The Long Island Rail Road has lost annual bragging rights as North America's largest commuter railway, bested by sister railroad Metro-North as fallout from the recession and job losses took a chunk out of ridership.
The LIRR, for the third straight year, carried fewer people in 2011 than it did the year prior. Its annual ridership of almost 81 million was a drop of about 0.5 percent from 81.4 million in 2010. Metro-North's ridership grew about 1.4 percent to 82 million last year, according to figures released Monday at a Metropolitan Transportation Authority committee meeting.
LIRR president Helena Williams and other experts, assessing the drop, pointed to the Island's struggle to climb out of the recession and the need for Nassau and Suffolk to step up economic development to compete with other suburban regions.
"Long Island itself has not regained its footing economically, pre-recession," Williams said. "As we look at the census numbers, we're beginning to see trends that are of concern in regards to population loss in the job-market age group."
State labor statistics released last week showed Long Island had almost 10,000 fewer jobs in December than it did a year before, supporting some local economists' view that the Island has yet to emerge from the recession. A U.S. Conference of Mayors report released last week predicts the Island and other metro areas won't return to pre-recession employment until 2014.
Gains seen as positive sign
Williams added that she is encouraged by four months of ridership gains late in 2011 as compared with the same months the previous year. She noted that major weather-related service disruptions hurt ridership.
"It's not about being number one or number two . . . The question is, 'Were we number one before and now we're number two because something else is going on that is going to end up harming us over time?' " said William Henderson, executive director of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which oversees riders' councils for the LIRR and Metro-North. "Certainly, there's a concern there."
The MTA, in a statement, said it is "proud to have LIRR and Metro-North neck-and-neck as the top two railroads in the country, because more ridership is good news for the region's economy. Metro-North ridership has been growing over the long term and surged ahead in 2011, while the LIRR mostly posted gains the past four months after taking a hit from job loss on Long Island."
Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, agreed that an exodus of young people from the Island and the retirement of working people contributed to LIRR ridership losses.
Projects may be shot in arm
Law said he is confident that several major economic development projects in Nassau and Suffolk, including the Wyandanch Rising plan and the Ronkonkoma hub, will provide new origins and destinations for work, housing and recreation, giving the LIRR a shot in the arm.
"I'm optimistic that the railroad will continue to play a significant part in our regional economy and that, eventually, we'll be back up there as the leading commuter rail in the nation," Law said. "I'm less concerned about bragging rights than I am ensuring that we continue to invest in the Long Island Rail Road and its infrastructure."
Because of a fare hike in December 2010 designed to yield a 7.5 percent revenue increase, the railroad's revenue didn't reflect effects of the ridership decline. Preliminary fare revenue for 2011 was $571.4 million; actual fares in 2010 brought in $523.2 million.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, agreed that increasing the LIRR's capacity is key to growing its ridership. That includes moving ahead with plans including East Side Access, which will link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal, Metro-North's Manhattan hub, by 2018. Other plans include adding a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma and a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville.
Such improvements would provide opportunities for reverse commuting and intra-Island commuting, Pally said. For Metro-North, which has considerable track capacity and economic hubs outside of Manhattan in areas including White Plains and Stamford, reverse commuting has been a growth area over the past decade.
For the LIRR to catch up, Long Island first must provide locations to commute to, Pally said. that 93.71 percent of its trains operated on time in 2011. That was an increase of almost 1 percentage point over 2010, when 92.76 percent of trains were punctual.
But the LIRR also came in second to Metro-North in that area. Metro-North ran 96.9 percent of its trains on time last year.The LIRR's improvement occurred although the railroad had several major service disruptions, including winter storm delays and cancellations, Amtrak-related service problems near Penn Station in the spring and summer, and a lightning strike at the crucial Jamaica hub that shut down the LIRR for several hours on Sept. 29.