MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) began monitoring the progress of Superstorm Sandy and took precautions to protect its equipment during the week of October 22. The storm was tracking toward New York, and the potential for high winds and heavy rain would make running the rail road unsafe.
The MTA was working closely with the Governor's office, the Mayor's office and state and local Offices of Emergency Management to prepare for the storm and respond in a coordinated manner.
The LIRR’s Hurricane Plan called for an orderly shutdown of service before the arrival of sustained winds of 39 mph or higher. On October 28, in anticipation of the storm, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) would begin the orderly suspension of all subway, bus and commuter railroad service at 7 p.m. on Sunday to protect customers, employees, and equipment from Hurricane Sandy.
The Long Island Rail Road started its final scheduled runs at 7 p.m.
After trains completed service, they were moved out of low lying areas and away from vulnerable track areas, such as the West Side Yard, to higher ground. The LIRR staged recovery equipment, such as generators and grappler/inspection vehicles, where they would be needed most; catch basins and sewer lines were cleared; and protective barriers were installed to keep floodwaters out of buildings, tunnels and storage yards.
Then-LIRR Chief Engineer Kevin Tomlinson said, “The strategy that we used was two-phased. The first phase was based upon past experience involving flooding. The second involved employing our internal GIS data information.” LIRR has used GIS technology in many situation that involve geography and spatial dimensions.
“We utilized GIS data to monitor the actual elevations of our property, then overlaid it with the forecasted high tide elevations. Combining the two enabled us to identify all areas be prone to flooding; we then moved our equipment out of these locales.”
We secured or removed more than 600 gates at 293 crossings; in addition, our crews disabled signal control systems and removed power feeds before Sandy hit, in order to avoid damage from high winds, power surges, and downed power lines.
And then on Monday evening, October 29, 2012, Sandy did indeed hit.
The hurricane made landfall at 8 p.m. near Atlantic City, New Jersey. A rising storm surge at high tide in New York harbor at 9 p.m. resulted in record flooding in Lower Manhattan and in low-lying coastal regions from Coney Island, east through Smith’s Point, Long Island.
On the Babylon branch, between Amityville and Massapequa Park, three 90-foot LIPA poles snapped at their bases and tilted toward the tracks. The storm knocked out power at more than 20 electrical substations across the LIRR, including four on the Long Beach branch.
In addition, more than 200 trees and utility poles came down on the tracks; switches in the Long Beach yard were compromised by salt water and sewage from a nearby treatment plant; two of four East River Amtrak tunnels were flooded from the Queens side.
At West Side Yard, which normally stores 300 cars, even sandbags and an aqua barrier were no match for Sandy. But, because of the decision to shut down prior to the storm, the LIRR's fleet of train cars and locomotives were not damaged. Equipment had been moved from low lying yards to higher ground. The West Side Yard became submerged, compromising switches and tracks.
West Side Yard could not accept any trains for several days as crews re-righted toppled signals, repaired switch machines filled with water, and attended to switches that had become packed with ballast.
Portions of the track bed had washed away altogether, but with heroic efforts by LIRR personnel, some trains were able to resume service within a couple of days. Full control of the yard would be achieved within a week.
While Penn Station was spared, two of the four Amtrak-owned East River Tunnels took on devastating amounts of water, destroying Amtrak’s signal system; this left the LIRR with only 45 percent service capacity. In line 2, water was a foot from the roof at the height of the flooding.
Round-the-clock pumping enabled the tunnels to return to service one at a time but only with a temporary signal system to replace the one destroyed by saltwater.
Long Beach was one of the hardest-hit communities in the entire region; the LIRR Long Beach branch also took the greatest damage from Sandy of all LIRR lines. Track beds, switches controlling traffic in and out of Long Beach, and the substations that supply power to the third rail were damaged by floodwater, and contaminated by sea water overflow from a nearby sewage treatment plant.
“The Long Island Rail Road continually updated its Facebook page with photographs and videos of storm preparations before Hurricane Sandy hit. The dispatches continued as high winds and surge waters ripped down power lines and clogged rail lines with wayward boats and other debris. The agency frequently answered passengers’ questions and posted other helpful updates, like where to seek federal assistance for damaged homes.”
– New York Times, December 14, 2012, “Social Media Strategy Was Crucial as Transit Agencies Coped With Hurricane.”
The LIRR’s Engineering Department deployed more than 800 employees to inspect, assess, and repair railroad infrastructure, the majority of forces (approximately 525) concentrating on the four main branches. Many employees slept on cots in offices or took hotel rooms.
On the North Shore, especially in the Plandome area, trees and LIPA wires were littered on the tracks; some stretches of third rail were crushed; fallen trees that didn’t strike the ground rested dangerously overhead.
