Many of the commuters the Long Island Rail Road has lost during the COVID-19 pandemic may be gone for good, having discovered the benefits of life without the LIRR, riders and experts said.
And while remaining commuters may welcome the extra room on trains, the prolonged depression in ridership could worsen the railroad’s financial crisis and hurt major capacity expansion projects such as the second Manhattan terminal and an annex to Penn Station, experts said.
"Do we really need that station? I mean, pre-pandemic, it sounded great. But right now, is it really smart to spend that money?" said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, who predicts about 20% of LIRR riders are "lost forever."
"And if you lose 20% of your ridership, that’s 20% of your fare box revenue. So that’s going to hurt," Bringmann added.
The railroad predicts a 64% drop in fare revenue for 2020, from $769 million last year to $279 million this year. As of late the railroad's revenue losses have even outpaced its ridership losses because it has been making less money off each rider than it anticipated.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent organization, is seeking a $12 billion bailout from the federal government to address its revenue losses.
After setting annual ridership records in three out of the last four years — including in 2019, when it carried 91 million customers — LIRR passenger counts dropped to as low as 3% of pre-COVID-19 levels at the height of the pandemic in the spring.
MTA officials had predicted a significant rebound in ridership coinciding with Labor Day, and the reopening of most New York City businesses. But, as of Oct. 20, the LIRR was still carrying only around 28% of the weekday riders that it did during the same period last year — about the same as a month earlier.
LIRR officials noted that the numbers are ahead of those predicted by MTA consultant McKinsey & Company, which has also predicted that ridership won't return to pre-pandemic levels until February 2023. MTA Board member Kevin Law said the ridership depression has "lasted longer than anybody thought it would."
LIRR Ridership, 2019 vs. 2020
Source: Metropolitan Transportation Authority
"The longer people work remotely, the more businesses are finding, ‘You know what? This is working,'" said Law, president of the Long Island Association, a business group. "Our employees are enjoying the fact that they don’t have to commute, that they have more time to finally be home for dinner with their family or to make a child’s sporting event. And so that’s going to be hard to undo."
The stagnant growth in ridership comes as the number of Americans working remotely remains around 46%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — about twice as many as in 2019. What’s more, a recent survey by Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics found that 80% of full-time workers expect to work from home at least three times per week after COVID-19 safety restrictions are lifted.
Among them is 20-year LIRR commuter Doug Olenick of Commack, who has no plans to return to the anxiety, and expense, of being a daily commuter, even after the pandemic subsides. A technology writer, he had been commuting to Manhattan.
"I found, having done it for 20 years, it’s one of the most stressful activities you can do on a daily basis … Rolling out of bed and going downstairs and being at work is adding years to my life," said Olenick, 56, who added he is saving nearly $400 a month in commuting costs. "I would do everything in my power to not go back again."
Janet Lenaghan, dean of the Frank G. Zarb School of Business at Hofstra University, said some of the changes in commuting patterns are likely "here to stay," as the health crisis expedited a transformation in work culture that already was underway. She noted that major employers, including Google and Twitter, have signaled they’ll allow some employees to work from home permanently.
In addition to telecommuting, Lenaghan said employers and employees alike are realizing the benefits of flexible work schedules, and of using smaller, suburban-based office spaces — all changes that could erode the LIRR’s traditional commuter base.
"The technology just really has disrupted the structure of work, and I don’t see us going back to pre-COVID policies that were in place," Lenaghan said.
Railroad expert William Vantuono, editor-in-chief of Railway Age magazine, said the shift from the traditional rush hour is forcing commuter railroads across the country to reconsider their core missions, and to find new ways to attract potential riders, including by focusing more on midday and weekend service, and by providing technological amenities that appeal to younger generations, who are more likely to use the railroad for recreational travel.
"The Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North, all commuter railroads, really … are going to have to adjust, if they can, to these new commuting patterns," said Vantuono, who agreed that some of the changes were inevitable. "It’s been a trend, but COVID-19 accelerated it at a massive rate. The agencies have responded to that. And I think, for the most part, they’ve responded well. They’ve risen to the challenge."
LIRR president Phillip Eng said the changes in travel patterns have been apparent for a while, as evidenced by the fact that off-peak ridership has increased by 9% over the last five years, while rush-hour ridership has remained mostly flat. And while overall ridership remains around 28% of pre-pandemic levels, weekend ridership has rebounded to as high as 50%.
The railroad has taken steps to prepare for the evolution of its ridership, Eng said, including through the construction of additional tracks on its Main Line to facilitate "reverse commuting," in which customers travel from New York City to jobs on Long Island. The LIRR also has worked with municipalities on transit-oriented developments and created discount fare promotions for weekend travel, he said.
Eng said he’s confident the growth in off-peak customers eventually will offset the loss of some traditional commuters, and will come with the added benefit of reducing crowding during the rush hours.
"Everything we’ve been doing pre-COVID is going to suit us well post-COVID to support a changing travel pattern," Eng said.
Other factors driving the recent changes in LIRR riders’ travel habits are less likely to stick, Law said. Many commuters who lost their jobs during the pandemic are likely to return to the rails once they find new employment. And some commuters who have opted to drive to work in recent months also are likely to return to the rails as traffic congestion continues to increase.
But LIRR commuter Charles Vollmer, 34, of Ronkonkoma, who switched to driving to work during the pandemic, said he won’t return to the train unless it becomes "faster or cheaper than my car."
"I also won't have to live and die by a train schedule, or stand for two hours on my way home," Vollmer said.
Hugo Fitz, who lost his job in photo retouching during the pandemic, said he, too, "will not be returning to the LIRR, ever." He recalled days when trains were so crowded that he’d have to wait for the next one — stretching the length of his commute to 2 1/2 hours.
"I’d get home, eat and fall asleep, and start it over the next day … It is truly a miserable experience," said Fitz, 41, of Huntington Station. "I’d rather make less money in a different field."