Months before a chaotic rollout that left tens of thousands of riders furious, Long Island Rail Road commuters, advocates, transportation experts and elected officials warned the MTA that planned service changes would be a disaster for riders.
The MTA went ahead with its plan anyway, largely unchanged.
Port Washington commuter Michael Gilbert pointed out that having trains that typically operate out of Penn Station instead depart from Grand Central following an event at Madison Square Garden “just really doesn’t make any sense.”
Transportation consultant David Vieser questioned the LIRR’s projection that nearly half its riders would use Grand Central rather than Penn. He predicted it would be closer to 30%. “I think you might be overweighing the amount of people going there," he said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Commuters, transportation advocates and experts warned the Long Island Rail Road of the problems that would ensue from its new service plan for Grand Central Madison, which included diverting many Penn Station trains to the new terminal, altering departure times, and requiring more transfers.
- Although some critics said they were ignored, the LIRR said it made some changes to its plan based on feedback, particularly on the Port Washington Branch.
- The LIRR already has made some changes to its plan to address complaints about crowding and delays and said it is continuing to monitor ridership and travel patterns to make more adjustments as needed.
And Mayer Horn, a longtime transportation planner, cautioned that timed connections at Jamaica were “an essential feature” of the LIRR, and should not be eliminated, as proposed.
“Send it back for further study,” Horn said of the LIRR’s draft schedules. “Please get busy now and make this work.”
Those were a few of the hundreds of comments made at a series of public hearings held over the summer by the Long Island Rail Road to gather input for a proposed overhaul of its service plan to accommodate the opening of its new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison.
Despite the warnings, the railroad made few changes to its draft timetables. And when the railroad pulled the trigger on the problematic plan Feb. 27, chaos ensued, as tens of thousands of riders complained of longer commutes, dangerous crowding, and inconvenient transfers.
Responding to assertions that the railroad did not consider public input — including from several hundred speakers at three hearings in July and August — LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi noted that “the bulk” of the comments came from Port Washington riders upset over the elimination of express trains to and from Penn Station, and that the railroad did respond by restoring some of them.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber on Thursday acknowledged that “absolutely, there are further adjustments and improvements to be made” on the schedules for Grand Central Madison — the byproduct of the MTA’s $11.1 billion East Side Access megaproject, which took more than two decades to plan and build.
“From Day One we knew, as I said, that there was going to be a learning curve, and we know there’s a long way to go to make sure that our customers feel truly comfortable with the new timetables and the new operation," Lieber said.
Although officials with the MTA and LIRR have suggested that the issues that have arisen could not have been foreseen, many riders, advocates, experts and elected officials predicted them, but said they were ignored.
'We all saw this coming'
“They should have seen this coming. I feel like we all saw this coming,” said Assemb. Gina Sillitti (D-Port Washington), who pushed the LIRR for months to reconsider the service plan. “There’s definitely growing pains, but I think they really underestimated the amount of people who would continue to use Penn and not use Grand Central.”
Rinaldi has acknowledged that the new service plan got off to a “bumpy” start, and said planners are closely monitoring ridership and travel patterns on a train-by-train basis, and making adjustments where necessary. Since opening day for Grand Central, the LIRR already has added cars to 30 of the busiest trains, increased the frequency of Brooklyn shuttle trains, and rerouted some Grand Central trains back to Penn Station. Rinaldi said she expects the railroad to make more adjustments in the coming weeks.
“We’re responding to what we’re seeing. We can’t do everything all at once,” Rinaldi said.
But rather than have to fix problems, Ronkonkoma commuter Allen Wone said the railroad could have avoided them by listening to riders like him. Wone said he submitted several comments that the altered departure times of eastbound evening trains out of Penn Station would cause commuters to miss trains, and cause overcrowding on later ones.
“I said, ‘This is not going to work. I can tell you this is going to be a problem.’ And every one of these things I see is a problem,” said Wone, adding that he got generic responses from railroad officials telling him they were “looking into it.”
“The hardest part is that, in this case, it really looks like they didn’t listen to us,” Wone said. ”If you listened to us and actually moved on what we were saying and made some adjustments, it would have been better.”
Horn, who has 60 years' experience in transportation planning and engineering, similarly said he received no response to a detailed, three-page analysis of the “fatally flawed” plan that he sent LIRR and MTA executives in August. It pointed out that the changes in trains’ stopping patterns would lengthen commutes, and predicted that transforming the Brooklyn branch into a shuttle service would be “much more inconvenient and even more onerous” on riders.
“I saw what they were doing and I was absolutely flabbergasted,” Mayer, of Dix Hills, said. “What I said was, if this is the only schedule that the railroad can produce … they probably shouldn’t open Grand Central.”
Several critics of the plan have questioned how the LIRR arrived at the assumptions that went into it, including that 45% of Penn Station riders would, instead, commute to Grand Central. LIRR officials have said they used ridership surveys and geocoding to study commuters’ travel patterns, but Rinaldi acknowledged Thursday that the last comprehensive study of riders origins and destinations was conducted in 2014. She said “there was a refresh done, post-COVID, in 2021 to see if those results held up, and they did.”
Rinaldi and Lieber also cautioned against drawing conclusions about the success or failure of the new service plan just two weeks after its launch. They noted that, although only about 30% of Manhattan commuters used Grand Central Madison in its first few days, more and more riders have migrated to the new station, with that number climbing to nearly 40% during some rush hours.
"We remain confident that we're on the right path for Long Island," Lieber said. "Little by little, we're moving toward an era where the system is achieving its goals, and working much better."