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Long IslandTransportation

State comptroller: LIRR on-time record 'has become unacceptable'

In report, Thomas DiNapoli says nearly 21,400 trains were late, canceled or terminated in 2017 — an increase of about 20 percent over 2016.

LIRR commuters at the Ronkonkoma station wait for

LIRR commuters at the Ronkonkoma station wait for a train to Penn Station on July 11, 2017. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The Long Island Rail Road’s deteriorating on-time performance “has become unacceptable,” according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who on Thursday is issuing a report offering new details on the misery endured by LIRR commuters last year — the worst for the railroad since 1999.

The report, the third LIRR service analysis over the past year by the state’s fiscal watchdog, saves its harshest criticism for the railroad, but also notes that increased federal funding is needed to address aging infrastructure, including at the LIRR’s primary hub, Penn Station.

DiNapoli’s report notes that nearly 21,400 trains were late, canceled or terminated before reaching their final destination in 2017 — an increase of about 20 percent from the previous year. Of those, 7,040 trains were more than 10 minutes late, 3,442 were more than 15 minutes late, 195 trains were late by more than one hour, and 14 trains were two hours late or more.

“I guess the concern isn’t so much that it’s out of the ordinary. The concern is that it’s becoming the ordinary,” DiNapoli said in an interview Wednesday. “I think this report validates what the riders have been saying and feeling. But it also validates the concern that we just need the resources . . . so that we can see a significant improvement.”

The railroad posted an overall on-time performance rate of 91.4 percent last year — the lowest in 18 years, the report stated. But that rate was considerably worse when and where it matters most: during the morning and evening rush hours at Penn Station.

Trains arriving at Penn between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on weekdays — carrying about 29 percent of all LIRR commuters — were late, canceled or terminated 17 percent of the time. That’s up from about 13 percent in 2016. Trains leaving Penn between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. were late, canceled or terminated 21 percent of the time, up 6 points from the previous year, according to the report.

The LIRR was to blame for 6,542 delays, cancellations or terminations, with the most common culprit being “equipment problems,” according to the report. Problems caused by Amtrak, which owns and maintains Penn Station, numbered 3,074, an increase of 150 percent over 2016. The report accommodates the service adjustments for the “Summer of Hell” repairs at Penn, tracking on-time performance to and from revised destinations.

The report is critical of the fact that the LIRR attributes a quarter of all its late, canceled or terminated trains to its customers, including delays due to riders taking longer than usual to board a train. DiNapoli points out that most of those delays “occurred when demand exceeded the level of service provided by the LIRR,” including for concerts or sporting events, or when station platforms are too short to accommodate all the cars of a train, forcing passengers to walk through several cars to exit.

“The LIRR, not the customer, bears responsibility for these conditions,” the report said.

DiNapoli’s office pushed for Amtrak to step up its maintenance of Penn and the East River tunnels, which were inundated by corrosive saltwater during 2012’s superstorm Sandy. Since then, on-time performance by the LIRR — the primary user of the tunnels and Penn — has dropped in four out of five years.

The report also called for increased federal funding for transportation, including support for Amtrak’s $13 billion Gateway plan to build a new tunnel beneath the Hudson River and make other improvements in and around Penn Station.

That call was echoed Wednesday by the LIRR Commuter Council, whose chairman, Mark Epstein, said the report “bears out riders’ frustration over the last year when commuting on the LIRR.” He, too, said some relief could come in the form of better federal funding for Amtrak to maintain Penn and advance the Gateway project, but he also said the LIRR could help itself by quickly rolling out its next generation of trains and making other major infrastructure improvements.MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said while megaprojects are important, a more urgent approach also is needed.

“It’s easy to say, ‘We should fund Gateway.’ Even if we fund Gateway today, which we obviously can’t, it would not be finished for 10 years. I’m not waiting 10 years for relief at Penn Station,” Pally said. “We can’t wait for the long-term solutions . . . We need to make these improvements and we need to make them now, in the next six months, so our customers see the railroad is reacting to these unacceptable standards.”

Pally said he expects some short-term solutions to be included in a finalized LIRR “Performance Improvement Plan,” which is expected to be detailed by LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski at a railroad committee meeting Monday.

Nowakowski last month previewed the plan, which will include purchasing new equipment and technology to protect tracks and switches from severe weather and enhancing the railroad’s communications capability, in part by installing arrival countdown clocks at all stations.

“We have heard our customers loud and clear, and we are taking a host of aggressive actions to improve service in the short-term,” LIRR spokesman Aaron Donovan said, adding that the railroad also has 100 capital projects in place.

After posting an 18-year low on-time performance for all of 2017, the LIRR got 2018 off to a bad start in January when just 83.9 percent of its trains were on time — the lowest rate for any month in 22 years.

But DiNapoli’s office said the railroad rebounded in February with an on-time performance of 93.2 percent — its best month since October.

LIRR on-time performance in 2017

  • Trains scheduled: 248,215.
  • Trains late: 19,218 — up 19 percent from 2016.
  • Trains canceled: 1,377 — up 9 percent from 2016.
  • Trains terminated early: 767 — up 35 percent from 2016.
  • Delays, cancellations and other incidents caused by the LIRR: 6,542 — up 20 percent from 2016.
  • Incidents caused by Amtrak: 3,074 — up 150 percent from 2016.
  • Most frequently canceled train: The 6:05 p.m. from Penn Station to Wantagh, canceled 45 times, about 18 percent of the time.
  • The least punctual train: The 5:59 p.m. from Penn Station to Babylon, which was on time just 63 percent of the time.
  • Longest train delay: The 7:04 a.m. train on Nov. 19 from Montauk to Jamaica, more than 2 hours and 45 minutes late.

Source: LIRR, Office of State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli

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