Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Janno Lieber said Friday that officially, LIRR ridership...

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Janno Lieber said Friday that officially, LIRR ridership has rebounded to around 70% of pre-COVID levels, actual ridership is “probably pushing around 75%” if the railroad accounted for fares that aren’t collected. Credit: Barry Sloan

A dramatic reduction in Long Island Rail Road train cancellations last year is a “good sign” as the LIRR tries to bring back all the riders it lost in the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report from the state comptroller’s office said.

And the chief of the MTA said Friday the railroad’s ridership may be even stronger than stats indicate, because of the number of LIRR fares that are never collected.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on Friday issued the report, which looked at “Safety, Reliability and Frequency” at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The report found that unlike the subways, the LIRR was able to maintain strong on-time performance even as most of its lapsed commuters returned to the system.

According to the report, LIRR on-time performance peaked in April 2020, when ridership plummeted to just 3.3% of normal levels. But, even as ridership returned to around 60% in 2022, LIRR trains were “still largely performing better than they did in the years leading up to the pandemic, when they had difficulty providing better than 94%” — the railroad’s goal. Last year, 95.8% of LIRR trains ran on time.

There were also “less than half as many cancellations” of LIRR trains in 2022 than in 2019, according to the report.

“The decline in cancellations is a good sign,” according to the report, which noted that the MTA “must focus on providing positive customer experiences” in order to grow ridership.

Speaking Friday at a Smithtown event hosted by the Long Island Contractors Association, MTA chairman Janno Lieber said, officially, LIRR ridership has since rebounded to around 70% of pre-COVID-19 levels. But Lieber said he believes actual ridership is “probably pushing around 75%” if the railroad accounted for fares that aren’t collected.

“We have fare evasion not just on New York City subways, but on the railroad too. You see all those people that are not activating their tickets online, waiting to see if their conductor comes around,” Lieber said.

Commuters and union officials have observed that the recent crowding caused by the opening of Grand Central Madison has contributed to conductors being unable to collect fares. In 2019, the MTA estimated that it lost about $20 million annually in unpaid LIRR fares.

Lieber, the keynote speaker at the construction season preview breakfast event, tried to rally support for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposed financial rescue of the transit agency, which is facing a recurring $2 billion annual budget deficit because of the ridership losses.

After ruffling some Long Island elected officials at a state legislative hearing where he blamed the MTA’s financial woes on lapsed LIRR commuters who “dial it in from East Hampton,” Lieber on Friday assured attendees that he will “keep advocating for investments in big projects on Long Island.”

Still, in a letter to Lieber Friday, three Democratic lawmakers questioned the MTA’s commitment to Long Island, and called on the appointment of a full-time LIRR president. Current interim LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi also serves as president of Metro-North Railroad.

“The LIRR needs a leader who truly understands Long Island's transportation needs as well as the economic impact on our region,” said the letter, which was authored by Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), and co-signed by Assemb. Kimberly Jean-Pierre (D-Babylon) and Assemb. Steve Stern (D-Huntington).

The MTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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