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Transit group's review criticizes LIRR leadership

A number of public embarrassments on the Long Island Rail Road over the past year raise questions about leadership of the nation's largest commuter railway, a transit riders' advocacy group said Thursday as it released its annual review of the MTA's performance.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee said such incidents as a passenger allegedly being allowed to operate a diesel train in July, a near head-on collision of two trains near Bridgehampton, also in July, and 150 passengers being stranded for hours in a disabled train during a December snowstorm all "demonstrate the need for an effort to improve and maintain workforce compliance that goes beyond simple disciplinary action.

"We are concerned that [LIRR president Helena] Williams has been unable to effectively ensure that employees adhere to work rules and codes of conduct that meet the highest professional standards," the committee said in its report.

In response, LIRR spokesman Joe Calderone said "there is always room for improvement in how we operate," adding that the LIRR "will continue to work closely with the leadership of the LIRR Commuter Council to address issues of importance to our customers."

However, Calderone also said the LIRR is concerned "that PCAC's failure to follow standard auditing procedures" in putting together its report led to inaccuracies "that may mislead our customers."

Minutes after the committee released its original report to some news reporters, it followed up with a revised report that changed some criticisms of the LIRR. The revisions included a retraction of the criticism that the railroad did not brief the committee on how it calculated its on-time performance statistics, and a correction of the number of hours that passengers were stuck on the broken-down train during the snowstorm, from six hours to three.

MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said he disagreed with the committee's criticism of Williams, whom he said has acted swiftly and appropriately whenever the LIRR has faltered.

"Helena has responded tremendously well," he said.

The committee's report had some praise for the LIRR, including its excellent work in moving large numbers of people to special events, such as the U.S. Open golf tournament in Bethpage last year, its record 95.2 percent on-time performance last year and its efforts to let customers know about service disruptions caused by a signal modernization project in Valley Stream in October.

The committee also said the LIRR has an "image problem" with the public that is fostered by the condition of bathrooms on trains, litter on its rights-of-way and pigeon droppings on station platforms.

"These scenes greet the rider every day, painting a negative picture of the railroad in their minds," the report said.

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