improvements, the LIRR needs to adopt.


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