NewsdayTV's Alfonso Castillo talked to Long Island commuters on Monday, the first day of full Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Madison. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; Bruce Gilbert

This story was reported by Alfonso A. Castillo, Brianne Ledda, Deborah S. Morris, Matthew Chayes, John Asbury and Bart Jones. It was written by Castillo.

Monday's launch of full service to Grand Central Madison came with excitement over the first new Manhattan LIRR station in over a century, but also frustration over age-old problems including delays, crowding, and busted escalators.

Two decades in the making and at a cost of $11.1 billion, the station — part of the East Side Access megaproject — welcomed its first commuters shortly before 6 a.m. as a train that originated in Hempstead pulled in. It was the first of 291 trains to serve the new station each weekday.

Long Islanders working on Manhattan’s East Side celebrated their shortened commutes, and the pristine amenities at the new station, which stretches for six blocks and four levels.

“It’s much nicer … It’s not dirty. It doesn’t smell. It’s such a better experience … Hopefully it doesn’t decay,” said Kevin Kashinejad, of Great Neck, a jeweler who works on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. He expects he’ll shave 20 minutes off his commute each way. “I get out of here and I’m literally right there. This is a life-changer.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Following a soft opening of Grand Central Madison on Jan. 25, the LIRR kicked off full service plan at the new terminal along with a drastic overhaul of its schedule.
  • MTA officials say the new terminal will shorten travel times for commuters working in the East Midtown section of Manhattan, and includes several new trains for “reverse commuters” traveling to and from jobs on Long Island.
  • But the new schedule also includes fewer morning trains to Penn Station, requires more frequent transfers, eliminates timed connections at Jamaica, adds local stops on many trains that previously ran express, and eliminates most direct trains between Long Island and Atlantic Terminal.

The reviews for the LIRR’s new service plan were more mixed among commuters traveling to destinations other than Grand Central, such as Brooklyn. One Atlantic Terminal-bound commuter accidentally ended up at Grand Central, having transferred across the platform at Jamaica as she usually does. She rushed to get on a train back to Jamaica to get back on course.

A train rider asks for directions after arriving at the...

A train rider asks for directions after arriving at the new LIRR Grand Central Madison on Monday. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

The confusion among Brooklyn commuters was even more apparent at Jamaica Station, where most Atlantic Terminal trains now operate from two dedicated tracks at the station’s far south side — meaning passengers have to climb up to the station’s pedestrian walkway, cross over, and then down again. A disabled escalator didn’t help matters. 

“This is really new for me,” said an out-of-breath Joan Saunders as she caught her train with seconds to spare. “I didn’t even know these tracks existed.”

Although ridership remains well below pre-COVID levels, LIRR officials said passenger counts were up nearly 2% compared to recent Monday mornings. The railroad carried 47,413 passengers during the A.M. rush, with 70% of Manhattan-bound commuters sticking with Penn Station, and about 30% using Grand Central. The railroad has projected that, eventually, about half its commuters will opt for the new facility.

Commuters snapped pictures of the marble walls and art installations, and marveled at the length of the escalators. After making the 1-minute, 38-second ride from the mezzanine level, commuters were greeted at the concourse by LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi.

Like dozens of LIRR “ambassadors” deployed throughout the station, Rinaldi fielded questions from disoriented passengers about where to find the subway or an exit to a certain street corner.

“I think that’s a first-day issue. Once they start using the service, obviously they’ll be able to orient themselves better. But we’ve got a lot of people here helping people around,” said Rinaldi, adding that most riders she spoke were “really positive.”

A LIRR engineer waves from the cab of his train...

A LIRR engineer waves from the cab of his train during arrival Monday morning at the brand new LIRR Grand Central Madison. Credit: Bruce Gilbert

“These are people who work on the East Side, so they’re really thrilled that their commutes are so much quicker than when they were going to Penn, so generally are feeling pretty good about their commute,” Rinaldi said in an interview.

The railroad’s re-imagined service plan adds many trains to serve reverse commuters, like Jorge Mendez, of Greenlawn, whose work takes him to Hicksville, Mineola and Jamaica depending on the week.

