By most accounts, riders on the Long Island Rail Road have had a rough couple of years.
In fact, in 2017 the transit agency saw its worst on-time performance in more than two decades, and 2018 was only marginally better: At year’s end, 88 percent of morning rush-hour trains had arrived on time, and in the evening, 86.6 percent, according to railroad statistics.
But there has been better news. The railroad finished off the year with 93.5 percent of its trains arriving on time in December, signaling that the agency may be turning a corner when it comes to reliability.
It was for this reason, and in the aftermath of a deadly collision and derailment in Westbury, that nine state senators from districts on Long Island and Queens, other elected officials, and members of the LIRR’s leadership crammed into a second-floor room at the Nassau County executive building in Mineola on March 1 to discuss challenges and succeses on big-ticket items, as LIRR officials prepared to make their case to the lawmakers on what they would like to see in their next round of capital funding.
“Yes, 2018 was a challenging year,” acknowledged LIRR President Philip Eng. “A lot of that had to do with storms, but if you look at what we’ve done since . . . we’ve managed it differently.”
Urgency was the word of the day, which Eng noted was chief in his philosophy of how to improve service since he took the reins of the agency last April. Urgency in cutting costs, shoring up infrastructure and taking risks to improve service and convenience for the railroad’s ridership, which in 2018 ballooned to 89.8 million — its largest in nearly 70 years, he said. All of it was part of an initiative Eng referred to as the “Long Island Rail Road Forward” program.
“Since I started 10 months ago, it’s been about me making sure I’m engaging every customer throughout my daily commutes . . . to meet with management, and make sure that as we invest, they think it’s important to them,” he said. “The Long Island Rail Road Forward program is about tackling things that are important to [riders], and addressing things causing them delays and affecting their commutes.”
Among the steps the railroad has taken are the replacement of switches to improve reliability, the extension of platforms at the Forest Hills and Kew Gardens stations to ease congestion and the clearing of more than 200 miles of trees and undergrowth along its lines to prevent leaves from falling on the tracks, which pose constant maintenance issues for rail services.
Janno Lieber, chief development officer and president of capital construction for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — announced that its long-delayed East Side Access tunnel project, which is intended to ease congestion at Pennsylvania Station, will stick to its 2022 completion date, and is currently 90 percent complete.
He did, however, ask the lawmakers that they provide an additional $1.5 billion for the project, which has suffered numerous cost overruns, and last year passed the $11 billion mark, ranking it among the country’s most expensive railway projects.
Railroad officials also reported that its long-in-the-works $2.6 billion third track — a new 9.8-mile line running between Floral Park and Hicksville — is roughly 40 percent complete and is also slated for completion in 2022.
The lawmakers asked pointed questions at times, but for the most part, what they were seeking was information to better inform their legislation and to ensure that the agency’s revenue was being spent appropriately.
Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, who co-chaired the event, asked about the scope and effectiveness of the MTA’s management overhaul, as well as whether the LIRR would be in favor of congestion pricing proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, which would implement a surcharge for cars entering and exiting New York City and put the funds toward strengthening MTA infrastructure.
“It was public position of the Long Island senators at this table that part of congestion pricing revenue would go toward bolstering Long Island Rail Road capital . . . I assume that’s something you would welcome.”
Eng replied that he favored the plan, but noted that it was up to lawmakers to make it happen. Additionally, Lieber reported that despite aggressive consolidation of management, and leaving vacant positions unfilled, resulting in roughly $2 billion in recurring annual labor savings, the agency was still vastly underfunded.
“The MTA is facing a serious financial crisis,” Lieber said. “This is something that’s not widely understood. We’re expecting a $500 million deficit next year, which after a few years we expect that to rise to close to $1 billion.”
Kaminsky also grilled the officials on what they have done to improve service. Eng said that despite a bad start to 2018, between switch replacement and the clearing of trees along tracks, this fall or “leaf season,” which traditionally presents maintenance challenges for rail services, the LIRR saw improvements in reliability.
A tight squeeze
Sen. Anna Kaplan, a Democrat from Great Neck, asked what could be done about crowding on train cars. Eng responded that it was an issue of maintaining the LIRR’s fleet or “rolling stock” of cars, which is a challenge that has only been compounded after the Feb. 26 derailment.
“That’s a crop of 20 cars that’s no longer available to us,” Eng said of the damage caused in the accident, and addressing other senators’ questions about safety, he said that his agency was working to eliminate as many grade crossings, or sites where streets and the railways intersect, as possible, but admitted that with 296 such crossings across the island, it would take years.
Sen. Kevin Thomas, a Democrat from Levittown, said he was “personally upset” by the recent announcement of ticket-fare hikes, which could see commuters’ monthly expenses increase by as much as $15.
“The fare hike was below the rate of inflation,” Eng maintained. “It’s important revenue . . . we are investing the money we have and we’re putting it towards improvements in service.”
Additionally, Lieber noted that biannual fare hikes had been approved by the state Legislature almost a decade ago. “The Legislature decided in around 2010 that regular fare hikes that were in the range of inflation . . . would be better than people waiting and waiting and getting a mega fare hike every few years,” he said.
According to Larry Penner, a retired Federal Transit Administration employee from Great Neck, the MTA’s problems run much deeper than fixing switches and adding new trains. In his public statement to the legislators, he argued that Penn Station would require an expansion of platform capacity to accommodate a larger fleet, and due to the poor state of tunnels running in and out of the station, that capacity is at risk should one fail. Any of those projects could cost tens of billions of dollars, Penner argued.
It also remains to be seen what kinds of revenue lawmakers would be willing to provide the agency in the state’s upcoming budget. With $15 billion in expenses, and operating deficits predicted for 2019 and 2021, new revenue streams will likely be necessary, many of which are still up in the air.