Catastrophic Sept. LIRR meltdown explained in new review

October 25, 2011 4:19:10 AM PDT
It was one of the worst rides home to Long Island, in anyone's memory. On September 29, lightning struck the Long Island Rail Road, and traffic waw never more affected.

Now, less than a month later, the MTA has unveiled a 20-page review of the catastrophe, which froze two dozen trains in their tracks that night, and exposed deep deficiencies in the railroad's management of Jamaica station, one of the world's busiest transit hubs of New York City.

It all started at 4:37 pm, when lightning fried both primary and backup systems controlling the tracks west of the platform.

All service between Penn station and Jamaica was frozen and as many as eight trains were stranded away from the platforms for as long as an hour and a half.

As Penn station filled up with frustrated commuters, the railroad directed them to use the subway to get to Jamaica, where trains were still heading east. But it was about to get worse.

At 8:05, engineers struggling to fix the first problem, made a fatal computer programming error, shutting down everything east of Jamaica. Passengers on 17 more jam packed trains were now stuck.

On the platforms, Jamaica station was overflowing with passengers but there was no obvious contingency plan to get them home.

Today the railroad says it has learned from its meltdown and is looking into everything from better lightning protection to backup buses on standby to prevent future incidents of that scale.

Still, commuters are not all satisfied with the apologies. Wayne Harris, who has been riding railroad for nearly forty years, says it's never been more broken.

"For what we're paying and we have to commute, it's our only viable means of getting into the city, it has to be better," he says.