December 7, 2011

N.Y. MTA bolsters winter weather preparation

MTA New York City Transit (NYCT) is preparing to deploy a fleet of snow and ice-fighting equipment to keep hundreds of miles of outdoor track and third rail clear of snow and ice and prevent bus passengers from being stranded. These efforts are part of the development of a new, comprehensive winter weather plan.

After unprecedented conditions during the December 26, 2010 blizzard crippled the system, NYCT immediately began a review and made the changes required to strengthen storm preparedness. Many of the changes were quickly executed and tested with great success during subsequent snowstorms in January and February. Measures were recently tested again during Hurricane Irene and the first winter snow storm of this season which occurred just before Halloween. 

The changes enacted 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.

•    Improvements in bus operating procedures for evaluating and responding to degraded road conditions.

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

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

In addition to snowplows, NYCT mobilizes ballast regulators, jet-powered snow blowers and modified de-icers — retired subway cars modified with tanks and other specialized equipment to spray de-icing fluid on the third rail.

Until early 2011, Plan Level IV was the highest level of response to a winter weather event. Plan Level IV was called when a snowfall of five inches or more was forecast. However, just after Christmas last year, a powerful blizzard ripped through the region stranding trains on the outdoor lines and prompting the MTA to rethink its approach to operating service in the face of harsh weather conditions.

For Access-A-Ride paratransit service, the agency 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, as well as during Hurricane Irene.

Additionally, to enhance 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 mta.info homepage during weather-related events affecting operations.

The MTA also recently partnered with New York State DOT to provide current service information for all MTA agencies by telephone using 511.

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