New Transit snow response calls for ‘preemptive curtailment of service’


Even as temperatures in New York stay unseasonably warm, the MTA is gearing up for snow and ice. After all, the agency doesn’t want a repeat of last winter when the authority somehow managed to forget about a stranded train. So yesterday, the authority unveiled its winter preparedness plan. It’s nothing too outlandish, but as the city wanted to be prepared in the face of Hurricane Irene, so too will it be ready for the first major snowstorm of the season.

“Last winter’s weather was tough for New York and the MTA, but we’ve made improvements to our service protocols, equipment and communications to provide the best possible service this year,” MTA Executive Director Joseph Lhota said. “We’re prepared to clear more snow and ice than ever before and we’ll be working hard to keep service running, but we won’t hesitate to suspend service on parts of our system when it’s necessary to protect the safety of our riders, employees and equipment.”

For the subways, Transit says it is “preparing an impressive fleet of snow and ice-fighting equipment” that will be dispatched in the event of a winter weather plan. The authority has also adopted “procedures for preemptive curtailment of service” in the event of a massive storm. It has also changed its storm response protocols to allow for a Level V response which would be implemented in the face of a massive storm. According to Transit officials, Level V would involve “an orderly and temporary suspension in service on select line segments to allow for snow and ice removal.”

“Our goal has always been to keep our services up and running so that our customers can get to where they need to be no matter what the weather,” Carmen Bianco, senior vice president of subways, said. “We have a tremendous investment in machinery, manpower and experience. But when we performed our review of how we performed during the Christmas weekend blizzard, we determined that there was a point where we should no longer send trains onto the nearly 220 miles of outdoor track of certain lines.”

With respect to buses, Transit and the Department of Sanitation will better align their services to prioritize bus route plowing. Last year, numerous buses were stranded in Brooklyn and Queens for days as plows failed to remove the snow drifts and often trapped buses behind accumulating mounds of snow. The MTA will also be prepared to curtail bus service and remove most articulated buses from the roads as well.

In a way, the MTA had the opportunity to dry-run their winter shutdown plans when Hurricane Irene threatened New York. Although the direst of storm surges did not flood out the subways and the city itself was spared the brunt of the storm, Transit learned what it had to do to get both employees and passengers off the roads and rails safely. Avoiding another winter debacle has now taken center stage.

“The most important shift in agency thinking was moving away from the philosophy that we will deliver service until we can’t,” Transit head Tom Prendergast said. “We learned from last year’s storm that at some point, it was safer and more prudent to temporarily suspend service.”

18 Responses to “New Transit snow response calls for ‘preemptive curtailment of service’”

  1. Larry Littlefield says:

    The question is, what is different here?

    There were always winter operations plans for the subway, with outdoor sections shut down, trains stored on express tracks underground, and limited service running in underground sections. Those plans were in effect during the blizzard last year.

    My guess is what is different involves the buses. They got trapped out on the street and blocked the plows.

    • It seems to me that the difference is one of timing. The MTA is willing to shut down the system before snow arrives instead of after as they tried to do last December. If the forecast is caling for 12 inches, the MTA could move everything underground and close the at-grade lines before the snow starts falling.

      • Christopher says:

        DC does this. They even have separate winter map. It’s a pain in the arse, and as a Chicagoan it’s a bit appalling. But I guess these systems weren’t built for extensive winter weather?

      • Andrew says:

        No, nothing’s going to be closed before the snow starts falling, since there’s no line that can’t run in a bit of snow.

        But when conditions deteriorate and it becomes clear that it won’t be possible to maintain service for much longer on a particular stretch of track, service in that area will be curtailed.

        The old practice was to keep running trains until they came to a halt. That risked stranding passengers and getting in the way of snow clearing equipment.

  2. John-2 says:

    Well the main thing in part is to know where your choke points are when a big snow arrives — the Brighton line south of Prospect Park, the Sea Beach south of 59th, the 5 north of 180th, the 7 along Queens Boulevard and the A along the old LIRR ROW are going to be areas where the snow is going to pile up because it can’t just fall through the tracks and down to the street. Either go all-out on snow removal in those sections or let people know those lines are going to be OOS well in advance so they can deal with the situation. But at the same time the MTA has got to maintain what underground and elevated services you can, because one of the main reasons why the subway was built in the first place is that after the Blizzard of 1888, city officials realized only a system out of the elements could be relied on when all other modes of transportation are paralyzed.

  3. R2 says:

    If I recall correctly, I thought the problem last year was the highest level emergency response wasn’t activated until it was too late.

