Decision makers with the Long Island Rail Road offered new answers to age-old questions from customers and politicians Wednesday night in Hicksville, including what it plans to do about persistent track signal problems and the lack of parking at many stations.
The questions came at the LIRR's latest “Customer Conversation” forum, held at the William P. Bennett Hicksville Community Center. About two dozen riders, as well as several local elected officials, peppered LIRR President Phil Eng and other top railroad officials with questions and concerns. Hicksville commuter Christopher Edwards told the panel that for the cost of his commute he "can lease, I think, a Mercedes," and questioned the value he is getting.
"Waiting and just having to stand, essentially for an hour, crammed on people — it doesn't feel safe. It feels like I'm paying a railroad price for a subway service," said Edwards, who asked whether the railroad would look to modernize some of its "antiquated" ways, such as having paper tickets punched.
Eng noted that the railroad is working closely with a contractor hired by the MTA to develop a new fare payment system across all its agencies, including subways and commuter railroads, that will "enable MTA customers to have one account" for the entire transit system. Responding to a question about what the railroad is doing to address its problem-plagued track switches and signals, LIRR Senior Vice President of Engineering Chris Calvagna said the railroad is transitioning into using "reduced aspect signals" that feature fewer components and, therefore, are less prone to problems.
Eng detailed other ways the railroad is "getting creative" in tackling old problems. He said the railroad aims to double the amount of money it spends on track maintenance in the MTA's next five-year capital budget, which begins in 2020. When asked about how the LIRR will address parking shortages at stations, Eng suggested the railroad would look to improve lot conditions by grouping municipalities together to get less expensive paving contracts.
He said the LIRR is also looking at technology to inform commuters before they arrive at a station about how many parking spots remain.
"A lot of what we're focused on is trying to improve the service today, and build it for the future," Eng said. "With a growing ridership, and many infrastructure needs, we're going to have to continue to think outside the box."
The event was the first of two such customer forums planned this month. A second one is scheduled for Feb. 13 at the LIRR’s Wyandanch Station. The railroad has said the events are part of a broader effort to improve communication with customers, including through regular “Meet Your Manager” events at stations.
Despite the agency’s efforts to improve the customer experience and address some of the root causes of service disruptions, the railroad last year posted its worst annual-on-time performance since 1999, with about 2,200 more train delays than in 2017.