The Long Island Rail Road is on pace to close out the year, once again, as the busiest commuter rail system in the United States -- this time by a much wider margin over Metro-North than last year.
Transportation experts attributed the LIRR's widening lead over its sister MTA railroad to the recovering economy, LIRR's investments in service, and a spate of safety-related incidents on Metro-North.
Through the end of October, the LIRR carried 71.6 million people -- 1.1 million more than Metro-North during the same period. Although ridership figures from last month were not available for Metro-North, the LIRR carried 2.7 percent more passengers last month than in November 2013.
"It appears that we're going to finish up this year with about a 3 percent increase over what we saw last year," LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski said at a meeting earlier this month. "So that's a positive trend that just continues."
After boasting the title of the nation's busiest commuter railroad for decades, the LIRR gave up the crown to Metro-North in 2011. The LIRR rebounded last year to carry 83,384,250 riders -- about 6,000 more than Metro-North.
LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein pointed to several possible reasons for the railroad's growth, including its increased service to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and the extension of summer weekend service to Greenport.
With demand growing, Epstein said it's important that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority continue investing in the LIRR.
"There's more people riding, but . . . if you don't have the ability to seat them, it's a problem," Epstein said Friday. "They need to increase the amount of trains. That's what's stopping them from really meeting their true potential."
Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, a business group, said the LIRR's surging ridership is evidence that the economies of Nassau and Suffolk are "inextricably linked" with New York City's.
After carrying 87.4 million people in 2008 -- the most ever for the railroad -- the LIRR lost riders over the next three years, in part because of job losses in the economic collapse, officials have said. But ridership has steadily increased since 2012.
Law agreed that the figures should encourage the MTA to invest in the railroad, including through more options for reverse commuters and electrifying the Port Jefferson branch.
Other projects already in the works, including building a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma and reopening a station near Republic Airport, are also needed, said Jan Burman, president of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business and planning group.
"Several years ago we would have never considered these types of capital projects," Burman said. "Today, we can't conceive of not having them."
The LIRR's lead over Metro-North is not only a testament to the LIRR's successes, but also to Metro-North's struggles, said Jim Cameron, founder of the Commuter Action Group, a Metro-North riders' watchdog organization.
Although, through October, Metro-North carried 1.2 percent more riders than during the same period in 2013, Cameron said the railroad would have fared even better if not for the fallout from several safety-related incidents, including a Bronx derailment last December that killed four.
After being chided by federal safety investigators for putting on-time performance before safety, Metro-North stepped up maintenance and inspection efforts and adjusted schedules, resulting in more late trains, service disruptions and frustrated riders, Cameron said.
"I have heard . . . from people who finally threw their hands up in the air and said, 'That's it. I'm not taking the train anymore,' " Cameron said.
LIRR and Metro-North ridership over the years
LIRR: 71.6 million
LIRR: 83.4 million
Metro-North: 83.4 million
LIRR: 81.7 million
Metro-North: 83 million
LIRR: 81 million
Metro-North: 82 million
*Through Oct. 31
**LIRR had about 6,000 more riders