    I think the difference this time is that this will give more MTA cover to preemptively shutdown service ahead of storms. There’s a world of difference between “let me run till it gets bad enough” and “oh, it looks like it might get bad, let me not run at all.”
    I like to err on the side of greater mobility, but that’s just me. Sigh, oh well.
    That said, it should be made better known to the public and be expected that areas prone to the elements are the ones that will be the first to go.

  4. TP says:

    So this protocol where they shut down the system in advance of a storm is going to become a regular occurrence? What reactionary BS. Other than the one famous storm last year the subway’s been running for 100 years in blizzards with few incidents. I’ve only been stranded from getting to work once in my life and it was during the Irene shutdown, and the weather was actually quite nice that Sunday.

    And yes, of course Chicago’s Els run in the snow every year (and they make do in Hokkaido!) There are trains that run through tremendous snow in Russia. Why can’t we?

  5. SpendmoreWastemore says:

    Lessee here:

    A $10K used car with $100 of snow chains can manage, albeit awkwardly, through a foot of snow (no, a micro car with 20″ tall tires won’t make it, I know that).

    A $10M subway train weighing 400 tons can’t handle 10″ of snow and is utterly stranded. Right.

    Followng that stuck 600 foot train is another 600 foot train, and another after that. They all have couplers on the ends … PUSH!

    Shouldn’t plan on letting a train get stuck, but it is not any feat of technology to move the thing. Assist from one, two or three trains following can clear a path well enough to get them out of the trouble zone, the action of which would clear a temporary path. MTA could announce at the affected platforms and do an orderly shutdown/move underground on the affected branch.

    Chances are none of these procedures would be required. Just throw plows on every 5th train or so, there’s an instant, paid for snow buster.

  6. Miles Bader says:


    A policy that prudent shutdowns are sometimes preferable to continuing service in dangerous circumstances seems reasonable on the face of it, but I suspect that they’re also reacting to the positive public-relations result they seemed to get from the preemptive irene shutdown. I.e., it’s a PR win to say “Really, trust us, we saved you and the system; if we had tried to keep running it would have been d~o~o~m~s~d~a~y (sorry about being trapped at work for a week)!” than “Sorry, we really tried, but it was too much!”

    In a way this is obvious: by immediately giving up at the least sign of future problems, they can spin the the (hypothetical) consequences of not giving up to make themselves look good; if they try to keep going until they really can’t continue, the consequences would be concrete, and sometimes out of their control.

    I suppose it remains to be seen where this policy is applied intelligently and actually improves service in trying circumstances or simply becomes a CYA (“cover your …”) tool for politicians and upper management at the expense of the public.

    [I think a comparison with irene is kind of silly — at least in that case they were facing potential long-term damage to the entire system. A snowstorm is not really the same.]

  7. Alon Levy says:

    A heavy freight locomotive with a snowplow can shove snow aside and keep trains running through multiple feet of snow. The plow of a lightweight EMU needs to be more aggressive, but the subway has a special weapon freight lines don’t: frequency. The best way to keep a railroad in operation is to have trains running on it frequently. With plows and switch heaters, frequent trains can run without interruption through snow in Switzerland, South Korea, northern Japan, and other regions with snowy winters.

    • SpendmorWastemor says:

      Actually a plain ole’ dump truck can whack several feet of snow. I recall after the Blizzard of 78 (Boston) an unplowed side street have a couple feet of snow which had settled and hardened over several days. The town sent a standard plow truck – trash truck with a plow on the front. It took about a 15 mph running start, hit the 2 ft of hardened snow and didn’t blink. 7 tons of truck weighs a lot more than 2 ft of snow.

      400 tons of “light” subway train can’t move snow? B-SST!

      • Alon Levy says:

        No, it’s not BS. It’s actually real. Certain kinds of trains don’t deal with snow well at all. For example, first-generation rubber-tired metros don’t handle snow, which is why the rubber-tired Montreal Metro is fully underground. Likewise, on modern HSR systems, run by competent people (i.e. not American transportation planners), they use switch heaters in areas with very cold winters, because switches that freeze solid aren’t usable. The operational issues of running a railroad are different from those of running a road.

        Mind you, at equal investment, the railroad will have way better reliability. In snowy mountain passes, roads can expect long closures unless they’re in tunnel – and even when they’re open, low visibility reduces both speed and capacity. On a railroad with in-cab signaling or automatic train stop, it’s not a problem.

  8. JP says:

    I’ve always felt that the perfect time to prepare for winter is December 7th.

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  1. […] disastrous December blizzard that left subways stranded and buses buried, the MTA has put in place a new plan to better combat the snow. The plan at first appeared to be an attempt to cut off criticism, but […]

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