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LIRR scaling back on use of paper as commuters look more to phones

Branch timetables will stick around for the foreseeable future, but the railroad has been reducing the number of "seat drop" literature placed on trains.

Printed timetables, as seen here at the LIRR

Printed timetables, as seen here at the LIRR station in Mineola, are expected to remain for at least the foreseeable future. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road is gradually scaling back on its use of paper, as more commuters look to their phones, rather than printed materials, for schedule and service information, LIRR officials said.

The railroad has been reducing the number of “seat drop” literature it distributes on trains, and, last year, quietly discontinued its distribution of station-specific printed timetables, which were provided and paid for by an outside advertising company.

While branch timetables will be sticking around for the foreseeable future, railroad officials said the reduction in printed materials is saving the LIRR about $39,000 annually, both in printing costs and lower cleaning costs from workers having to pick up the discarded paper.

“We are improving service while cutting nonessential expenses and operating more efficiently. Our customers’ increasing preference for digital communications gave us the opportunity to achieve that goal perfectly by cutting our use of seat drop materials, and it’s working," LIRR president Phillip Eng said Friday. "Through better use of technology and announcements both on the train and in stations, we are committed to improving customer information.”

Although the LIRR's printed timetables adorned many Long Island household refrigerators for decades, the railroad's own statistics show relatively few riders have use for them in the digital era. In the LIRR's 2018 Customer Satisfaction Survey, 63 percent of respondents reported “never” using paper timetables, while 27 percent said they “sometimes” used them.

The reduction in the use of the printed timetables led Outfront Media, which printed the railroad’s station-specific timetables for years, to last year discontinue them. The pocket-size pamphlets were fully subsidized by Outfront as an advertising tool. Outfront officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Valley Stream commuter Kevin Gray said he misses the pocket timetables, which provided an easy reference for trains arriving and departing at his home station, Valley Stream, which is on three different LIRR branches — Far Rockaway, Long Beach and West Hempstead.

"Do you really want to consult three fairly large schedules?" Gray said. "I think most folks don't really care about a branch. They care about their own personal station."

The LIRR is still printing 3 million of its larger, full-branch timetables a year at its own cost — about $430,000 annually. Railroad officials said they have no plans to cut back on the branch timetables, but do adjust how many they print based on demand.

Although most of the LIRR's nearly 90 million riders have transitioned to getting scheduling information electronically, LIRR officials said the use of printed timetables actually has increased in recent years as the railroad has taken on more track work, which required service changes and special timetables, the LIRR said.

With even more track work planned over the next several years, as the railroad tackles various infrastructure projects, railroad officials said they don’t expect the need for printed timetables to diminish in the near future.

Great Neck commuter Adam Lechaim used to keep a branch timetable in his pocket at all times during his college years in the 1990s, but said he has little use for them these days, and “didn’t notice” the disappearance of the station-specific schedules last year. Lechaim said he’d be in favor of cutting back on the production of printed timetables altogether.

“It would reduce expense and waste,” said Lechaim, 39, who gets his LIRR schedules electronically. “Woodside trains are few and far between. So it’s either Train Time (the MTA’s mobile scheduling app) if I am on my phone, or the PDFs if I am on my computer.”

LIRR historian Dave Morrison said printed timetables have been part of the fabric of the railroad since it was founded 185 years ago. The schedules originally were published in local newspapers and later as ornately illustrated pamphlets — many of which Morrison has collected over the years.

As an LIRR branch line manager in the 1990s, Morrison had the job of keeping dozens of stations stocked with the printed timetables.

“We used to get cases and cases and cases of timetables dropped off at all the stations. It was a tremendous amount,” said Morrison, of Plainview, who believes there is still a need for the printed schedules. “Not everyone has a cellphone. And if you go to a railroad station, you certainly want to be able to look some place and see when the train is going to be coming.”

The measure comes as the railroad's parent company, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in February directed its agencies, including the LIRR, to find an additional $500 million in annual savings. 

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