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Our plans for running subways during snowstorms

Updated Feb 12, 2021
We have detailed plans for running the best and safest service we can during winter weather. Here’s a look at how we plan for and react to snow, sleet, ice, high winds, blizzard conditions, and more.

What service to expect based on weather

These are the best predictions we can make without knowing specific details about a storm. We always do our best to tell you about service changes as soon as we can.

  • Storm warning: Regular service.
  • 1-7 inches of snow: Regular service. You might see salt and sand on platforms.
  • 8-12 inches of snow: Reduced service, especially on express tracks.
  • 12+ inches of snow, or blizzard conditions: Significant service suspensions or a full system shutdown are likely. You should only travel if it’s essential.
  • Subzero temperatures, without precipitation: Regular or reduced service. Some express service might be suspended, depending on where we park trains to keep them out of the elements.
  • Ice, sleet, freezing rain: Regular or reduced service. Some express service might be suspended, depending on where we park trains to keep them out of the elements.

Details about pre-storm preparation

These are steps we take before almost any winter storm. We:

  • Monitor several forecasts, including the National Weather Service, and we work directly with meteorologists before storms start.
  • Put attachments on trains — we call them scraper shoes — to keep ice from forming on the third rail.
  • Make sure our diesel trains, which we use as de-icers, sweepers, and snowplows, are ready to go.
  • Prep our snow throwers, for if more than 5 inches of snow accumulates. (These are like snowblowers on the front of a train.)
  • May cancel construction work so we can use work trains to fight snow and transport other snow-fighting equipment.

Overview of our winter operation master plans

Plan 1: 1-7 inches of snow accumulation

When the forecast includes light snow accumulation, we:

  • May call in extra crews to operate our de-icer trains, in addition to our regular trains.
  • Activate third-rail heaters, track switch snow-melters, and train stop heaters throughout the system. These help keep equipment from freezing.
  • Spread salt and sand at stations, yards, terminals, and crew facilities.
  • May shift MTA employees from other day-to-day work so they can help shovel stairs, platforms, and other areas.

Plan 2: Temperatures below zero degrees, without precipitation

For extremely cold weather that doesn’t include snow or sleet, we:

  • May start parking trains underground. You could see service on some routes being suspended or express service running local.
  • Assign train operators to “rock” trains, or move them back and forth in yards to keep brakes and track attachments from freezing. Crews also open and close train doors.

Plan 3: Ice, sleet, freezing rain

We prepare according to plans 1 and 2, and we:

  • Start running de-icer trains, which carry and apply de-icing solution to the third rail. (This has to happen before precipitation starts.)
  • Start running sweeper trains to keep tracks and the third rail free of snow and ice.
  • Activate track switch heaters at regular intervals on the Staten Island Railway.

Plan 4: 8-12 inches of snow accumulation

When we expect moderate snow buildup, we take the above precautions and also:

  • Assemble snow throwers on trains to help clear tracks.
  • May suspend some service on express tracks in open areas.

Plan 5: 12+ inches of snow accumulation, or blizzard conditions

This is when we think significant service changes, like service suspensions and shutdowns, are likely. We prepare all of our customer-communication channels, like digital screens, station announcements, our social media channels, email and text alerts, and our website, to broadcast messages about disruptions.

A bright yellow work train used for de-icing tracks parked in a snowy train yard next to other subway trains.
A de-icer subway train car at the Coney Island yard.
A train operator stands next to large plastic drums of de-icing solution onboard a de-icing train car.
Drums of de-icing solution onboard a de-icing train car.

Types of suspensions and shutdowns

Partial suspensions

We may:

  • Suspend lines that are redundant to other lines
  • Suspend service on parts of lines (usually outdoor sections)

Underground-only service

Passenger trains do not serve any outdoor stations and a few underground-only stations. (This is so trains don’t get stuck with passengers on them.)

Systemwide shutdown

No passengers are allowed on trains (though we keep running them to fight snow and ice conditions).

A person walks on a snowy outdoor subway platform. Digital screens say service will be underground-only starting at 2 p.m.

Glossary of the words we use

De-icers: Trains that carry and apply de-icing solution to the electrified third rail. If ice builds up too much, the electrical current is interrupted and trains can’t keep running.

Layups: When we store trains underground or in train yards to keep them out of the elements.

Revenue service: What we call it when we’re running trains passengers can ride. Special service trains like de-icers, sweepers, diesel trains, and work trains are not part of revenue service, which is why you might still see them running when service is suspended. We also run regular trains in non-revenue service to help keep tracks and switches warm.

“Rocking” trains: When crews move trains back and forth in the yard to prevent the brakes and track shoes from freezing.

Shoes (for trains): Metal attachments that connect the train to the third rail. We use scraper shoes during storms. They’re designed to scrape ice and snow from the third rail.

Sweepers: Special diesel cars we run to brush snow from the tracks.

Underground-only service: When trains don’t stop at any subway stations that are outside. This is usually because stairs, platforms, and other areas could be hazardous from snow and ice.

A closeup of a person holding a small rectangular metal plate with raised ridges on it.
A scraper shoe that’s attached to trains to clear ice and snow.
A yellow and black subway train car approaches an outdoor subway station. Snow is swirling around the train.
A de-icing train at the 9 Av stop in Brooklyn.