The LIRR's proposed new schedules for when it starts running to Grand Central Madison in December won't add many trains during the rush hours, and will take away a few on some branches. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

The Long Island Rail Road’s proposed East Side Access timetables will result in most branches seeing little, if any, increase in rush-hour trains compared with pre-COVID schedules — and other branches losing some trains, a Newsday analysis shows.

The modest changes in peak service come after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent 15 years and $11.13 billion constructing a link to its new Manhattan home, dubbed Grand Central Madison.

MTA officials have boasted about a 40% service increase compared with the railroad’s current schedules, which include fewer trains than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The service increases also include new off-peak and reverse-peak trains, trains making additional stops in Queens, and new shuttle trains between Jamaica and Brooklyn.

But for the LIRR's 180,000 daily passengers, the infrastructure investment — which has been in various stages of planning for six decades — won't provide many more trains to get them to and from work during peak travel periods. 

In particular, commuters who rely on being near Penn Station will see a sharp drop in the number of trains taking them there — from 95 morning rush-hour trains just before the pandemic, to 66 in the proposed new schedules, according to Newsday's analysis. Currently, 76 trains go to Penn.

"Despite all the service the railroad is adding, there are going to be people out there — and, unfortunately, a large number of people — who feel that their options are less," LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said.

MTA chairman Janno Lieber has said the agency can add trains if necessary, but believes the pros far outweigh the cons in the service plan. They include shorter commutes for those working on Manhattan's East Side, doubling capacity on and off of Manhattan via two new train tunnels, reducing crowding at Penn Station, and providing more opportunities for "reverse commuters" working on Long Island.

The link to Grand Central also creates new regional rail connectivity with Metro North, allowing passengers to travel from Montauk to New Haven with one transfer, the MTA said.

“There may be individual commuters who say, ‘I used to have three trains an hour to Penn, and now I have two because there are more trains overall, but some of them are going to Grand Central.’ I get that," Lieber said. "But, we have to keep in mind that so many people’s lives are being improved … by having more convenient service."

The Newsday analysis compared the LIRR’s proposed timetables, which take effect in December, its current timetables, and its timetables in place from January to March of 2020 before low ridership caused by the pandemic caused the railroad to curtail service. The pre-pandemic schedule already had canceled or diverted 11 usual trains from Penn because of track work.

The analysis examined the morning rush hours, for trains arriving at New York City terminals weekdays between 6 and 10 a.m., and the afternoon rush, for trains leaving the city on weekdays between 4 and 8 p.m.

The analysis showed:

Of the 12 lines operated by the railroad on Long Island, two would see an increase in the number of trains operated in the morning rush hours as compared with pre-pandemic service levels, The Far Rockaway and Ronkonkoma lines would each pick up one additional morning train, , Seven other branches — Greenport, Hempstead, Long Beach, Montauk, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and West Hempstead — would go back to the same number of morning trains they had before the pandemic, , Three other lines would have fewer trains during the morning commute than in early 2020, Babylon would drop from 33 trains to 31, Port Washington would go from 18 to 15, and Huntington would go from 15 to 14, , During the evening peak travel period, the biggest increase would be on the Ronkonkoma branch, which would go from 14 trains in the pre-COVID era to 21, Port Washington would pick up two additional trains, and Babylon, Far Rockaway, Hempstead, Huntington and Montauk would each add one, , Greenport, Long Beach and West Hempstead would keep the same number of trains they had before the pandemic, , Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson would each have one fewer, .

But because all Manhattan trains will be split between two terminals, some commuters may find they have considerably fewer options than before the pandemic.

Baldwin commuter Robert LoCascio, 52, regularly takes the 7:51 a.m. train to Penn on weekdays. It will be replaced by a 7:52 train bound for Grand Central. The nearest train going directly to Penn comes 31 minutes earlier, or 37 minutes later. He called the changes “terrible.”

“They need to revise these schedules to have more trains to Penn Station. They can’t just have one train an hour,” LoCascio said. “If you miss a train with this new schedule, you’re not getting to work on time.”

Under the new plan, all trains — except those on the Port Washington branch — will stop at Jamaica, so those taking a Grand Central-bound train could transfer there to one headed to Penn. But the LIRR is doing away with scheduled transfers, meaning trains won’t wait on a connection before pulling out.

