Tips for Winter Train Travel from Metro-North, and How They Respond to The Season’s Weather

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Here’s advice from Metro-North on using trains in the winter and, below it, an explanation from the rail service on how they respond to the challenges of winter weather (we’ve rearranged their announcement, putting the tips first):

Be Prepared – Know Before You Go:

We strongly encourage you to:

  • Check www.mta.info for updates, including modified emergency schedules.
  • Sign up for email and text message alerts.
  • Use Metro-North Train Time or the Metro-North Train Time App for real-time train information on your Smartphone or computer.
  • Listen to television and radio news. This is the fastest way to find out how train service is affected by the weather. We continuously provide information to the media.
  • Call our Customer Information Center at 511 (in Connecticut call 877-690-5114). The Information Center will have a taped message upfront describing current service conditions. This is an important element in keeping you informed. The volume of calls at the Information Center will increase dramatically during a weather emergency, and you will likely experience delays getting through to a representative.
  • Keep a copy of the current Metro-North timetable. If you cannot access our emergency schedules on the web, it will provide you with a reference point for train departure times from your station if severe weather causes us to alter service.
  • Listen for public address announcements at stations and on board trains if you are already traveling.

Winter Safety Tips

  • Always watch your step and watch for icy conditions in station parking lots, and on station sidewalks, stairs, and platforms. Remember: Ice tends to form more quickly on train platforms than on other surfaces. Even if a platform looks clear, it can have icy patches.
  • Always use stair handrails. Water dripping from overcoats, boots, and umbrellas can ice up with the slightest temperature drop, making stairs very slippery. A firm grip on a handrail can prevent serious injury.
  • Always watch for slippery conditions, even after you board your train. Snow, slush, and ice from boots make train floors slippery.
  • Always avoid moving from car to car. Icy conditions exist in the areas between cars.
  • Use caution driving to and from the station.

[Here’s the rest of the announcement:]

Severe winter weather can create hazardous travel conditions throughout our region. It can also hamper MTA Metro-North Railroad’s ability to provide you with your regular service. We present the following information because we want you to understand and be prepared for any service changes we make based on winter weather conditions.

How We Prepare

We routinely review our performance after major service disruptions, and we will be applying some of the lessons we learned from both record-setting snowstorms and record-setting heat. We want to learn from our experiences, and build on what we have learned. We have made adjustments in the following key areas:

  • Communications: Metro-North has improved the content and coordination of real-time information via our Customer Communications Center, which oversees platform announcements and platform display sign updates, email alerts, and service status box updates on the website. The Center also monitors Metro-North Train Time and the Metro-North Train Time App which provide real-time service status on your Smartphone or computer. We are now able to provide more information in a timelier manner during emergencies.
  • Equipment: In advance of the storm, employees begin prepping the fleet: Protective Heat Circuits are verified to be operational; air brake lines are purged of any moisture to prevent them from freezing; electric trains are fitted with special third rail shoes with holes in them to prevent snow from sticking, exposed shoes are treated with de-icer and exposed couplers are covered to keep snow out.
  • Right-of-Way: Along the right-of-way, switches are treated with an anti-freeze agent and lubricated, and heating rods are activated; switches are continually moved by our Operations Control Center to help keep them functioning.

    Jet engine snow blowers and plow trains are positioned to start operation as soon as snow accumulations begin, allowing us to clean yard switches and third rail. Front-end loaders and backhoes are used to plow our right-of-way in order to access track interlockings and power substations.

Finally, snow-fighting material is dispatched to all stations and crews are positioned at numerous locations ready to clear platforms and stairways.

  • Train Crews: We have developed additional training for our train crews that focuses on providing critical communications in emergency situations. We have also enacted new protocols that provide guidelines for our train crews on customer care and comfort during emergency situations.

We also conduct regular safety drills that focus on the importance of these areas and give railroad employees and regional first responders hands-on emergency experience.

Determining What Service to Provide

It can be very difficult to predict the severity of a storm 24-48 hours before it hits. But that is how far in advance we have to start planning changes to your service in response to a severe winter storm.

In anticipation of any storm, we must not only determine appropriate levels of staffing, but we must also begin to take precautions with both our trains and with our infrastructure. If the storm is predicted to be severe, we must consider what an appropriate level of service would be. We try to anticipate customer demand and the impact of the weather on our fleet. We have to decide whether to reduce service, and when to put those service reductions into effect. If we reduce service, we try to base it on the current weekday or weekend schedule.

