"It's like your household snow blower but a million times bigger," agency engineer Edward Macina said late Wednesday as the five-car diesel train chugged past the silent expanse of Kennedy Airport.
The train is a key component in the agency's comprehensive snow-battle plan. A six-foot cylindrical brush attached to the front sweeps snow into an even wider metal tube. Snow is then blasted away -- far away -- from the rails from the mouth of a chute about eight feet in the air.
The machine can launch the snow 200 feet, removing 3,000 tons of snow an hour. Macina, project manager in the car equipment department, joked 'Snow Eater' might be an appropriate nickname.
The approximately five-mile segment of the A line between Howard Beach and the Rockaways may be the toughest to maintain service during a major winter storm. It crosses through wide-open stretches of marsh and over the Jamaica Bay on a narrow band of elevated tracks. Other drift-prone areas that require special attention are on the Dyre Ave. line in the Bronx, and the Sea Beach, Brighton and Culver lines in Brooklyn.
Drifts can trip a subway train's emergency brakes or damage an engine. Ice on the third-rail can cut off power and jam switches. To keep the subways moving Wednesday, NYC Transit at times had about 60 work trains scraping rails and dispensing de-icer.
Hundreds of track workers were also deployed around the system to dig out frozen or faulty equipment along lines and in yards. It may be called the subway, but there's still nearly 220 miles of outdoor track.
"It's grueling work, particularly in the Rockaways, where you are completely exposed to the elements," said John Samuelsen, a track worker recently elected president of Transport Workers Union Local 100.
"There's very few places to find any cover. Think about shoveling your driveway. These guys are doing it for eight to 12 hours straight."
Subway ridership was lighter than usual Feb. 10, but NYC Transit ran its regular schedule.
"Steel on steel keeps the snow from building up and the trains running," John McGuinness, assistant chief transportation officer, said.
The night before the snowstorm began, NYC Transit parked thousands of its subway cars in tunnels to protect them from the elements. Extra police patrolled the underground to watch for vandals seeing an opportunity. The trains normally are parked in yards ringed with barbed wire and floodlights.
Turning underground express tracks into subway train garages also meant car cleaners on the overnight shift were shuttled to a lay-up area. Motorman and conductors assigned to the morning rush hour had to report early so they could do their pre-shift inspections in the lay-ups.
"The subway is like the mailman used to be - through rain, sleet, snow - the trains must run to safely deliver people, including the mailman, to their destinations," NYC Transit deputy superintendent Tim Birnstill said.