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LIRR president: Combination of factors led to ‘terrible’ stretch

Patrick Nowakowski says more than 350 rail cars with damaged wheels had to be taken offline, and even ‘Darth Vader’ snowplow was knocked out of service.

Commuters wait for a westbound train at the

Commuters wait for a westbound train at the Mineola LIRR station on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski came under fire Monday for his administration’s handling of several major service disruptions over the last two months, acknowledging that during the period the commuter railroad had provided “terrible” service.

The rebukes, including from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s handpicked MTA Board member, came as Nowakowski detailed a series of factors—severe weather, out-of-service repair equipment and neglected infrastructure. Those contributed to what many commuters have called one of the most prolonged stretches of poor service in recent history.

“December and January—they have been terrible,” Nowakowski said at the Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee.

However, Scott Rechler, selected by Cuomo to join the MTA Board in June, said none of those factors fully explained the railroad’s performance. Most notably, Rechler criticized Nowakowski for the LIRR’s “inability to effectively communicate with customers” in recent weeks.

“There were stories about people who had trains late for over two hours, and yet if you looked at the LIRR web site, it said there were 15-minute delays,” Rechler said. “Story after story about a lack of communication.”

“What’s troubling to me is, you can’t always control the track, you can’t always control the equipment, you can’t always control the weather, but we should be able to control communication amongst ourselves,” Rechler added. “That’s just a failure on our part.”

MTA Board member Ira Greenberg, who represents the LIRR Commuter Council, a rider advocacy group, similarly criticized the railroad for disseminating information to customers during recent service glitches that “more often than not” misses the mark.

“There’s trains that are canceled and there’s no notice in email, no notice on the platform. It’s so common that the information that the passenger gets is woefully inadequate,” Greenberg said. “It makes people more angry than if they had no information.”

Nowakowski agreed that the railroad’s communication efforts have been coming up short, and said part of the problem was the railroad’s lack of a centralized control center, where representatives from all the various parts of the railroad could monitor train movements in real time, communicate with each other, and quickly respond to incidents as they arise.

The LIRR is the busiest commuter railroad in the nation, having carried 89.2 million people last year. However, as it has for more than a century, it currently controls trains out of different dispatching towers scattered throughout its territory. Without centralized control, Nowakowski said a problem as routine as a car broken down at a grade crossing becomes particularly challenging because it “requires certain people to talk to certain people, and none of those people are in the same room.”

Nowakowski said the LIRR is working with a consultant on a plan to implement a centralized control system, which he hopes to get funded in the MTA’s next five-year capital program. In the meantime, he said his agency has begun to lay the foundation for an emergency action plan, similar to one recently adopted to reverse deteriorating service conditions on the New York City subway system.

MTA chairman Joseph Lhota recently spoke about the need to enact meaningful changes at the LIRR, including through a “re-evaluation” of its staff.

Nowakowski said the railroad has, and continues, to take steps to prevent predictable problems, but said some recent weather conditions have been “way above normal.” Slip-slide conditions on the rails during one day in early December were so severe that they caused 367 train cars to be sidelined for wheel repairs—when one of the railroad’s three wheel-repairing machines was out of service.

Things worsened weeks later when the “cyclone bomb” winter storm caused 6-foot-tall snow drifts on the east end as ‘‘Darth Vader,’’ one of the railroad’s most valuable snow plows, was unavailable because it had been hit by a car. The snow caused further damage when it infiltrated the vulnerable motors of the railroad’s oldest electric cars, taking another 7 to 10 trains out of service. The result: Frequent delays, cancellations and “severe crowding” on most rush-hour trains.

Rechler suggested the railroad could have avoided some of the equipment problems by proactively scaling back service ahead of a major weather event in order to protect its trains. Nowakowski said that approach must be balanced with the railroad’s responsibility to bring customers home after taking them to work.

“I’ve seen enough 20- to 30-inch snowstorms. A 10- to 16-inch snowstorm typically doesn’t concern us,” Nowakowski said.

Nowakowski also criticized Amtrak, saying the railroad has contributed to service problems with its “unacceptable” neglect of aging infrastructure at Penn Station and inside the East River tunnels its shares with LIRR trains.

Downed power lines, repeated electrical failures and other problems have made for “one disaster after another at Penn Station,” Nowakowski said. He described one train going over a dip in Amtrak’s rails last week that was so deep that it was effectively “a pothole in the rail system.”

Although Amtrak is making some repairs at Penn, Nowakowski said many more problems at the station are not being addressed and “our passengers are paying the price.”

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a frequent critic of the LIRR, said Nowakowski’s “excuses are just noise to commuters who only want to know what is the plan to fix the LIRR and how soon can it be done.”

“Long Island cannot properly function without a dependable commuter rail system, and in light of the high fares that riders pay, far better results are required,” Kaminsky said.

The LIRR released its 2017 on-time performance figures Monday. The railroad considers a train on time if it arrives at its final destination within 5 minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled time.

Total on-time performance

2017: 91.4 percent

2016: 92.7 percent

Number of trains scheduled:

2017: 248,215

2016: 247,073

Number of delays:

2017: 21,362

2016: 17,951

Delays over 15 minutes:

2017: 3,443

2016: 3,254

Average length of delay:

2017: 12.3 minutes

2016: 13.2 minutes

Number of canceled trains:

2017: 1,376

2016: 1,269

Number of trains terminated early:

2017: 767

2016: 567

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