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Long IslandTransportation

New construction, maintenance turn LIRR weekends from easy to complicated

Construction begins at the Long Island Rail Road's

Construction begins at the Long Island Rail Road's New Hyde Park Road crossing. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road’s new aggressive construction and maintenance schedule has transformed weekends from some of the easiest times to travel by train to some of the most complicated, LIRR riders said.

Major service changes have impacted portions of the LIRR system every weekend since at least June. In some cases, the disruptions have reduced by half the number of trains that operate on a certain branch over a 48-hour period. In others, the LIRR has shut down one of the busiest stretches of its Main Line for all of Saturday and Sunday.

The new normal comes as the railroad works to advance several major infrastructure projects — like bridge replacements for its Third Track between Floral Park and Hicksville — and tackles what LIRR officials said is a backlog of maintenance work that previously was deferred in order to avoid service impacts.

Even riders who support concentrating work on weekends — when ridership is typically lighter and the LIRR has extra capacity — have questioned the execution of the strategy.

“I understand the necessity and them trying to do it during the down time in the system. I don’t disagree with that … But how many weeks in a row did they do this?” said John Wersan Jr. of Port Jefferson Station, who works Saturdays and had his commute complicated by the railroad’s multiple bridge replacement projects in recent months, which have required suspending service on multiple lines.

“The inconvenience was week after week. It wasn’t just a couple of weeks. It was a lot of weeks. It was the majority of the summer they were doing this,” said Wersan Jr., 57, a computer technician. “Would it have been so bad to break it up over several weeks?”

LIRR president Phillip Eng, who has pushed for the ramped-up weekend track work as part of his LIRR Forward initiative, defended the strategy, and said the prior practice of deferring work in order to minimize the impact on customers led to the unplanned service disruptions in 2017 and 2018 — the railroad’s two worst years for on-time performance in two decades.

Eng said the new weekends approach allows the railroad to maximize its productivity, because ridership is lighter, fewer trains are scheduled, and crews can have the longest, uninterrupted periods to carry out their tasks without a rush hour looming.

By late 2022, when the railroad completes its Third Track and East Side Access megaprojects — which, combined, are expected to increase the railroad's capacity into Manhattan by 45% — and cuts back on the backlog of deferred maintenance, Eng said passengers should expect fewer major weekend disruptions.

“Right now, we’re doing a good job of catching up. Nobody wants to take a four-year project and make it into a 10-year project,” Eng said Friday. “We have so much work to do, and it’s essential that these projects are delivered on time. Because, in all honestly, delaying them will only result in more impacts — and, unfortunately, unplanned impacts.”

Eng said the switch and bridge replacement and elevation projects carried out over weekends have prevented untold problems during the weekdays, including trucks possibly striking bridges with low clearances.

LIRR officials pointed to recent data as evidence the weekend service outages have been worth the inconvenience. Through September, the LIRR has operated 92.6% of trains on time — an improvement of 2.4 percentage points as compared to the same period in 2018. The railroad also canceled 42% fewer trains in the first nine months of 2019.

Trains canceled as part of planned weekend service outages are not counted against the LIRR's on-time performance.

The disruptions have not scared off riders, according to Eng, who said LIRR ridership is up 5% during off-peak periods through September, including weekends. Overall, the railroad has moved about 1.5 million more customers than during the same period in 2018, and is on pace to setting a modern ridership record.

Key to minimizing the impact from the weekend work, Eng said, has been the railroad's efforts to communicate to customers about the changes ahead of time, including through announcements on trains and at stations, email alerts, and electronic signs on state highways.

But other changes in the railroad's weekend strategy have compounded the disruption for some customers. That includes a departure from the railroad's long-used practice of operating substitute buses that mirror train routes and stops. 

More recently, the railroad bused some customers from Mineola to Hempstead, where they could connect to westbound trains. That’s been of little use to John Michno, who uses the railroad to travel east on weekends.

“There’s some kind of weird thing going on here that it just seems like it’s OK to leave people stranded,” said Michno, 43, of Mineola, who supports the LIRR’s infrastructure modernization efforts. “I totally agree with that. I just think they need to be providing alternative transportation.”

LIRR officials have defended the approach to providing alternative transportation, which they said aims to get riders where they need to go using existing transit routes, rather than sparsely used buses. During weekend outages, the railroad has more recently directed riders to other unaffected train branches, including Hempstead — where service has been increased on some weekends — or by shuttling customers between Hicksville and Babylon along the railroad's little-used Central Branch.

The railroad also has partnered with Nassau's NICE Bus system to cross-honor LIRR tickets on some weekends.

MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber said the changes serve to "get people where they want to go, rather than producing multiple, duplicative bus systems.” Although Lieber said he believes the strategy has been successful, he is “going to take another look at it.”

After the Nov. 16-17 weekend, the LIRR will take a break from the major weekend outages until the end of the holiday season, Eng said. He said the disruptions will return in January.

LIRR COMMUTER WEEKEND WOES

The Long Island Rail Road's aggressive new approach to tackling deferred maintenance and infrastructure modernization projects has disrupted many a Saturday and Sunday traveler in recent months. Here's a look at a few of the railroad's weekend service changes.

  • Weekends of June 1-2, July 20-21, Aug. 24-25, Sept. 14-15, Oct. 5-6: Several different projects, including the construction of new bridges in Carle Place and Garden City, and the elimination of grade crossings in New Cassel and New Hyde Park, cause the railroad to suspend service on its Main Line in Nassau County.
  • Weekends of June 29-30, July 13-14, July 27-28, Aug. 3-4, Sept. 7-8: Train service to Huntington is reduced from half-hourly to hourly — and to every two hours between Huntington and Port Jefferson — as the railroad took on projects, including switch replacements and track work.
  • Weekend of Aug. 17-18: Service is suspended on the Hempstead Branch for the replacement of the South Tyson Avenue Bridge in Floral Park.
  • Weekend of Sept. 21-22: Buses replace trains between Valley Stream and Long Beach because of superstorm Sandy-related work, including signal improvements and maintenance of the Reynolds Channel Bridge.
  • Weekend of Nov. 9-10: Buses substitute for trains between Central Islip and Ronkonkoma because of concrete track tie replacement work in Ronkonkoma. Greenport trains also operated on adjusted schedule because of the work.

SOURCE: Long Island Rail Road

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