LIRR officials have gotten the message, and now they're trying to improve theirs.
Responding to complaints about the quality of its communication with customers during a service disruption, the Long Island Rail Road is making changes -- including putting its public information and movement operations in the same room, and installing more sensors and GPS devices -- that aim to keep riders better informed every day.
LIRR president Helena Williams said the changes, which will cost the LIRR about $3.5 million this year, are about mindsets just as much as they are about technological upgrades.
"It's the quality of information. That's what we're trying to improve," Williams said. "It's being able to better assess the length of a delay. . . . And if we make a mistake, we'll correct it. As we know information, assess it and size it up, we're going to share that with the customers. And that's one of the new philosophies."
Commuter advocates say it will take time -- and some severe weather -- to fully assess whether the LIRR's new strategy is working.
When a broken rail led to cancellations and delays this month, LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said riders dealt with the usual frustrations in getting detailed, timely and accurate information.
LIRR officials emphasize that their new system is a work in progress and that all the planned improvements may not be in place until late this year.
Epstein said that, overall, the LIRR's communications in recent weeks have been more detailed and included more accurate projections on the length of a delay.
Dearth, quality of info eyed
The LIRR's stepped-up communication efforts follows several failures over the last year to keep customers informed.
During several major snowstorms last winter, the LIRR's automated Audio Visual Paging System at station platforms did not keep up with frequent service changes and instead gave riders wrong information.
When a September lightning strike disabled Jamaica's switching system, passengers stuck on stranded trains for hours complained of getting scarce and conflicting updates about what was happening.
"They're usually convoluted. They're usually not specific," 12-year LIRR commuter Rob Colalillo, 44, of Shoreham, said of the agency's messages to riders.
In December, he waited for two hours on an idling train after it struck a trespasser near Wyandanch. "You had the same message every 10 minutes. It's not like new people got on the train," Colalillo said.
Epstein said that communication is second only to safety among riders' priorities, but it's been a challenge to get the LIRR to fully appreciate that.
"We'd constantly be told, 'We understand what you're saying,' but we didn't see any improvement," Epstein said. "All people want to know is, 'When am I getting home?' and 'How am I getting home?' "
He said he is "heartened" by some big changes the LIRR has made in its communications efforts -- perhaps none bigger than those happening in the agency's public information department at its Jamaica headquarters.
Getting on the same page
Created four years ago inside a small room in the railroad's Jamaica Operations Center, the LIRR's public information office has been expanded and integrated within the LIRR's movement bureau in a much larger space. Employees tasked to broadcast audio announcements at stations are in the same room now, too.
And so, for the first time, people making decisions that impact service are sitting next to the people charged with sharing that information with the public via platform announcements, station signs, emails, text messages and social media updates.
"The fact that we're all hearing the message at once and it saves us 30 seconds, maybe a minute, it's actually a big deal. And it lets us make sure we're all on the same page," said LIRR public information director Richard Mendelson, who described the previous system as requiring phone calls and visits from one office to another. "It's one message now, as opposed to the email may have said one thing and the public address system may have said something a little different."
With deeper resources and staffing, LIRR officials said they are better able to tailor messages for specific riders. Rather than just go with the automated messages produced by the system's electronic billboards and audio systems at stations, public information staffers now more frequently cut in with audio messages to specific stations regarding specific trains.
"Hopefully it's more coordinated and it's more granular," said Joe Calderone, the LIRR's vice president of public affairs and customer service. "The automated system 95 percent of the time works great, but when we have a fairly serious disruption, we need more human intervention."
New alert systems roll out
To have a more precise picture of where trains are at a given time, the railroad is more than doubling the number of "timing points," sensors that track the location of trains, and will install GPS on all its trains by the end of this year. GPS is already available on more than 80 percent of the LIRR's fleet.
"It's very important for those that are trying to communicate with customers to have a real feel for what the customer experiences at that moment," Williams said.
In addition, some 400 LIRR managers from various departments now rotate through weeklong training sessions at Penn Station and are deployed to directly assist riders during disruptions as part of the agency's expanded Customer Assistance Program.
The LIRR has undertaken several other initiatives designed to keep riders informed, including publishing pamphlets with alternative transportation options, expanding its customer service call center and releasing storm recovery timetables designed to keep riders informed about modified schedules to be implemented before, during and after major storms.
William Henderson, executive director of the MTA Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said the LIRR still has to address issues with some aging communications technology -- including automated messaging billboards that can take hours to update. But Henderson applauded the LIRR for "coming a long way" in understanding the importance of keeping customers in the loop.
"People just want to know what's going on," he said.
How the message gets out
1. On the train
A conductor on a train assesses a problem and contacts someone in the LIRR's movement bureau, including, but not limited to, a block operator in a control tower.
2. At LIRR's movement bureau in Jamaica
Inside the operations center, movement bureau personnel communicate with the train crew and make important decisions affecting service. Dispatchers assigned to specific geographic sections of the LIRR system ensure safety by turning off power in the electrified third rail and can order train switches to be blocked in place. A chief dispatcher can call in crews, contact emergency services and make other major decisions.
3. In the LIRR's public info office in Jamaica
Transportation personnel assess the problem, then discuss it with public affairs personnel to come up with an accurate, informative and timely message to send to customers.
4. To riders
Assistant station masters and public-address console operators simultaneously send out a coordinated message to customers via train and station announcements, electronic billboard updates, emails, text messages and social-media bulletins.
Mind the data gap
A few of the recent LIRR communications glitches:
September 2011: When a lightning strike disabled the Jamaica station's switching system and crippled the LIRR for hours, riders on stranded trains and waiting at stations said they got no reliable information about when the trains would be moving again.
December 2010: In the aftermath of a blizzard that affected service for more than three days, customers complained that electronic station signs showed details for trains that never came. Instead, the signs gave information that conflicted with data from other LIRR sources, riders said.
August 2010: When an electrical fire fried parts of the Jamaica station's switching system and caused three days of disruptions, the LIRR shut off many electronic station signs because officials could not adequately update the signs.