Rowdy riders spur LIRR weekend alcohol ban
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The Long Island Rail Road will ban alcohol on overnight weekend trains out of Penn Station in hopes of curbing violence against train crew members by drunken passengers.
LIRR President Helena Williams said the pilot program will start May 18 and affect all trains out of Penn between midnight and 5 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
"We think that [alcohol] continues to fuel some of the rambunctious behavior we've been getting, all the way up to criminal behavior," Williams said in a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's railroad committee. "We're just trying to get a different tone on the trains that lessens these incidents."
The ban follows two assaults on train crew members last month. In one, a conductor received three stitches on the right side of his face after being hit by a 19-year-old suspect, who was arrested, according to MTA officials.
While the ban is considered a pilot program, the transportation agency did not specify when or if it would end.
LIRR officials said signs will be posted throughout Penn Station notifying customers of the ban and a "public information/education component" will be undertaken before it starts.
Announcements explaining the prohibitions will be made at Penn Station, and extra MTA police officers will be positioned at platforms to check passengers for alcohol. Riders found carrying alcoholic beverages will not be allowed to board trains with the drink.
Assaults on LIRR train crews have been on the rise, officials said. There were six attacks last year -- the highest number in at least five years. MTA Police Chief Michael Coan said that in 95 percent of the cases, "alcohol is involved."
A 2007 law made assaulting an LIRR train crew member a felony. But the severe penalty "doesn't seem to be deterring the age group involved," Williams said, referring to young adults.
Attacks on train crew members sometimes arise out of fare disputes or frustration over delays, Williams said. Alcohol escalates such situations, said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, which represents LIRR conductors.
"They [passengers who have been drinking] get their beer muscles and all of a sudden they don't want to pay their fare," said Simon, who is part of a new task force created by the LIRR to address attacks on train crews. "We have to do our jobs and ultimately it ends in an assault on the conductors."
Simon called the pilot program a "good start," but said he favors a complete alcohol ban on all trains. "I think it's gotten out of hand," he said.
The MTA last considered a full ban in 2008, but rejected it after a task force found no link between alcohol on trains and drunken driving arrests at railroad stations.
A full ban would have ended the LIRR's sale of alcoholic beverages at station platforms during weekday evening rush hours and the $2.5 million in annual revenue the sales provide.
MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook, who cast the lone vote for the full ban in 2008, reiterated Monday that the pilot program "doesn't go far enough."
The LIRR Commuter Council has opposed a full ban on alcohol, arguing that being allowed to drink on trains should be a perk that comes with a costly railroad ticket.
But MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee Chairman Ira Greenberg, who represents the LIRR Commuter Council on the MTA board, said Monday he understood the pilot program's weekend overnight ban is necessary in light of the "reprehensible" attacks on train crew members.
"I don't like that there's a ban. You would hope that people could be responsible. But, as long as people are properly notified, I think we're going to have to accept it," Greenberg said. "If the choice is whether conductors get assaulted or not, I'd choose that we have the ban."
The LIRR already bans alcohol on trains during some holidays, including New Year's Eve and St. Patrick's Day. MTA Police have said those bans help reduce incidents on trains.
Billy Plotner, 31, of Floral Park, Monday called the weekend overnight ban a "great idea."
"When you're taking a train on the way home late, you want to relax," Plotner said while waiting for a train at Penn Station. "You don't want to see people acting like idiots and taking away from everything."