The Long Island Rail Road, just months after promising to ramp up efforts to keep trains clean, is fielding complaints from riders and its own workers about trains being filthy.
The accounts of spilled beer and coffee on train floors, food grime on seats and windows, and bathrooms overflowing with sewage come as the LIRR — under pressure by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to cut costs — scales back a plan to increase train cleaning efforts. The LIRR said its "car appearance maintainers" clean each of the railroad's 115 train sets about 4.5 times a day.
It also comes as the railroad continues to carry a record number of riders, including some who, according to fellow commuters, think little of leaving their trash behind when they step off a train. The LIRR carries close to 300,000 riders on an average weekday.
"Ridership at historically high levels places great demands on our system," LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said. "We are meeting those demands with a diverse set of responses, and we continue to look at new ways to improve further.”
Although the railroad said it has increased its number of car cleaners and the number of times trains are cleaned each day by about 5 percent, many commuters said they haven't noticed a change for the better.
“Guys leave their beers around. And people push their garbage in between the seat and the wall, just below the window ... I’ve seen people blow their noses and push it in there. And I’m just like, ‘Holy cow. How could you do that?’” said Steve Oleksiw, 59, of Garden City, who has been commuting on the LIRR for 30 years and is dubious of LIRR president Phillip Eng’s claim that the railroad has stepped up train cleaning efforts. “They don’t seem any cleaner. ... Those that are commuting to work every day, I think, are getting fed up.”
Tony Arroyo, 49, of Long Beach, similarly called his LIRR commute “absolutely disgusting,” and said he’s sometimes reluctant to put his luggage on the floor of a train out of fear of what might get on its wheels.
“I’ve seen roaches. I mean, how do you get roaches on a moving train?” wondered Arroyo, an engineering consultant who believes the railroad’s lax approach to train cleanliness is sending the wrong message to riders. Arroyo has said he has seen urinal cakes jammed into train vents to double as air fresheners.
“Don’t get me wrong. A lot of it is the people. A lot of it is also that if it’s not nice, then people don’t care,” Arroyo said. “Garbage begets garbage.”
Upon joining the LIRR in April, Eng made train cleanliness a priority of his LIRR Forward initiative. But, amid a mandate from the MTA to cut costs by $330 million over the next five years, the railroad, in budget documents last month, said it would “reduce enhanced car cleaning” so that “the overall elements of LIRR Forward will remain, just strategically scaled back.”
The railroad said it has hired 21 new car appearance maintainers this year, for a total cleaning crew of 415 workers. That's less than originally planned, LIRR officials said, but an increase from 394 employed last year and 389 in 2017. The workers, who earn a starting salary of about $44,000 a year, clean trains a total of 524 times every weekday — up from 499 before LIRR Forward was initiated.
The railroad also has shelved a plan to have cleaning crews, positioned at various key stations throughout the LIRR system, board trains in the middle of their runs to conduct quick cleanups.
“While we increased car cleaning from where we were, we didn’t increase it to the level of projections,” Eng told MTA Board members in a December meeting of the agency’s finance committee.
The railroad said its heightened focus on cleanliness also has included the addition of hand sanitizers to 100 bathrooms and counting, scaled back distribution of LIRR marketing materials on train seats, and plans for a campaign to remind customers to dispose of trash at platform receptacles.
Although the LIRR said its cleaning efforts are an improvement from before the LIRR Forward initiative, many riders beg to differ. Some frequently share photos and images on social media of unseemly train conditions during all times of the day.
“How is there so much garbage on the train and I’m only the 2nd stop?” Marianne Leslie tweeted Jan. 4.
Bill Gaitings tweeted last month about his Cold Spring Harbor morning train being “strewn with trash, beer cans and sticky spills in multiple cars.
“Oh, I do wear clean clothes, at least before getting onto this disaster. $350 per month and you want more?” he wrote, referencing the MTA’s proposed 4 percent fare increase that could go into effect in March. “Disgraceful!”
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union division 505, which represents LIRR car cleaners, said he agreed with riders who think the railroad’s cleaning efforts have been insufficient, and attributed the shortfall to inadequate staffing.
While the railroad has hired several dozen new car cleaners in recent months, Simon said they have largely been assigned to fill in existing shortages and that there has not been a meaningful change in the cleaning operation. Simon said it’s not unusual to have just one person tasked with cleaning a 10-car train in the few minutes it sits at a terminal before being turned around for another run.
"It's hard to make promises of cleaner trains without the necessary manpower," said Simon, who urged railroad management to meet with labor leaders to collaborate on a plan to maximize cleaning efforts, with a strategic approach to when and where cleaning crews are deployed.
"We need to fill those positions, whether they're in the budget or not. It's not our job to figure that out. The riding public wants clean trains. They don't want to sit in somebody's coffee."
LIRR riders' distaste for filth long has been reflected in the railroad's annual customer satisfaction survey, where questions about train cleanliness tend to draw some of the lowest marks. In the last survey, released in March, 73 percent of riders said they were satisfied with "train interior cleanliness." Just 35 percent were satisfied with the cleanliness of train restrooms.
By the numbers
LIRR car appearance maintainers earn a starting salary of about $44,000 a year. They clean trains a total of 524 times on average each weekday. Number of workers through the years:
- 2019: 415
- 2018: 394
- 2017: 389
Source: Long Island Rail Road