New LIRR President Patrick Nowakowski dealt with his first customer-service issue very early on his first day on the job.
"We made a mistake. We stole somebody's seat that they sit on regularly," said Nowakowski, who took the Long Island Rail Road to his Jamaica office from Garden City Monday morning with Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast. "We apologized and moved on."
Nowakowski, 60, comes to the LIRR -- which faces major challenges including a possible strike this summer -- after working in transit agencies in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for more than 30 years. Arriving at the Jamaica Station, Nowakowski said he was "excited" to get to work.
"It's a true honor to be joining such a prestigious railroad as the Long Island Rail Road," Nowakowski said, standing on the walkway above Track 1. "For me, it's a crowning achievement."
Nowakowski said he'll spend his first days on the LIRR trying to get the lay of land at the nation's largest commuter rail carrier, finding out "what's going on, who does what, and how things get accomplished."
"I have a lot to learn," said Nowakowski, who aims to spend time on Long Island meeting with elected officials and business leaders.
Prendergast said he planned to introduce Nowakowski to his new staff, but wouldn't be doing any hand holding.
"He knows what to do," Prendergast said. "It's his organization to run right now."
Nowakowski replaces Helena Williams, 58, the first woman to run the nation's largest commuter railroad. She was fired April 30 after seven years as LIRR president.
Nowakowski joins the LIRR as it grapples with a labor dispute that could result in a July strike, and the problem-plagued East Side Access project to link the railroad to Grand Central Terminal.
Nowakowski said he doesn't plan to intervene much in either effort. He said he'll leave the union negotiating to MTA headquarters, and East Side Access work to capital construction managers.
"We need to start focusing on how that is going to affect our future," Nowakowski said of the project. "We need to be ready to go when it opens."
LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said last week that he looks forward to meeting with Nowakowski soon to discuss several issues important to riders, including securing funding for the second phase of a plan to build a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, and ensuring that an MTA plan to bring Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station is not carried out at Long Island commuters' expense.
"No matter who the president of the Long Island Rail Road is, we hope that person will put the interest of Long Island Rail Road riders first," Epstein said.