A wave of problems throughout Monday caused major LIRR service disruptions — some of which may linger into Tuesday — but its president, Phillip Eng, promised that the railroad is more focused than ever on improving service.
Plenty of customers expressed displeasure during the day of troubles Monday, which began around 4 a.m. when the railroad suspended service between Hicksville and Ronkonkoma because a person on the tracks east of Hicksville station was struck and killed.
Just minutes later, at around 4:40 a.m., another train struck and killed a person on the tracks near Woodside, resulting in service being suspended between Jamaica and Penn Station. LIRR officials said both deaths were being investigated as suicides.
Shortly after service resumed on both tracks, the railroad reported “switch trouble” near Central Islip that lingered into the evening rush, causing more delays, detours and cancellations. Railroad officials said it was possible that issue could cause problems into Tuesday morning.
A “shortage of equipment,” a signal problem near Huntington, a broken crossing gate near New Hyde Park, and an unspecified “weather-related track condition” were blamed for various other hiccups during the p.m. commute.
“I understand why they’re upset, and it’s something [for which] I’m accountable to them,” Eng said. “Recently, we’ve had some unfortunate circumstances. Some are in our control. Some are outside of our control.”
All the problems arose on the same day that planned track work resulted in several other schedule changes, including buses replacing some trains east of Farmingdale on the Ronkonkoma branch. And they followed several other recent service meltdowns, including those caused by three train derailments within two weeks.
“It just seems like the system is unusually possessed right now,” said Rockville Centre commuter Michael Mulhall, 54, who put some of the blame for riders’ recent frustrations at the feet of Eng. “The recipe for failure is to overpromise and underdeliver. Phil Eng has overpromised and underdelivered.”
Speaking by phone Monday evening, Eng said that he realizes “the last few weeks have not been our best,” and said that the agency will evaluate each issue and look to learn lessons on how to better serve riders.
Eng joined the railroad in April, shortly after it posted its worst annual on-time performance figures in 18 years and, in January, its worst month in 22 years. Since Eng’s arrival, on-time performance has improved in April, May and June, as compared to the same months last year, according to LIRR statistics.
Great Neck commuter Josh Forst said despite Eng’s promises to overhaul the way the LIRR serves and communicates with customers, the railroad has been beset by “seemingly the same problems over and over and over again,” including failing infrastructure and unreliable information about service conditions.
“You’re now in the beginning of a new wave of management that promised the public that these kinds of things weren’t going to happen,” Forst, 43, said. “It just seems like some lessons in crisis management could go a long way.”
Eng acknowledged Tuesday that the LIRR still has a ways to go in how it communicates with customers throughout a service disruption, and he said some recent organizational changes should improve that.
Eng announced the creation of the new position LIRR chief operating officer to oversee both the railroad’s engineering and transportation departments. Eng said the new job, which has not been filled, will help “ensure that the leadership is working together and that the decisions made by one group are clearly communicated and in concert with the other group.”
In addition, Eng announced the appointment of 30-year LIRR veteran Rod Brooks to the position of acting senior vice president of operations, replacing David Kubicek.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, said although “generally, communication has gotten better” since Eng’s arrival, customers are less forgiving than they were a year ago because the LIRR is not facing the same constraints it did last summer, when a major Amtrak infrastructure renewal project forced the LIRR to significantly curtail rush-hour service at Penn Station.
“Everyone expected there to be problems, so they were more lenient. People are no longer giving them the leeway,” Epstein said. “It’s difficult, in this hot weather, to be stuck on a train when service is bad.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said he’s similarly heard from LIRR commuters who believe the past month has been far more trying than the same period a year ago. Although Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dubbed it “the summer of hell,” the LIRR, bolstered by a contingency plan that included extra service outside the rush hour, busing, and fare discounts, ended up delivering some of its best on-time performance of the year during July and August 2017, according to LIRR statistics.
“We have all the same problems, but without any of the cushions to soften them, like we did last summer,” Kaminsky said. “What this is telling us — both this summer and last summer — is, in order to make the day go smoothly, you need to have a marshal plan. All hands need to be on deck.”
Despite the criticism, Eng said the LIRR has not “lost focus at all” and remains committed to its LIRR Forward plan, which aims to spend $132 million over the next four years on various service improvements. The agency announced Tuesday that one project in its LIRR Forward initiative — to install new safety devices at all 296 of its grade crossings to prevent accidents — had been completed five months ahead of schedule.
Eng said of his LIRR Forward initiative, “while the fruit of all the work we’re doing may not show immediately,” he expects it will result in more reliable service in the future.