MTA Set to Greet Old Man Winter

MTA New York City Transit, Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels are once again preparing for the arrival of winter weather.

 The MTA follows well-established plans designed to keep the region’s transit services up and running during harsh winter weather conditions.  From forecast to clean-up, North America’s largest mass transit provider keeps a close eye on winter weather patterns and responds accordingly with an army of dedicated workers and a fleet of machinery, much of it specially built for snow-fighting duty.  These efforts are part of our comprehensive winter-weather plan. 

After unprecedented conditions during the December 26, 2010, blizzard crippled the system, the MTA immediately began a review and made necessary changes to strengthen storm preparedness.  Many of the changes that were implemented were quickly executed and tested with great success during subsequent snow storms.  These measures include:  

  • Appointment of an Emergency Coordinator to facilitate MTA-wide storm response coordination and information sharing;
  • Establishment of situation rooms to manage storm response activities;
  • Adoption of procedures for preemptive curtailment of service when conditions render normal service untenable;
  • Designation of dedicated customer advocates ensuring the well-being of customers on stuck vehicles;
  • Improvements in procedures to deliver more detailed and reliable bus service status information on the MTA’s website and;
  • Improvements in bus operating procedures for evaluating and responding to degraded road conditions.

“We have moved away from the philosophy that we will deliver service until we can’t,” said MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast.  “We have successfully demonstrated that in some scenarios, it is safer and more prudent to temporarily suspend service.  This shift in tactics has allowed us to recover and begin providing meaningful service far more quickly.”

“The subways and buses are indispensable to the city on an around-the-clock basis and we invest heavily in the resources needed to keep those services running as conditions permit,” said NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco.  “Commuters depend on our services to get them to work and back home again, and we use everything from twenty-first century weather forecasting to ice picks and shovels to make certain that we don’t disappoint them.” 


In the event of a snowstorm with accumulating snow, personnel stationed in the Storm Control Center--part of the Subway Rail Control Center--communicate with outlying local storm fighting centers, coordinating the overall snow-fighting effort.  Activities are based on the winter operations plan, which outlines five levels of response.   This covers the availability of snow-fighting personnel, tools and equipment required for deployment with the forecast of a severe storm. 

This was the stimulus for the creation of an additional plan level.  Plan Level V is the highest level of response to a winter weather event.  It is called on when there is a forecast for a weather event that may require an orderly and temporary suspension in service on select line segments, to prevent trains from being stalled and allow unimpeded snow and ice removal.  

The entire Winter Operations Plan, and its levels I through V, is updated each year and is in effect from November 15 through April 15.  Winter preparations, however, begin in June, when supplies are submitted for procurement, and are completed by Halloween.

The Department of Subways has a yellow-hued fleet of snow and ice-busting equipment designed to keep outdoor tracks, switches and third rails clear of snow and ice.  Super-powered snow throwers, jet-powered snow-blowers, and de-icing cars - retired subway cars modified with tanks and other specialized equipment to spray de-icing fluid on the third rail -- are ready for immediate deployment whenever there is a prediction of weather than will result in accumulations of snow or ice. 

Personnel in the Subway Rail Control Center and Bus Command Center continually monitor the U.S. National Weather Service and have direct access to a customized weather prediction service that provides regularly updated New York City-focused weather forecasts.  Accurate forewarning of a snow event translates into adequate preparation times, allowing Transit officials to decide whether to hold workers after their shifts and bring others in prior to the beginning of a storm.

While the underground portions of the system remain unaffected during snowstorms, there are nearly 220 miles of outdoor track throughout the boroughs.  The Rockaway, Sea Beach, Brighton and the Dyre Av Lines are particularly vulnerable to snow and freezing precipitation. 

During a heavy snowstorm, tracks on outdoor subway lines must be cleared often, the third rails kept free of ice and outdoor steps at all 468 subway stations shoveled and salted.  Elevated lines do not have the problem of snow build up as the flakes fall between the ties, but platforms and staircases still must be kept clear of snow and salted to melt ice.  It takes a small army of employees to accomplish this task.  To prevent subway trains from being blocked in yards, they are moved and stored underground in anticipation of heavy snow or ice.