Still, with nearly 275 total trains being added to the schedule, Lieber said riders will experience train frequencies at Jamaica “that are like the Lexington Avenue subway in the city.”

Although westbound commuters could use Jamaica to increase their options in the morning, in the evening they’ll have to choose which of the LIRR’s two Manhattan terminals they’ll use to get home. And both will have fewer departures than Penn did before the pandemic: 66 at Penn and 55 at Grand Central. Penn Station had 81 trains before COVID, and currently hosts 64 peak evening trains.

Bringmann, a commuter advocate and nonvoting member of the MTA Board, said he’s sympathetic to some riders’ frustrations over the proposed schedules, but also believes the LIRR has put its best plan forward.

“It all comes down to the individual rider — where he’s going and when he wants to get there. And that’s probably the most frustrating thing about this whole thing, because you obviously can’t double the service,” said Bringmann, who believes East Side Access comes with "a number of pluses, and a number of minuses."

"I think when you tally everything up, it’s going to be a net positive. We’re going to be in the black on this, so to speak," Bringmann said. But, he added, "There are going to be some people who are not going to be as happy."

Among the constraints in the way of adding much more service, LIRR officials have said, is a shortage of diesel trains, which are needed in parts of the system that are not electrified, including most of Suffolk County.

In addition, the LIRR's service plan for Penn Station assumes that it will be without one of the two East River Tunnels it typically uses, as Amtrak carries out a Superstorm Sandy repair project that could last until 2027.

Railroad officials also have questioned whether further bolstering service is justified, given the reduced demand since the pandemic began. LIRR officials have noted that, although service levels are back to nearly 90% of what they were before the pandemic, ridership remains well below its pre-COVID norms.

“Long Islanders are not longing for the LIRR to run an infinite number of empty trains at taxpayer cost. The LIRR is operating at roughly 65% of pre-COVID ridership, and yet is adding 40% more trains," MTA external relations chief John McCarthy said in a statement Friday, adding that "there is an opportunity for future growth" after Amtrak finishes its tunnel work, if ridership demand warrants it."

Baldwin commuter Sergio Rivera he “would definitely expect there to be more service” upon the completion of East Side Access, but also thinks it makes sense that the railroad wouldn’t run as many trains as it did before the pandemic, when the railroad was regularly setting ridership records.

“I hope it’s not a forever thing … People are still worried about taking the train now,” Rivera, 26, said, adding that he hopes the LIRR will add service when demand increases.

LIRR officials believe riders eventually will come around on their plan, which was released in June.

Rather than adjust existing schedules, service planners have said they sought to completely reinvent the schedules, while balancing several competing priorities, including demand for different Manhattan destinations, and the need to keep train intervals evenly spread out throughout the day.

Rinaldi said the timetables are “not fixed on tablets,” and will be adjusted as the railroad observes where rider demand is. The LIRR already has revised the schedule to add several Port Washington express trains to and from Penn Station, after acknowledging it underestimated the demand for them.

“We are a service provider. We want to provide service that matches the demand that we are seeing,” Rinaldi said. “Revolutionary change is a little scary for people who are used to riding the train into Penn every morning.” 

Some commuters are welcoming those changes, particularly those who work near Grand Central Terminal. Those changes could shave about 20 minutes from their commute in each direction. Before COVID-19, the LIRR estimated that about 45% of Penn Station commuters would use the Grand Central Madison station.

Jesse Pardo, who has worked near Grand Central for nine years, said he “will not miss the rat race” of having to transfer between the LIRR and the subway to get to and from his job.

“For me, this is, kind of like, life changing,” said Pardo, 34, who commutes out of the LIRR’s Centre Avenue station in East Rockaway. “I think people need to understand that the whole service model is not going to be the way it was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get where you need to go. It’s just going to look a little different.”

Still, there’s one area where Pardo believes the MTA could step up its game: getting word out to riders about what’s in store for them. With less than three months left in the year, the railroad has yet to announce a specific date when the new schedules will take effect and LIRR passengers can take a train to Grand Central.

The Long Island Rail Road’s proposed East Side Access timetables will result in most branches seeing little, if any, increase in rush-hour trains compared with pre-COVID schedules — and other branches losing some trains, a Newsday analysis shows.

The modest changes in peak service come after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spent 15 years and $11.13 billion constructing a link to its new Manhattan home, dubbed Grand Central Madison.

