Metro-North riders endure overcrowded commutes after fire

An estimated 150,000 rail passengers had to endure overcrowded, slow commutes Wednesday, a day after a fire damaged elevated train tracks in New York City.

In this photo provided by Benjamin Parkin, firefighters battle a blaze at the Metro-North railroad tracks in New York, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Train service into and out of Grand Central is being delayed due to the fire. (Benjamin Parkin via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

In this photo provided by Benjamin Parkin, firefighters battle a blaze at the Metro-North railroad tracks in New York, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. Train service into and out of Grand Central is being delayed due to the fire. (Benjamin Parkin via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (5/18/16)

NEW YORK - (AP) -- An estimated 150,000 rail passengers had to endure overcrowded, slow commutes Wednesday, a day after a fire damaged elevated train tracks in New York City, but many seemed unfazed by the evening rush hour as they grappled with limited service.

A fire Tuesday night at a garden center underneath Metro-North tracks in Manhattan's East Harlem section, north of Grand Central Terminal, halted train service for hours. On Wednesday, fire marshals ruled the blaze an accident, saying it was caused by fuel that was spilled on a hot generator as it was being refilled.

But the fire damaged the elevated Metro-North tracks, causing the railroad to use an abbreviated Saturday schedule on Wednesday. The railroad said it hoped that regular service could be restored by Friday.

John Georgescu, who lives in White Plains, said he had been delayed for hours Wednesday morning after taking a subway and a taxi to get home Tuesday night.

But as he waited to board a train at Grand Central Terminal Wednesday evening, Georgescu said the evening rush could pass for a regular day.

"It actually doesn't seem so bad tonight," he remarked as fellow commuters rushed by to catch trains heading north of the city. "You just have to deal with it. There isn't much you can do about it."

It was a bad day for commuting overall in the city. Drivers from New Jersey and the northern suburbs grappled with delays of an hour or more. It's unclear how many of those drivers normally would have taken the train. A shooting in the Theater District also snarled midtown Manhattan traffic.

The intense fire damaged a center column beneath a viaduct holding the elevated tracks. Crews were installing six temporary steel columns. Following those temporary repairs, Metro-North will perform structural tests, including determining the impact of train movement over the viaduct. If that's successful, restricted-speed trains could resume over tracks that are currently out of service.

The damaged column is an older design with lattice-like steel; parts of it date to the initial construction of the viaduct in the 19th century. Newer columns on the viaduct were not damaged, the railroad said.

Commuters were warned to expect delays and crowds, and they were urged to work from home or find alternate travel plans. During the morning rush, commuters packed into trains, leaving some on the platform.

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