The same premise applies to buses as well.  Similar to subways, it includes an alert level which provides for controlled service curtailment and establishes guidelines as to when to declare alert levels relative to the forecasted storm arrival.  To make traveling easier for bus customers, the Department of Buses has its own fleet of snow fighting equipment, particularly the salt-spreading trucks equipped with plows assigned to each depot.  They work in cooperation with the Department of Sanitation to keep bus routes clear and passable.  However, when street conditions worsen, buses will likely operate on a reduced schedule, and determinations will be made on a route-by-route basis about how much service can be provided based on street conditions. 

In cases of severe weather and impassable roads, bus service will be suspended rather than risk having buses get stuck on the roads.  Arrangements have also been made for sharing real-time plowing information via transit representatives at the City’s Office of Emergency Management Emergency Operations Center.

In the area of equipment, the Department of Buses now has a consistent policy for tire chaining, based upon the specific conditions or forecasts.  This policy requires chaining of the articulated fleet when the severity and speed of the storm warrant, while also taking into consideration the service area of the buses.  Whenever possible, articulated buses scheduled to be in service overnight are to be replaced with 40-foot standard buses, and all buses to be in service overnight, regardless of type, will be sent into service with chains.

Metro-North Railroad

Severe winter weather can create hazardous travel conditions throughout Metro-North’s service region, and can hamper Metro-North’s ability to provide regular service.

The railroad routinely reviews its performance after major service disruptions, and we will be applying some of the lessons we learned from recent record-setting snowstorms.

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 which provides 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: door panels are sprayed with an anti-freeze agent; air brake lines are purged of 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-icers and exposed couplers are covered to keep snow out.

Tracks: Along the tracks, 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. Metro-North has purchased additional snow-fighting equipment, including two more cold air blowers (for a total of five), allowing us to clean yard switches and third rail simultaneously at more locations, and an additional front-end loader and backhoe enabling us to plow more of our right-of-way in order to access track interlockings and power substations.

Metro-North recently has received two high volume snow blowers from NYC Transit to supplement our capabilities during extreme snow events. We have also completed retrofitting our three jet hot air blowers for greater power and fuel efficiency.

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

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.

Long Island Rail Road

The LIRR is working in a number of key areas to be ready for whatever winter may bring, including upgrades in communication, equipment and snow fighting personnel.

Communication:  The LIRR is improving the content and coordination of customer information via the expansion of our Public Information Office. Customer e-mail alerts, website updates, station announcements and crew communications are now coordinated from under one roof, with additional staff.  Pertinent information regarding LIRR service is also posted on message boards at Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica Station. Our goal is to provide more information in a timelier manner during emergencies. Customers can sign up for e-mail and text message alerts from the LIRR’s Public Information Office by linking to

Equipment:  The LIRR’s snow fighting equipment is winterized, tested and positioned strategically throughout the system to start operation as soon as snow accumulations begin. The fleet consists of nine jet snow blowers, three cold-air snow blowers and two double-ended snow broom/thrower machines.

In advance of the storm, employees begin prepping the passenger fleet: door panels are sprayed with an anti-freeze agent; air brake lines are purged of moisture to prevent them from freezing; and many electric trains are fitted with special third rail “scraper” shoes to help reduce icing on the third rail so electric trains can draw their power properly. Rescue equipment is fueled.

Right-of-Way: Scheduled track work is canceled to allow LIRR forces to concentrate their efforts on storm preparation.  Along the right-of-way, switch-heaters are activated to keep switches moving freely so that we can continue to route trains from one track to another.  During the storm, anti-freeze trains are deployed throughout the system to spray de-icer on the third rail in an effort to prevent ice-build-up, and non-passenger patrol trains operate along the right-of-way to prevent snowdrifts from forming on the tracks. Engineering forces will concentrate on key switches to keep the LIRR on the move.

