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Critics: LIRR chief's progress report moving in the right direction

LIRR President Phillip Eng has made key changes

LIRR President Phillip Eng has made key changes since taking the helm in April. According to Eng, 99 percent of trains have operated on time during the evening rush hour, since the completion of the Double Track project. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island Rail Road president Phillip Eng has taken innovative approaches to addressing problems that have lingered for decades, opened lines of communication with riders, and overseen the launch and the completion of some of its most ambitious capacity expansion projects in LIRR history, riders and experts said.

But for all his accomplishments so far, some riders remain unconvinced that much has changed at the LIRR, especially following a particularly bumpy stretch of service in July and August, which put the railroad on pace to deliver its lowest on-time performance in nearly two decades.

Asked on Twitter to evaluate Eng’s first half-year on the job, LIRR customers handed out grades ranging from a “B” to an “F”— many of them split between judging him by the railroad’s recent struggles and crediting him for sowing the seeds for future improvements.

“He’s maintaining a failing status quo,” wrote Philip Schwaeber, who assigned Eng a “D” grade.

However, John Dillworth, who gave Eng points for focusing on improving reliability and communication, expressed optimism.

“I'd give him a solid 'B.' Last few weeks have been noticeably better. He is getting the basics right,” wrote Dillworth. Eng, a lifelong Long Islander and current Smithtown resident, is also a “good passenger,” according to Dillworth, a fellow Port Jefferson branch customer who sometimes rides the train with Eng. “That counts for something.”

“He’s definitely more open to hearing about the riders’ experience, which I think is a big step forward,” said Mark Epstein, general chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group. “I think, in a lot of ways, communication has gotten better ... I think the daily commute has not gotten better.”

Overcrowding, trains operating with too few cars, malfunctioning air conditioning, and lengthy delays have all persisted in recent months. The railroad’s on-time performance in July and August was considerably worse than the same months last year.

“These numbers are on his watch,” Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a frequent critic of the railroad, said last week after learning of the LIRR’s latest on-time figures. “People want to see a change right away. And people have lost patience. When people say it’s the worst they’ve seen in 30 or 40 years, which I don’t hear infrequently, we’re in a very bad place.”

However, Kaminsky acknowledged that “it takes a while to turn the ship around." Epstein agreed that Eng should not be expected to “take a system as old as this system and change it in six months.”

Eng, a former MTA chief operating officer and executive at the state Department of Transportation, was tapped in April to replace Patrick Nowakowski, who led the railroad for four years until resigning amid criticism from MTA chairman Joseph Lhota about what he called a "lack of urgency" in addressing the LIRR's ills. 

Eng provided his own progress report at a Wednesday meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board. He updated members on his LIRR Forward initiative, which aims to improve railroad service by addressing the root causes of some of its most persistent problems.

“This is not just about a list of to-do’s. This is about a new sense urgency. This is about a new way of approaching things. We have a problem? Let’s find a solution. Let’s find a way to implement it. Let’s see if we can implement it sooner rather than later,” Eng said. “It really is a new Long Island Rail Road.”

The results, Eng said, are already measurable. Since completing installation in June of new safety devices at the LIRR’s 296 grade crossings to make them more visible to drivers, there have been no incidents of motorists accidentally driving onto tracks — a problem that resulted in 417 different delays last year.

Eng said the railroad has also already replaced half the LIRR’s ten most problematic track switches, which account for about 40 percent of all switch-related delays. Since the five switches were replaced in June, none has failed, he said.

Similar improvements in reliability have resulted from other efforts in LIRR Forward, Eng said. Working with PSEG, the railroad has replaced 71 of 80 utility poles identified as potentially problematic, and no poles have fallen on the LIRR’s tracks since. After clearing 114 miles of overgrown vegetation, there have been no incidents caused by vegetation debris on the tracks. And there have been no broken rails since the railroad increased efforts to weld rail joints.

In some cases, the recent improvements have entailed coming up with stop-gap remedies to problems that otherwise would not have been addressed for years. Inspired by the design of a temporary station the railroad built at Shinnecock Hills for a major golf tournament there in June, Eng directed the agency to construct steel platform extensions at Kew Gardens and Forest Hills that expanded the station’s train car capacity by 50 percent.

The new platforms, which were opened earlier this month, have reduced delays caused by loading and unloading passengers at the two Queens stations, Eng said.

“Those one or two minutes that we lose at each of those stations has an impact across our system. If that train gets late to Jamaica, the connections are late . . . The trains following it are late,” Eng said. “That ripples across the system.”

Eng took a similar approach to expediting long-stalled upgrades at the LIRR’s busy Lynbrook station — promising near-term improvements to crumbling platforms and leaky canopies until the railroad can fund a more comprehensive station renovation project in a future capital program.

Eng has said the railroad has also taken recent steps to prepare for the challenges of operating in the fall and winter seasons, challenges that contributed to the LIRR in January having its worst monthly on-time performance in 22 years.

As part of LIRR Forward, the railroad has already replaced about 2,000 faulty threshold plates at train doors that have caused doors to malfunction during severe winter weather, prepared 60 rail switch covers to be installed in the coming months, and begun installing the wiring for new third-rail heaters. The railroad is even exploring using laser technology to remove a chemical emitted by fallen leaves that can cause train wheels to slide and become flattened.

Asked for his assessment of Eng so far, Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — the LIRR’s largest union — said, “My opinion is we should be recognizing the men and women of labor for the amazing work they have done to complete these aggressive projects under the tight timelines. This is the busiest railroad in the country, and we are delivering.”

The railroad has also worked to improve communications with the public since the arrival of Eng, who has sought input from LIRR riders and employees on how to set the agency’s priorities. The railroad hosted a pair of customer forums in Nassau and Suffolk in the spring, and since July has been holding regular “Meet Your Manager” events at stations.

MTA vice chairman Fernando Ferrer offered his vote of confidence to Eng after hearing his progress report, which he said was “well received” by MTA Board members. Ferrer said the public is “beginning to see the fruits” of Eng’s efforts to turn around LIRR service.

“But it’s going to take some time,” he said.

Eng pointed to one recent improvement that he said is already reaping benefits. In the first ten days after completing the installation of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, overall on-time performance on the branch was 93.8 percent, as compared with 85.3 percent during the first eight months of 2018.

During the evening rush hour, 99 percent of trains have operated on time since the completion of the “Double Track” project, Eng said Wednesday.

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