The Long Island Rail Road is on pace to deliver its worst annual on-time performance in nearly two decades, new statistics show.
The railroad’s overall on-time performance in July was 88.9 percent, down from the same month in 2017, when 93.1 percent of trains were on time, according to the LIRR's most recent figures.
The figure brings the railroad’s on-time performance through the first seven months of 2018 to 90.4 percent, as compared to 90.6 percent during the same period in 2017, which went on to be the LIRR’s worst year since 1999.
The railroad considers a train on time if it arrives at its final destination within 5 minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled time.
West Hempstead trains, which typically carry fewer riders than most other branches and don’t originate or terminate at Penn Station, fared best last month, with a 95.7 percent on-time rate. The railroad’s busy Main Line, which is particularly constrained and has been impacted by recent track work, performed the worst, with only 82.9 percent of trains punctual. On-time performance during the morning rush hour on the branch was just 78.9 percent.
Ronkonkoma rider Kelly Bodami said she’s never endured “anything like” her recent LIRR commutes, which she said have required her family to remain “on alert” to pick her up at alternate stations because of service problems.
“I’ve been commuting for 14 years, and it was never this bad,” said Bodami, who noted that her $391 monthly fare is set to go up next year. “This is probably the biggest insult to us — to have, at Ronkonkoma — a 78.9 percent [morning] on-time percentage and say, ‘We’re doing such a good job that we’re going to make you pay more money.’”
And there’s reason to believe that the LIRR’s on-time figures will drop further once August's numbers are tabulated and released later this month. Last month, the railroad experienced several major, rush-hour service disruptions, including those caused by lightning strikes, switch problems and train shortages. In comparison, the LIRR reported an on-time performance of 93.8 in August 2017, its second-best month of the year behind only October.
MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, at the time, promised that the railroad’s solid performance in the second half of last year would be “the new normal.” But the railroad got off to a rocky start in 2018 when, in January, it posted its worst on-time performance for a single month in 22 years.
The railroad did improve its on-time performance in four out of the first seven months of 2018, as compared to the same period last year.
MTA Board Member Mitchell Pally, who represents Suffolk County, called the latest figures “frustrating” but also said they are a testament to the amount of work needed to be done to modernize the 184-year-old railroad. Some of that work has contributed to recent service problems, as unexpected issues with the installation of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma have resulted in delays and cancellations in recent weeks.
“To fix a system requires disruptions when you’re fixing it. The amount of work that needs to be done has been substantial,” said Pally, who expressed optimism that service would improve in the coming months as several major construction projects constraining the railroad, including the Double Track effort, conclude.
“The next couple months are going to be a major test as we go forward,” Pally said. “I don’t think that there’s any question that 2019 needs to show significant improvement over 2018.”
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR’s largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, agreed that on-time performance numbers “are bound to suffer” when so much work is underway to modernize the railroad.
“The amount of work that has been accomplished and which is still scheduled to take place during the LIRR transformation initiative will unfortunately pose challenges,” Simon said. “But those challenges and sacrifices will pay future dividends necessary for the future of Long Island.
The LIRR’s hopes of avoiding its worst annual on-time figures in 19 years will rest on its performance in the final months of the year — months when the railroad typically encounters some of its biggest challenges, including those caused by frigid temperatures and the effects of snowfall and leaves on the tracks.
New LIRR President Phillip Eng has outlined plans to address those challenges through his LIRR Forward initiative, which includes measures to harden its infrastructure from the threats of severe weather and promises other improvements to reverse failing service. But LIRR officials have said it could take a long time for some of those measures to yield noticeable results.
In an interview last month, Eng called on-time performance a “critical” metric and one that "the public has every right to measure us against."
Eng addressed the railroad’s on-time performance challenges at a Westbury ceremony Wednesday marking the start of construction on the railroad’s plan to build a third track on its Main Line in Nassau. Eng said such megaprojects will help the LIRR’s reliability in the long term. In the short term, Eng said the railroad is “treating issues with a newfound sense of urgency.”
“That means taking care of issues today and not waiting for tomorrow,” said Eng, who noted that the railroad is expediting the replacement of failing track switches and circuits.