MTA officials have boasted about a 40% service increase compared with the railroad’s current schedules, which include fewer trains than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The service increases also include new off-peak and reverse-peak trains, trains making additional stops in Queens, and new shuttle trains between Jamaica and Brooklyn.

But for the LIRR's 180,000 daily passengers, the infrastructure investment — which has been in various stages of planning for six decades — won't provide many more trains to get them to and from work during peak travel periods. 

WHAT TO KNOW:

  • Despite the MTA promising a 40% increase in LIRR service upon the completion of East Side Access, a Newsday analysis shows only modest changes in the number of rush hour trains on most branches. Some branches will have fewer trains in the peak period as compared with before the pandemic.
  • Because Manhattan trains will be divided between two different terminals — Penn Station and Grand Central Madison — some commuters may feel like their options are even more limited. In the evening rush hour, each of those terminals will have fewer departures than Penn did before the pandemic.
  • MTA officials have said the inconveniences experienced by some commuters will be outweighed by the benefits of East Side Access, including a shorter commute for those working on Manhattan's East Side, doubled capacity into and out of Manhattan, and more opportunities for "reverse commuters" working jobs on Long Island.

In particular, commuters who rely on being near Penn Station will see a sharp drop in the number of trains taking them there — from 95 morning rush-hour trains just before the pandemic, to 66 in the proposed new schedules, according to Newsday's analysis. Currently, 76 trains go to Penn.

"Despite all the service the railroad is adding, there are going to be people out there — and, unfortunately, a large number of people — who feel that their options are less," LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said.

MTA chairman Janno Lieber has said the agency can add trains if necessary, but believes the pros far outweigh the cons in the service plan. They include shorter commutes for those working on Manhattan's East Side, doubling capacity on and off of Manhattan via two new train tunnels, reducing crowding at Penn Station, and providing more opportunities for "reverse commuters" working on Long Island.

The link to Grand Central also creates new regional rail connectivity with Metro North, allowing passengers to travel from Montauk to New Haven with one transfer, the MTA said.

“There may be individual commuters who say, ‘I used to have three trains an hour to Penn, and now I have two because there are more trains overall, but some of them are going to Grand Central.’ I get that," Lieber said. "But, we have to keep in mind that so many people’s lives are being improved … by having more convenient service."

The Newsday analysis compared the LIRR’s proposed timetables, which take effect in December, its current timetables, and its timetables in place from January to March of 2020 before low ridership caused by the pandemic caused the railroad to curtail service. The pre-pandemic schedule already had canceled or diverted 11 usual trains from Penn because of track work.

The analysis examined the morning rush hours, for trains arriving at New York City terminals weekdays between 6 and 10 a.m., and the afternoon rush, for trains leaving the city on weekdays between 4 and 8 p.m.

The analysis showed:

  • Of the 12 lines operated by the railroad on Long Island, two would see an increase in the number of trains operated in the morning rush hours as compared with pre-pandemic service levels. The Far Rockaway and Ronkonkoma lines would each pick up one additional morning train.
  • Seven other branches — Greenport, Hempstead, Long Beach, Montauk, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and West Hempstead — would go back to the same number of morning trains they had before the pandemic.
  • Three other lines would have fewer trains during the morning commute than in early 2020. Babylon would drop from 33 trains to 31, Port Washington would go from 18 to 15, and Huntington would go from 15 to 14.
  • During the evening peak travel period, the biggest increase would be on the Ronkonkoma branch, which would go from 14 trains in the pre-COVID era to 21. Port Washington would pick up two additional trains, and Babylon, Far Rockaway, Hempstead, Huntington and Montauk would each add one.
  • Greenport, Long Beach and West Hempstead would keep the same number of trains they had before the pandemic.
  • Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson would each have one fewer.

But because all Manhattan trains will be split between two terminals, some commuters may find they have considerably fewer options than before the pandemic.

Baldwin commuter Robert LoCascio, 52, regularly takes the 7:51 a.m. train to Penn on weekdays. It will be replaced by a 7:52 train bound for Grand Central. The nearest train going directly to Penn comes 31 minutes earlier, or 37 minutes later. He called the changes “terrible.”

“They need to revise these schedules to have more trains to Penn Station. They can’t just have one train an hour,” LoCascio said. “If you miss a train with this new schedule, you’re not getting to work on time.”

