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Coming soon on LIRR: Transfer at Mineola

Diesel train comes though as commuters wait for

Diesel train comes though as commuters wait for trains during the morning rush at the Mineola LIRR station in Mineola. (July 17, 2013) Credit: Howard Schnapp

Customers on the Long Island Rail Road's Oyster Bay line should get used to three words: Change at Mineola.

They are among more than 20,000 riders who could be affected by upcoming changes to LIRR service. The others are riders in Brooklyn and those east of Ronkonkoma, where new shuttle train services are in the works.

The efforts are part of a larger LIRR initiative to use so-called "scoot" service -- smaller, faster shuttles -- wherever possible. The aim is to increase train frequency on some underserved branches, ease train congestion at Jamaica Station, and free up capacity on the LIRR's busiest lines -- all before the start of service to Grand Central Terminal in 2019.

"One of the concepts under East Side Access is to push transfers out farther from Jamaica so we have less trains automatically requiring a transfer at Jamaica," LIRR President Helena Williams said. "The goal is to pick strategic transfer points so that they can access the network into Penn or into Grand Central."

Shuttling passengersIn Oyster Bay, the LIRR has announced plans to replace scheduled Manhattan- and Brooklyn-bound trains on the sparsely used line with shuttle service that would require almost all travelers to transfer at Mineola.

In Brooklyn, the LIRR has plans to implement "Cross-Borough Scoot Service" to shuttle passengers between Jamaica and Atlantic Terminal. In addition, the railroad has set aside $37 million to buy new "scoot diesel" trains for use in the railroad's non-electrified territory east of Ronkonkoma.

Williams said the agency eventually wants to introduce scoot trains between Port Jefferson and Huntington, but some infrastructure improvements at Huntington would be necessary.

But while it may be a net gain in service for riders on affected branches, one commuter watchdog group warns that shuttle train service could inconvenience some riders who prefer transfer-free rides to their destinations.

LIRR officials said scoot service is an ideal way to enhance service on the Oyster Bay branch, which usually scores among the lowest of all lines in the LIRR's annual customer satisfaction survey. Outside of peak hours, trains are often two hours apart. And because most of the line is not electrified, passengers must ride on diesel trains or reliability-challenged "dual mode" diesel/electric trains, and almost always change at Jamaica.

Of about 300,000 morning commuters systemwide, only about 2,300 use the Oyster Bay line, according to the LIRR. Many more commuters live near the line, but opt instead to drive to Syosset for better service on the LIRR's Main Line, Williams said.

"There's a lot of people in these areas who work in the city, and they don't take the line," said John Bonifacio, president of the nonprofit Oyster Bay Main Street Association and an occasional LIRR rider.

Smaller, lighter, fasterDifferent from standard diesel trains, which can be expensive to operate in areas with low ridership, scoot service can be operated using smaller, lighter and faster diesel trains that could be as short as two cars. The LIRR's plan is to operate shuttle trains every 30 to 45 minutes between Oyster Bay and Mineola, where connections to Manhattan-bound trains are plentiful.

Williams said using scoot service in the LIRR's "diesel territory" allows the agency to enhance service at a fraction of the cost of electrifying tracks, which can amount to $18 million a mile.

On Suffolk's East End, civic leaders and elected officials have long campaigned for the introduction of regular train shuttle service, not only to service the handful of Manhattan commuters there, but to bring workers and tourists onto the North and South forks.

"The big trains are sucking up fuel. They're very expensive. The maintenance costs are high," said Vincent Taldone, member of Five Town Rural Transit, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public transportation on the East End. "So running these big trains back and forth is a big expense, and it's a small number of people who are out here most of the time."

Branch shuttle trains are not a new idea on the LIRR, which operated a "Greenport Scoot" on the East End for decades in the early 20th century.

But implementing the strategy has gained urgency as the LIRR looks for ways to free up capacity on its system before the rollout of East Side Access, officials have said. Under the East Side plan, the LIRR will increase the number of morning rush-hour trains by 65 percent.

Too many transfers?

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said that while he supports efforts to increase train service, he is concerned that some riders accustomed to a one-seat ride to Manhattan or Brooklyn will be inconvenienced.

Under the LIRR's Cross-Borough Scoot plan, all Brooklyn passengers would have to change at Jamaica using a new, dedicated platform on the station's south side. Direct connections would be gone, and some riders would have to cross over nine tracks to transfer.

The LIRR said only about 5,500 daily commuters currently take direct trains to Atlantic Terminal. And, with trains departing every six to eight minutes, there would be an increase in the total daily Brooklyn trains of 52 percent.

Still, a Brooklyn-bound Oyster Bay rider would have transfer twice in each direction -- at Mineola and at Jamaica.

"That's not something I'd look forward to in bad weather," Epstein said. "Scoot service seems to have a lot of positives. We just want to make sure everybody is taken into account before the final plan is put together."

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