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State lawmakers pen letter to LIRR president: You're on alert now

In a letter sent Thursday to Phillip Eng, seven state senators informed the railroad chief of their intention to hold public hearings about on-time performances.

Democratic state senators gathered Thursday at the LIRR Rockville Centre station to discuss plans to hold hearings on the railroad’s “subpar” performances. (Credit: Newsday / Alfonso Castillo)

A group of state lawmakers plans to hold hearings regarding the Long Island Rail Road’s on-time performance, which they described as “subpar and in desperate need of thorough review.”

In a letter sent Thursday to LIRR president Phillip Eng, seven state senators, including the chairs of the Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions and the Transportation Committee, informed the railroad chief of their intention to hold the hearings and to “invite and encourage” his participation.

“Statistics reveal what commuters know quite well — that the LIRR's recent performance is subpar and in desperate need of thorough review and revamping,” the senators wrote in the letter. “In light of the legislature’s role in funding the MTA’s budget, as well as fulfilling our role as representatives of the riders who rely on your service, we intend to exercise our oversight authority in an effort to seek collaborative solutions to remedy an unsustainable situation.”

Speaking Thursday morning at the Rockville Centre LIRR station, Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led LIRR reform efforts in Albany, said the letter to the LIRR aims to make clear the new Democratic-majority Senate aims to “hold its feet to the fire” — something, he said, previous legislatures did not do.

“That changes now. From day one, you’re on alert now, LIRR,” said Kaminsky, who was joined by newly elected senators Anna Kaplan (D-North Hempstead) and Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown). “We’re going to be asking what your plans are. We’re going to make sure that every dollar you spend is done efficiently and smartly. We’re going to make sure that there’s people that you actually answer to — that it’s not going to be just a nameless, faceless bureaucracy.”

The senators' call follows a particularly difficult year for the LIRR, which through November was on pace to record its worst annual on-time performance in nearly two decades. In the first 11 months of 2018, delays exceeded the previous year's by more than 3,000. The number of trains canceled and average length of delays also grew significantly.

The new year got off to a rough start, as the LIRR found itself investigating two derailments in the first week of 2019. The LIRR also has dealt with numerous delays caused by signal problems and broken rails, all while reducing scheduled rush-hour service to Penn Station to accommodate construction work.

Eng, who joined the LIRR in April, has said he believes his LIRR Forward initiative is addressing many of the root causes of the railroad’s most persistent problems, including failing infrastructure and vulnerability to severe weather.

“I welcome the opportunity to continue the discussions we’ve been having with the senators, and to share information about the LIRR Forward plan and the initiatives underway to improve service for our customers," Eng said Thursday. "The hearings will complement the unprecedented outreach we’ve been having with the public in the past year, including more than 100 meetings with civic groups and associations and weekly Meet Your Manager events at stations.”

With Democrats in control of the Senate, Thomas said, “The kind of leverage we have as the majority is unlimited.” The Senate will have to approve a new state budget, which would include funding for the LIRR’s parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan that could generate $15 billion annually for the MTA.

The Senate also could vote this legislative session to approve a new chairman of the MTA and a new Nassau representative on the MTA board.

The senators said the hearings would include testimony from riders, workers and experts “who can each illuminate the causes for the dire situation of Long Island’s commuter rail system.”

Kaminsky said he wants the hearings to take place on Long Island, sometime within the next six weeks.

“This is not about pointing fingers,” Kaplan said. “It’s simply, basically sitting around the table and making sure the riders are being heard.”

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