As the East Coast prepares for Winter Storm Stella, due to bring as much as two feet of snow to the region, Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency beginning at midnight tonight. While this means a lot of things for different people (non-essential state employees, for example, are being told to stay home), the biggest impact for regular New Yorkers is on transit.
As of 4 a.m., service to above-ground subway stations will cease, and it’s probable that service (and thus, commutes) on many subway lines will change, though the MTA has yet to announce any formal plans. Additionally, MTA express bus service will also stop at midnight, and there’s a chance that Metro-North, LIRR, and regular bus service will be suspended tomorrow.
TL;DR, stay home if you can.
But what happens to the subway during a storm? A lot, actually: According to the MTA, the agency is already getting its preparedness efforts in place:
Approximately 13,000 personnel will be on duty for subways during the storm, including more than 9,700 personnel dedicated to snow-fighting, staged throughout the system and working up to 12-hour shifts. Snow-fighting equipment for subways will include more than 2,000 snow melting devices at switches and other infrastructure, about 1,500 3rd rail heaters, “scraper shoes” on approximately 80 trains, 10 snowthrowers, four jetblowers, and seven de-icer train cars.
Keeping subways running below ground while above-ground stations are closed is a plan that was first put in place last winter, when a snowstorm (known as Winter Storm Jonas) dropped as much as 26 inches of powder on the city. Rather than shutting down the entire subway system—which the MTA did in 2015, drawing fierce criticism—Governor Cuomo and the agency opted to keep the underground trains, which are easier to maintain during inclement weather, in operation.
The decision basically worked: the MTA, the city, and transit advocacy groups were happy, as were many straphangers. (Though it’s worth noting that many of the areas serviced by above-ground stations are on the outer edges of the boroughs, which—without bus service as well—will be most negatively affected by a lack of service.)
So where will the trains that would have been running above-ground go? They get stored in one of the MTA’s underground storage yards (there are several throughout the city), or may be stored on express tracks, which can also lead to service disruptions. Once the snow stops, the MTA can begin the work of clearing tracks and ensuring that it’s safe for trains to run again.
So if your commute is mucked up in the next few days, that’s why—and hey, it could be worse: on this day in 1888, New Yorkers had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in the snow to get between Manhattan and Brooklyn, as this photo from the NYC Department of Records shows:
So remember: stay inside if you can, keep an eye on the MTA’s service alerts page—because things are likely to change—and stay safe out there, folks and use this tool to keep an eye on the snow accumulation in your area.