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LIRR president: Up to $20M needed to address service issues

About three-quarters of the money will go toward expanded labor costs, including hiring signal workers to station at key locations round-the-clock.

LIRR chief Patrick Nowakowski said the agency will

LIRR chief Patrick Nowakowski said the agency will seek to improve communications by improving wireless connectivity. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The Long Island Rail Road will spend up to $20 million to address many of the problems that have plagued service in recent months, including by hardening infrastructure, stepping up track inspections and sending top management to regular listening sessions with riders, the LIRR said Monday.

A month after LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski first previewed the LIRR Performance Improvement Plan, the agency on Monday released a more formalized version of the proposal, which includes more than 60 initiatives that “touch on virtually every department of the railroad.” Their focus: making service more reliable, better anticipating seasonal problems, and improving communications with riders.

Challenges on each of those fronts have contributed to the railroad last year posting its worst annual on-time performance in 18 years and, in January, its worst month in 22 years.

“Our goals are very much along the lines of . . . what can we do to prevent some of these incidents that have occurred?” Nowakowski said at a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR committee.

Among the items included in the revised Performance Improvement Plan, which the railroad is shortening to “PIP”: upgrading infrastructure, including by strengthening utility poles near the LIRR right of way and installing “delineators” at some railroad grade crossings to keep motorists from accidentally driving onto tracks; increasing the frequency and quality of inspections for flaws in rails; stepping up maintenance of tracks, including regular welding and grinding of rails to ensure their performance; and reviewing the 20 most frequently late trains “to identify opportunities for schedule adjustments.”

The railroad will also take steps to address weather-related problems, including by increasing its removal of overgrown vegetation near tracks and providing more training for locomotive engineers operating in slippery conditions.

Nowakowski said the plan will cost the MTA between $15 million and $20 million. About three-quarters of the money will go toward expanded labor costs, including hiring signal workers who will be stationed at key railroad locations round-the-clock to more quickly respond to issues impacting service. The remainder of the cost will go toward contracts for new services and technology, including third-rail heaters and track switch covers.

Railroad officials said they expect the funding to be including in the MTA’s next operating budget, a draft of which will be proposed in July. The budget is typically about $15 billion.

Some board members praised the plan, including LIRR Commuter Council representative Ira Greenberg, who called it a “meat and potatoes list of things that are going to be done.”

But board member Scott Rechler, who represents Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said he was disappointed by the plan, which he criticized as overly “complicated.” One bullet point in a news release about the plan touted the LIRR’s intent to “realign track maintenance to conform with signal subdivisions to better coordinate maintenance activities.”

“You have a lot of things on this paper, but it’s hard for me to even say what these are,” Rechler said. “If we can’t communicate a well-thought out, well-communicated, easy to understand plan to our customers, they’re not going to believe we’re doing anything.”

Nowakowski called the plan a “living, breathing document” that will evolve in coming months, as different initiatives are advanced and more information about how long they will take becomes clear.

He said a key priority in the plan is measuring, and reporting to the public, the impact from the plan — including on ridership and on-time performance — and its timeline.

The plan will also look to improve communications with customers, Nowakowski said, including by improving wireless connectivity at Penn Station and Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and providing “professional announcer training” for employees.

Nowakowski said strengthening communications also means soliciting better feedback from customers. The railroad will do that through monthly telephone surveys with customers and face-to-face sessions with riders attended by top railroad management at key stations.

The first stop on what the railroad is calling its “LIRR Listens Tour” is Wednesday from 4 to 7:30 p.m. at Penn Station. Nowakowski said another event is planned for Jamaica.

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led calls for LIRR reform in Albany, said the listening sessions “sound like the right idea,” and should include a visit to Long Island to meet with customers there.

“Their miserable commuting experience has been compounded by the fact that they feel no one is listening, is taking their suggestions or really has any clue what’s going on,” Kaminsky said.

LIRR Performance Improvement Plan

Service reliability:

--Infrastructure upgrades, including hardening utility poles, the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel and rail ties at high-speed switch locations, accelerating the replacement of faulty threshold plates at train doorways.

--Improved inspections, including more frequently looking for rail flaws, conducting special inspections at rail crossings, and reducing the length of track inspected per tour.

--Improved maintenance, including through more welding of rail joints, grinding of rails and surfacing of switches.

--Improved monitoring of conditions, including with new tools to automatically detect flat spots on train wheels and by reviewing the 20 most frequently late trains.

Seasonal preparedness:

--Increase efforts to cut back overgrown vegetation in the spring.

--Better protecting tracks in the winter though new switch snow covers, third rail heaters and upgrades to deicing trains.

--Reduce the impact of slippery leaves on the tracks in the autumn by maximizing the number of train wheel repair machines available and providing more training for locomotive engineers.

-- Add signal system grounding to provide lightning protection at 30 locations.

--Add signal crews at key locations to respond to incidents.

--New drainage systems in key areas.

Communications:

--Hire a chief Customer Advocate that reports directly to the LIRR president.

--Enhance onboard communication by encouraging crews to me more proactive and use their expertise, and by improving training.

--Conduct market research and focus groups “to better understand customer expectations.”

--Hold regular “LIRR Listens” events attended by top management at key stations.

--Provide digital train arrival countdown clocks at stations.

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