Stations: Extra LIRR personnel are assigned to key locations throughout the system. LIRR employees pre-salt station platforms before the snowstorm and clear platforms of snow as soon as possible after the storm ends. Station waiting rooms are kept open around-the-clock during storms to provide shelter for customers waiting for trains.


For our Access-A-Ride paratransit service, we have developed a dashboard storm monitoring system to track immobilized vehicles and customers.  NYCT has also coordinated a procedure with OEM and City first-responders for rescuing customers on immobilized vehicles or those who develop medical needs during storms.  Also in place is a new paratransit-specific Storm Action Plan that includes processes for curtailing all non-medically essential service; this plan was tested earlier this year during storms in January and February.

Bridges and Tunnels

The snow and ice fighting arsenal used to keep the agency’s seven bridges and two tunnels clear and safe for motorists includes 98 trucks and some 9,000 tons of anti-corrosive deicer, made of rock salt products treated with deicing additives which is significantly less corrosive to steel than salt alone.

The snow fleet, made up of regular maintenance trucks that are turned into snow plows and conveyors during winter months, includes 44 vehicles equipped with ground temperature sensors that tell the operator and bridge managers if the roadway is in danger of freezing. The operator then spreads additional deicer where it is needed.

The Authority's bridges also are equipped with imbedded roadway sensors for temperature and above-ground atmospheric sensors that deliver real-time information on wind velocity, wind direction, humidity and precipitation via wireless communication. These sensors record data used to determine if speed restrictions are necessary.

Bridges and Tunnels personnel will institute the following procedures during specific winter weather conditions: 

  • During light snowfall of less than 3 inches, motorists will be asked to operate at reduced speeds;
  • Under heavy or severe snow conditions where accumulations of snow or a combination of mixed snow and ice are above 3 inches, some roadway lanes or ramp closures may occur while snow removal and deicing operations are performed. Motorists will be asked to operate at reduced speeds;
  • In blizzard conditions, which may include dangerous whiteout conditions combining snow, high winds and/or ice, bridges, tunnels and entrance and exit ramps at all MTA crossings may be subject to closure for the safety of motorists and employees.

In addition, the agency’s four suspended bridge spans -- Robert F. Kennedy, Verrazano-Narrows, Bronx-Whitestone and Throgs Neck -- may be closed intermittently following an ice/snow event due to potentially hazardous conditions caused by ice melting from the bridges’ cables.

Lastly, to enhance our communications with customers, MTA has taken steps to insure its communications systems function well during any type of emergency.    The current website design allows for the quick posting of service information and includes a special weather page that becomes the homepage during weather-related events affecting operations.  The MTA now partners with New York State DOT to provide current service information for all MTA agencies by telephone using 511.  The 511 system provides customers with one easy-to-remember phone number to access all MTA transportation information. 

Addendum: Subway Snow Fighting Equipment

Snow Throwers (10) - Precise directional snow throwing equipment.  Includes a two stage impeller and side mounted rotating brushes to throw snow up to 200 feet and can remove 3,000 tons of snow an hour.  This is similar to a household snow blower, just a lot bigger.

Jet Blowers (4) - This equipment uses a jet engine to remove accumulated snow from the roadbed and deposit it a distance from the tracks so that it cannot slide back.  This piece of equipment is used primarily to keep the yards clear.

De-Icer Cars (7) - Equipped with scraper shoes that scrape off ice and also uses pumping equipment to dispense a stream of nontoxic, biodegradable de-icing fluid to prevent ice buildup on the third rail.  If ice is permitted to build up, subway car power pickup equipment will not be able to draw electric current from the third rail and the train will stop.

Rider Cars (40) - Heated/Insulated work cars that can be used to carry crews and equipment to snow removal work sites.  These cars are equipped with ice-scraping equipment to help keep the third rail clear.  These cars are also designated Storm Emergency Train (SET) Riders, which can be used to rescue passengers if stranded.

Diesel Locomotives (96) - All Diesel Locomotives are equipped with a small snow plow at both ends to assist in scraping snow and ice off the road bed and transporting the other snow removal work cars.  We currently have 53 diesel locomotives also equipped with shoe beams that allow us to mount scraper shoes for third rail deicing.