"More trains give me more options," Mendez said. "Sometimes I like to have time for breakfast and to get in early, not just when I have to be at work. Sometimes I get there right when I have to work."

The first evening rush hour under the LIRR’s new game plan went similarly to the morning rush, with some riders grateful for new options home, and others flustered over the changes. 

An exasperated Mira Caffrey, 65, looked around for signs while riding the escalator down at Grand Central Madison. “It takes forever to navigate through this maze,” Caffrey, of Hempstead, said. 

At Penn Station, Giana Pellegrino, 24, of Commack, and Nicole Joseph, 24, of Smithtown, said they both used to commute on the LIRR together, but now must take separate trains, which arrive later. 

 “I assume it’s going to become very difficult and annoying until we can figure it out, but this is just the first day,” Pellegrino said. 

Commuter anger at Jamaica

Learning about the broken escalator at Jamaica, Rinaldi acknowledged, “That’s obviously not how we want to start the day.” MTA officials noted the Jamaica escalators were the responsibility of the Port Authority, which operates the adjacent AirTrain building.

Other riders waiting for a transfer at Jamaica expressed confusion and anger over changing tracks and delayed trains, including from a signal issue near the station that lingered throughout the morning rush. Some commuters pressed MTA workers on the platforms between tracks for answers.

“I get information at the same time you do,” one worker said to Greg Golub, 62, of Long Beach.

Golub, who works as a vice president of operations near Atlantic Terminal, said his experience with the new train schedule was “horrible,” and that he expected he’d be late for work.

“They’ve been planning this for what, 20 years?” Golub said. “They can never get it right.”

Some riders also complained about trains operating with fewer cars than usual, resulting in crowding. Addressing the complaints over short trains, LIRR spokesperson Aaron Donovan said “train lengths are designed to meet schedule and ridership demands,” and noted that most trains during the morning rush did not reach 80% capacity.

“The LIRR regularly monitors ridership trends and makes adjustments as necessary,” Donovan said.

Although riders’ moods were generally better at Grand Central Madison, some frustrations erupted there as well, including when an escalator spanning about 182 feet conked out. Port Washington commuter Matthew White said one escalator was already out of service when he boarded another one that “broke down mid-ride with a strong jolt.” He called it Grand Central commuters’ “worst fear.”

“People had to walk a long way up and many were having to stop to rest,” White said. “Not a good start.”

MTA: 'Isolated' escalator outages

Donovan said the station’s escalators carried 10,000 customers during the morning peak period, and that “isolated outages were contained and attended to promptly."

Although it was the biggest overhaul in the railroad’s service plan in decades, many disrupted riders rolled with the punches. On his way to Grand Central, certified public accountant Mark Mingelgreen, 66, said he was “not so sure yet” whether his commute will become a little shorter, or a little longer, but was at peace with either scenario.

“The people who are complaining that it’s going to take an extra two or three minutes on their commute, I think that’s ridiculous,” Mingelgreen, of Valley Stream, said. “It’s only two minutes. Let’s be real … It’s not that big a deal.”

Sandy Reis, 63, of Port Washington, who works for a construction firm working with the MTA, said the switch means fewer scheduled trains to Penn, his normal destination. But, he said, he sees the change as serving the greater good — and will come with the side benefit of reducing crowding at Penn Station.

"Commuters are famous for complaining and whining, but this is actually an improvement," Reis said at Penn Station.

Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s state-regulated watchdog group, said, after just one day of regular service, it’s too early to tell what, if any, changes need to be made in the railroad’s service plan. He noted that ridership tends to be lighter on Mondays, and that it could be unusually light on Tuesday, too, because of a forecast winter storm.

Still, Bringmann said he understood why some commuters already want things back to the way they used to be.

“People were married to their trains … So just the fact that their train doesn’t exist anymore has upset a lot of people,” said Bringmann, who expects it will take at least a couple of weeks for commuters to adapt to the LIRR’s new operation. “Today was like an experiment. It’s like your first day of school. You’re feeling everything out … This is a shock to the system.”

Morning commuters arrive at the new LIRR Grand Central Madison...

Morning commuters arrive at the new LIRR Grand Central Madison station in Manhattan Monday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

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