LIRR riders await new Grand Central service with enthusiasm, trepidation
LIRR commuters are looking ahead to the long-awaited launch of full service to Grand Central Madison with anticipation and dread, as the overhauled schedules will provide several new options for riders but also inconvenience many others.
Full service is set to begin on Monday, a month after the Long Island Rail Road began operating limited shuttle service to the new 700,000-square-foot station beneath Grand Central Terminal. The full service will mark the culmination of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $11.1 billion East Side Access megaproject.
Beyond the usual timetable tweaks that LIRR commuters are used to experiencing every few months, the full-scale launch of a second Manhattan terminal — the first since Penn Station opened 113 years ago — comes with a radical overhaul of the railroad’s schedule and service plan.
Railroad officials said they’re confident that the pros of a 41% increase in service will far outweigh the cons, and that they’ll make changes as necessary.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Full service to the LIRR's new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison, begins on Monday, resulting in a major overhaul to the railroad's schedule.
- Although some riders who work near Grand Central are looking forward to a shorter, more direct commute, others say the schedule changes will inconvenience them.
- LIRR officials say they will closely monitor the schedules and make adjustments as necessary.
“We want everyone to know that, no matter when or where you ride, your trip will change,” said LIRR senior vice president of operations Rob Free, adding that the early reviews for Grand Central Madison station, which opened Jan. 25, have been “overwhelmingly positive.”
“It’s a new era of flexibility and convenience for Long Island Rail Road customers,” Free said at an MTA meeting Tuesday.
The railroad will add 271 trains to its schedule, bringing the total number of weekday trains to 936. The additions include several new trains for “reverse commuters” traveling to and from jobs on Long Island during the rush hours. Because both the LIRR and Metro-North operate out of Grand Central, East Side Access also provides Long Islanders new rail links for routes throughout the region, including the Bronx, the Hudson Valley, and Fairfield and New Haven counties in Connecticut.
But the most obvious benefit of the new rail link is for LIRR commuters working near Grand Central Terminal, such as Leslie Karp, of Long Beach, who has for years trekked between Penn Station and her office at 48th Street and Park Avenue.
“You get used to it, but it’s very long … I walk from Penn, unless it rains,” said Karp, 59, who works in banking. “It’ll save me over an hour a day commuting. I’ve been looking forward to this for a while.”
But many other LIRR riders are far less excited about the revamped schedules. They eliminate several morning trains to Penn Station, require more frequent transfers, eliminate timed connections at Jamaica, add local stops on many trains that currently run express and do away with most direct trains between Long Island and Atlantic Terminal. Most Brooklyn passengers will, instead, rely on shuttle train service from a dedicated track on the south side of Jamaica station.
At a meeting of the MTA Board’s railroad committee Tuesday, some rider advocates criticized the railroad for making relatively few revisions to its proposed schedules even after holding several public hearings last summer where commuters voiced concerns about the changes.
Kara Gurl, spokesperson for the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said her group was “disappointed to see that the new service plans have not incorporated feedback from thousands of public comments” and have “only minor changes” from draft schedules released in June.
“It’s important that riders feel heard going into this major service change,” Gurl said.
Adnan Rangwala, who commutes to Brooklyn from the Country Life Press station in Garden City, similarly said that the railroad “paid lip service to commuters’ feedback” but ultimately went with “a degradation of service” for riders on his line, the Hempstead Branch.
The changes mean West Hempstead commuter Safiya Brown, 36, will lose her usual 6:53 a.m. train to Atlantic Terminal, forcing her to either take a train that leaves much earlier or much later. Brown’s teenage son usually takes the same train with her to East New York, on his way to school, and also will have to figure out an alternative.
“Now, it’s going to throw everything off of my schedule to get to Brooklyn by 8 a.m., and also for him to get to Manhattan, where he goes to school,” said Brown, a New York City worker, upon stepping off her usual evening train at West Hempstead on Feb. 16.
Brown noted that her train is usually pretty full and questioned why the LIRR would inconvenience its existing commuter base to benefit the unknown number of riders who will use Grand Central Madison.
“The people that have been actually taking this train and relying on the MTA Long Island Rail Road — their service has been fine," Brown said. "I don’t understand what statistics have driven these decisions.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, which decimated transit ridership, the LIRR was predicting that about 160,000 passengers — about half its daily ridership — would use Grand Central. But now the LIRR is averaging about 180,000 total riders each weekday, and many of the shuttle trains that have operated into and out of Grand Central over the past month have been mostly empty.
Free, the LIRR operating chief, said the “Grand Central Direct” shuttle has averaged about 5,200 passengers each weekday since launching on Jan. 25 but said railroad officials “certainly expect those numbers to increase considerably in the coming weeks.”
MTA chairman Janno Lieber said the agency does not "absolutely know" how many people will use Grand Central Madison, but the agency still believes roughly half of riders could shorten their commutes by doing so.
Free also noted that, with the new Atlantic Terminal shuttle service, Brooklyn riders will see a 30% increase in service. He added that the new schedules will be “continually looked at … and where adjustments are needed and, where practical, they will be made.”
Lieber acknowledged that the MTA is bracing for some negative feedback from riders.
"Nobody likes to have their routine changed … It may take a little while for folks to adjust and recalibrate. I completely expect that," Lieber said Thursday. "But the flip side is that there are going to be thousands of people … who are going to be thrilled that their commute just became shorter."
Although the changes will upend the commuting patterns of many riders, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann said railroad customers “have a tendency to adapt.” He noted that some commuters who ride to Atlantic Terminal on their way to lower Manhattan will find that they can connect to the same subway lines from Grand Central.
“I admit nothing is perfect, and there are some people who are going to be worse off with the new schedules than they were before,” Bringmann said. “But the vast majority of people, I think, will be better off.”