While decisions on service are made in advance, please be aware that during a storm, we may need to make further changes to our schedule depending on the condition of our track and power systems, the number of train cars available, and the location of our crews. While we strive to communicate these changes to you as quickly as possible, it is not always easy given rapidly changing weather conditions.

Service Options

Service options we may enact during a storm include:

  • Suspending Service: To ensure your safety, and the safety of our employees, Metro-North may need to temporarily suspend all service depending upon the severity of the weather.

    Suspending service ensures trains do not get stuck along the right-of-way, leaving you stranded, and making our recovery efforts extremely challenging.

    Temporary suspensions permit our employees to make maximum use of snow removal equipment to clear drifting snow and ice from our tracks, switches and train yards. They also allow us to remove any fallen trees and power lines blocking tracks. Also, employees can check signals, switches and power systems, which have to be operational before patrol trains can operate to ensure that the right-of-way is safe before resuming service.

    Remember: Our first priority in any decision we make on service is your safety and comfort. Sometimes suspending service is the best way to meet that goal.

    We remind you that in an Official State of Emergency, stay safe: Stay home if at all possible. Roads will be impassable, and travel will be considered dangerous. We will only operate enough trains to clear tracks and transport emergency personnel until weather conditions improve.

  • Reducing Service: Again, significant car shortages and track outages due to record-breaking amounts of snow and extreme cold may also force Metro-North to enact a Reduced Winter Schedule, which will remain in effect until conditions improve. In developing a reduced schedule, we take a number of factors into account, including the number of cars available for service, ridership patterns, the storm’s path and our ability to operate the new schedule reliably.
  • Gradually Restoring Service: When the storm is over, we know you expect us to operate full service immediately. But experience tells us we cannot “ramp up” that quickly. Trains that were operating during the storm may be subject to some of the weather-related damage we mentioned earlier. The same holds true for our right-of-way and the parking facilities we own and operate.

    Also, the service we provide during a storm determines how fast we will be able to recover once the event is over. We can’t immediately move from a severely reduced schedule to a full schedule due to the time needed to correctly position our equipment and crews.

    Because of these and other weather-related factors, we will upgrade judiciously. For example, we will upgrade from an hourly schedule to a half-hourly schedule only when we believe we can reliably and safely operate the additional trains that this level requires.

    We will do our best to recover quickly. Please bear in mind that overcrowded conditions and delays will still be likely. If you can travel outside of “peak” hours, please do so.

Challenges We Face

Accurately forecasting and planning for the impact of winter storms presents unusual challenges for Metro-North. Because our service spans 2,700 square miles over seven counties in New York and two in Connecticut, our territory is subject to varied amounts of snow during a storm. Two inches may fall in Manhattan, and 20 inches in Brewster or New Haven. This can complicate our determining the best service to run.
Further complicating our efforts is the often short lead times the ever-changing conditions of winter storms provide us to make adjustments to service plans and get the word on those changes out to you–our customers.

Also, road conditions during a snowstorm do not only affect how you get to our stations. They also can hamper our crews from getting to their work locations, and that also has an impact on service.

Finally, the weather’s impact on our service is not just determined by the amount of snow that falls, but also by the age of our equipment and the condition of our infrastructure. This is especially evident on the New Haven Line, where 100-year-old catenary and moveable bridges, and outdated signal and power systems are all highly susceptible to the effects of the weather. The line can become adversely impacted by a severe storm.

Routinely, snow and sub-freezing temperatures can affect our “cars” much like they affect your cars. Moisture from ice and snow can freeze in brake lines, air compressors and door mechanisms, causing them to malfunction. On our older equipment, snow and moisture can get into traction motors, which turn the train car’s wheels, causing them to short out. (The design of our M7 & M8 cars places critical components inside, making them less susceptible to the effects of moisture.)

Unlike one of your cars, when one of our cars is out of service, it affects you and 100 or so of your fellow commuters. And while we work to get our train cars back “on the road” as soon as possible, your train may have fewer cars — and therefore, fewer seats — creating more crowded conditions than usual.

Extreme cold and drifting snow also affect switches and signals, which can delay your train.

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