Teams highly skilled members of different Engineering disciplines (Structures, Right-of-Way, Signal, Track, Power, Communications, and more) boarded hi-rail equipment, which included welding trucks; dump trucks; boom trucks; and grappler trucks capable of lifting large trees, to clear the downed trees and wires; repair the destruction to poles, lines and signals; and restore platforms, lighting, and station buildings to service.
The LIRR interdisciplinary teams coordinated their inspections, repairs and debris removal by traveling along the right-of-way in highway vehicles.
Largely because of the LIRR dedicated work force, and despite numerous obstacles:
- Within 24 hours of Sandy’s departure service was restored from Jamaica to Penn and to Brooklyn.
- Within 48 hours, the LIRR restored service between Great Neck and Penn Station on the Port Washington branch and between Ronkonkoma and Penn Station.
- Within 72 hours, the LIRR had restored service on its four busiest branches Ronkonkoma, Port Washington, Babylon and Huntington.
On November 2nd, LIRR President Helena Williams wrote to LIRR employees “to express my gratitude for the outstanding effort by everyone in response to Hurricane Sandy. Before the storm, during and now in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation to our region, LIRR dealt with the hurricane in a manner that clearly represents the professionalism, hard work and “esprit de corps” of our workforce. I want to personally thank you all for your commitment to the railroad and for the personal sacrifices that go with making a 24/7 commitment to our organization.”
LIRR resumed near-normal service Monday morning, November 5, running seventy percent of regular rush hour service and 83 percent of overall service.
The LIRR’s Signal and Third-Rail crews played crucial roles, restoring crossing gates and reactivating the signal system.
Once all track was evaluated as safe for train traffic, and all track equipment and personnel have cleared the tracks, power was re-established. At that point, the LIRR’s Transportation Services Department operated a Test Train along the length of each branch to ensure that there were no operational issues.
Long Beach was completely battered by Sandy; when the waters receded, there were damaged switch machines, signals and salt water- damaged signal components; flooded work wells;, and three substations that were covered in sewage from the adjacent treatment plant and filled with damaged components.
Long Beach Branch service was suspended while Signal crews rebuilt equipment locations on site, serviced signals, and replaced switch machines and motors. Substation crews cleaned and decontaminated circuit breakers. Customer Services opened the Long Beach Station waiting room as a charging station for phones and other electronic devices, and a comfort zone for Long Beach residents.
On Wednesday, November 14, the LIRR restored limited train service on the Long Beach branch, using a diesel locomotive shuttle that did not require third rail electricity to run. Electric train service on the Long Beach branch was restored on Sunday, November 25, 2012.
On December 8, Governor Cuomo announced that the LIRR would operate full AM and PM rush hour service starting Monday, December 10, as AMTRAK restored one of two flood-damaged tunnels.
The flooded AMTRAK tunnels, which prevented the LIRR from fully restoring service, were fully restored two weeks later, During the week of December 3, 2012, LIRR Signal crews assisted in the restoration of the tunnels by rebuilding one of the five AMTRAK signal locations damaged by flooding. This round-the-clock project was another first, designed to speed restoration and involved restoring 350 connections while building a signal box from scratch.
During the restoration, and following its completion, LIRR President Helene Williams visited LIRR employees at various locations to express her thanks for their dedication.
“Many of our employees made the hard choice of leaving their families and putting LIRR restoration first,” President Williams said. “Hard work and dedication were necessary to clear tracks, bring our electrical, communication and signal systems back to life. Our car equipment personnel readied our trains and other track equipment. Train crews were at the ready, to start up train service from Jamaica to Atlantic Terminal, and Jamaica to Penn Station; and today our four largest branches have returned to service.
“Many suffered damage to homes, cars, and property. But their efforts permitted us to begin limited passenger service in less than 48 hours after one of the most devastating storm ever hit the New York Metropolitan area. All employees, management and represented, worked together to get the LIRR moving again.”
Preparing for Sandy: LIRR employee wraps plastic around Southampton Station ticket machines to protect them against the elements.
Jamaica Station is eerily quiet after LIRR train service is suspended in anticipation of the storm.
Barrier installed at western entrance to Penn Station in an effort to hold back the rising waters of the Hudson River on the night of October 29, 2012.
Water begins to flood West Side Yard after all LIRR trains were moved out of the yard to higher ground.
Flooded tracks at LIRR’s West Side Yard on Monday night , October 29, 2012.
Water cascades into the East River Tunnels.
A few of the boats that were swept onto the LIRR tracks in Island Park as a result of Superstorm Sandy.