Under the new plan, all trains — except those on the Port Washington branch — will stop at Jamaica, so those taking a Grand Central-bound train could transfer there to one headed to Penn. But the LIRR is doing away with scheduled transfers, meaning trains won’t wait on a connection before pulling out.

Still, with nearly 275 total trains being added to the schedule, Lieber said riders will experience train frequencies at Jamaica “that are like the Lexington Avenue subway in the city.”

Although westbound commuters could use Jamaica to increase their options in the morning, in the evening they’ll have to choose which of the LIRR’s two Manhattan terminals they’ll use to get home. And both will have fewer departures than Penn did before the pandemic: 66 at Penn and 55 at Grand Central. Penn Station had 81 trains before COVID, and currently hosts 64 peak evening trains.

Bringmann, a commuter advocate and nonvoting member of the MTA Board, said he’s sympathetic to some riders’ frustrations over the proposed schedules, but also believes the LIRR has put its best plan forward.

“It all comes down to the individual rider — where he’s going and when he wants to get there. And that’s probably the most frustrating thing about this whole thing, because you obviously can’t double the service,” said Bringmann, who believes East Side Access comes with "a number of pluses, and a number of minuses."

"I think when you tally everything up, it’s going to be a net positive. We’re going to be in the black on this, so to speak," Bringmann said. But, he added, "There are going to be some people who are not going to be as happy."

Among the constraints in the way of adding much more service, LIRR officials have said, is a shortage of diesel trains, which are needed in parts of the system that are not electrified, including most of Suffolk County.

In addition, the LIRR's service plan for Penn Station assumes that it will be without one of the two East River Tunnels it typically uses, as Amtrak carries out a Superstorm Sandy repair project that could last until 2027.

Railroad officials also have questioned whether further bolstering service is justified, given the reduced demand since the pandemic began. LIRR officials have noted that, although service levels are back to nearly 90% of what they were before the pandemic, ridership remains well below its pre-COVID norms.

“Long Islanders are not longing for the LIRR to run an infinite number of empty trains at taxpayer cost. The LIRR is operating at roughly 65% of pre-COVID ridership, and yet is adding 40% more trains," MTA external relations chief John McCarthy said in a statement Friday, adding that "there is an opportunity for future growth" after Amtrak finishes its tunnel work, if ridership demand warrants it."

Baldwin commuter Sergio Rivera he “would definitely expect there to be more service” upon the completion of East Side Access, but also thinks it makes sense that the railroad wouldn’t run as many trains as it did before the pandemic, when the railroad was regularly setting ridership records.

“I hope it’s not a forever thing … People are still worried about taking the train now,” Rivera, 26, said, adding that he hopes the LIRR will add service when demand increases.

LIRR officials believe riders eventually will come around on their plan, which was released in June.

Rather than adjust existing schedules, service planners have said they sought to completely reinvent the schedules, while balancing several competing priorities, including demand for different Manhattan destinations, and the need to keep train intervals evenly spread out throughout the day.

Rinaldi said the timetables are “not fixed on tablets,” and will be adjusted as the railroad observes where rider demand is. The LIRR already has revised the schedule to add several Port Washington express trains to and from Penn Station, after acknowledging it underestimated the demand for them.

“We are a service provider. We want to provide service that matches the demand that we are seeing,” Rinaldi said. “Revolutionary change is a little scary for people who are used to riding the train into Penn every morning.” 

Some commuters are welcoming those changes, particularly those who work near Grand Central Terminal. Those changes could shave about 20 minutes from their commute in each direction. Before COVID-19, the LIRR estimated that about 45% of Penn Station commuters would use the Grand Central Madison station.

Jesse Pardo, who has worked near Grand Central for nine years, said he “will not miss the rat race” of having to transfer between the LIRR and the subway to get to and from his job.

“For me, this is, kind of like, life changing,” said Pardo, 34, who commutes out of the LIRR’s Centre Avenue station in East Rockaway. “I think people need to understand that the whole service model is not going to be the way it was, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get where you need to go. It’s just going to look a little different.”

Still, there’s one area where Pardo believes the MTA could step up its game: getting word out to riders about what’s in store for them. With less than three months left in the year, the railroad has yet to announce a specific date when the new schedules will take effect and LIRR passengers can take a train to Grand Central.

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