MTA chair: No reduction of LIRR weekday morning trains into Penn Station

An LIRR train disappears into a tunnel westbound An LIRR train disappears into a tunnel westbound on the way to Penn Station via an east river tunnel under the 49th Ave. underpass in Hunter's Point, Queens. (May 11, 2011) Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

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The MTA's newly confirmed chairman told state lawmakers Thursday night that the Long Island Rail Road will not reduce the number of trains it runs into Penn Station weekday mornings as part of a plan to squeeze Metro-North Railroad into the transit hub.

The controversial Penn Station Access plan came up as the State Senate confirmed Thomas Prendergast as chairman and chief executive of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

During a Transportation Committee meeting, state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) asked Prendergast whether the LIRR would "continue to have exclusive jurisdiction" over its existing 37 trains into Penn Station during morning rush hour.

"Thirty-seven slots in the peak hour, yeah," Prendergast replied.

Martins said Friday that Prendergast's commitment should allow LIRR riders to rest easier, knowing that Metro-North's arrival in Penn Station won't come at their expense. Long Island commuters, elected representatives and business leaders have raised concerns about whether the LIRR would have to give up some morning trains to make room for its sister MTA railroad.

"He hasn't really said much in the past , so I needed to get that commitment from him," Martins said. "We're going to hold him to it."

MTA officials have been reluctant to offer details on how they plan to run 10 Metro-North trains every weekday into Penn Station, which already houses the LIRR, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.

Proponents of the plan have said the LIRR will have room to spare once it connects to Grand Central Terminal in 2019 as part of East Side Access. But LIRR officials, citing projected ridership increases, said they'll still need every slot at Penn Station after linking to Grand Central.

Speaking to reporters after his confirmation, Prendergast said the only promise he made to senators weighing his nomination was to "do my best." He acknowledged, however, that Penn Station is already "very crowded."

"We don't want to solve one problem while creating others," he cautioned.

MTA officials have previously suggested Metro-North could fit into Penn Station without the LIRR having to give anything up through infrastructural improvements and capacity expansion.

But Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council, said that when LIRR riders begin arriving at Metro-North's main terminal, Grand Central, Metro-North riders will deserve "tit for tat."

"I don't think they can force the LIRR down our throats at Grand Central without reciprocating and giving Metro-North some kind of access to Penn Station," he said. "Mr. Prendergast may have had to say things in the confirmation process that may have to be revised."

State Sen. Charles Fuschillo Jr. (R-Merrick), who chairs the Transportation Committee, said he didn't take Prendergast's answer as a vow not to cut LIRR service into Penn Station, but rather as confirmation of the terms of the LIRR's current lease with Amtrak.

Still, Fuschillo remains "hopeful" that Prendergast will do right by the LIRR's 300,000 daily riders. "Time will tell," the lawmaker said.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Friday joined the call for a federal probe into the four MTA train derailments that have occurred since March. They include a Hempstead-bound LIRR train that came off the tracks near Penn Station on Monday. None of the 800 passengers aboard were hurt.

Gillibrand asked the Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration and National Transportation Safety Board to investigate "the alarming rate of derailments in a short period of time."

"I strongly urge you to ensure that a thorough and comprehensive investigation is undertaken into the recent derailments to determine the root cause of these incidents and to address any underlying systemic deficiencies that could lead to future derailments," Gillibrand wrote.

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