Long Island Rail Road ridership increased 2 percent in 2013, climbing for the second year in a row and reversing a trend that began with the economic collapse five years ago.
The LIRR carried 83.4 million riders last year -- 1.64 million more than in 2012. LIRR officials said the annual ridership figure was the seventh highest in more than 60 years, and the highest since the railroad set a record in 2008 with 87.4 million riders.
The LIRR's Port Washington branch, which benefited from the restoration of half-hourly weekend service in November, saw the biggest increase in riders of any line. It carried 351,000 more riders than in 2012, a 3 percent gain.
The Long Beach line performed worst, losing 0.8 percent of its riders, or about 35,000 riders, since 2012. LIRR officials noted that Long Beach is still recovering from superstorm Sandy.
LIRR officials would not say Sunday how their numbers stacked up against those of sister Metropolitan Transportation Authority railroad Metro-North, which in 2011 overtook the LIRR as the busiest commuter railroad in North America. Through November, Metro-North carried 76.4 million riders, or 3 percent below internal projections.
The LIRR attributed its gains to several factors, including the restoration of past service cuts and addition of new service on several lines and new initiatives to boost ridership. Those included increased service to Atlantic Terminal to serve people visiting the Barclays Center, a streamlined summer "Cannonball" train to the Hamptons departing from Penn Station, and the 10-week extension of weekend service to the North Fork.
The strong numbers also indicate that Long Islanders began returning to work in 2013 after the recession. So-called "commutation" ridership, which measures the number of people using the LIRR to get to work and back on weekdays, was up 3 percent over 2012.
"We are seeing an increase in both commuters going to work and occasional riders," LIRR president Helena Williams said. "We had the opportunity to add back some service in 2013 and we are pleased that riders are responding by using the LIRR more often to get to work, as well as for leisure and other travel during the off-peak periods. We believe the increase in ridership also reflects an improving Long Island and NYC economy."
Kevin Law, president and chief executive of the Long Island Association, a business group, agreed that the LIRR's latest ridership numbers "are a good sign for the Long Island economy, which is inextricably linked to the NYC economy."
"The LIRR is extremely important to Long Island and any efforts to make it easier to get commuters to and from New York City strengthens our local economy," Law said. "Folks who work in the city bring back their disposable income to support local businesses and many employers tap the city labor pool for positions that go unfilled here."