LIRR ‘improvement’ plan urges more technology, faster response
Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski on Tuesday outlined a wide-ranging plan to reverse the agency’s recent service woes, including through technology to protect switches and rails from freezing, a new customer service guru, and an enhanced passenger communication system with subway-like countdown clocks at station platforms.
Nowakowski unveiled what he called a “performance improvement plan” days after new data was released showing that the LIRR’s on-time numbers in January were the worst in 22 years.
“These are some of the things that I think we need to do at the Long Island Rail Road to provide the service that, I think, we need to provide our customers,” he said at a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s railroad committee, rejecting the notion by a board member that Nowakowski inherited some of the railroad’s problems.
“I’ve been here for four years,’’ he said. ‘‘This is not about my predecessor. This is about me.”
The plan, inspired by the MTA’s “Subway Action Plan” revealed last summer to address growing delays, comes as the railroad has struggled through one of its most prolonged stretches of poor service. Train and track problems caused by frigid temperatures, a train shortage caused by wheels damaged by leaves on tracks, a major snowstorm and other infrastructure failures have resulted in several rush hours plagued by delays and cancellations since December, LIRR officials have said.
Nowakowski’s to-do list for the railroad included dozens of items, ranging from increasing the frequency of rail inspections to find defects that can result in broken rails, to purchasing and installing new heaters to prevent icing on the third rail, covers to protect switches from freezing and more snow-removal equipment. The plan also calls for better positioning of crews and rescue locomotives to respond to incidents, and accelerating superstorm Sandy resiliency projects to protect critical LIRR facilities from flooding.
“We need to do a better job of preventing seasonal impacts,” Nowakowski said. “But it’s not just prevention. We also need to be able to provide quicker recovery of our system when seasonal factors do affect us.”
Nowakowski said the overall plan for improving service is about 75 percent done. However, some details still need to be worked out, he said, including time goals for various objectives and a cost estimate.
Nowakowski noted that some infrastructure upgrades, including modernizing some signals, were already planned as part of other projects, such as the ongoing renovation of Jamaica station. Despite those projects, Nowakowski said the railroad needs “to go in there and make intermediate improvements . . . I can’t wait for capital projects that are five or 10 years down the line.”
Nowakowski said another key part of the LIRR’s plan will be improving its communication efforts with customers and communities served by the railroad.
Although Nowakowski has said the LIRR’s communication efforts are hamstrung by the lack of a centralized control center, where representatives from various railroad departments could share information, he said there are measures the railroad could take right away to better share the information it has with customers. That includes providing on the internet for customers the same information LIRR dispatchers have in front of them so riders can “see the actual performance of our trains throughout our system.”
Nowakowski said the railroad will also look to add GPS “data points” throughout the railroad system in order to improve the “quantity and quality” of performance data available to the railroad and its customers.
The LIRR will also look to improve the information shared with customers at stations, including by relying less on automated messages and more on “direct input from humans.” That will include unique audio updates for specific stations and lines.
In addition, Nowakowski said the railroad will expedite a plan to replace the outdated electronic messages on station billboards with countdown clocks that will tell customers when their trains will arrive. “It’s time to get to the point that all stations have countdown clocks,” he said.
The LIRR will also improve training so train crews have better “key talking points,” including the estimated time a particular kind of delay typically lasts.
Nowakowski said the railroad will also bolster its social media team to communicate with riders virtually and create a new management position at the railroad — answering directly to Nowakowski for someone “whose sole responsibility will be customer service.” Before Nowakowski came to the agency in 2014, the railroad employed a vice president of customer service.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — the union representing most LIRR employees, including conductors — said another vice president’s job would only add “another layer to the existing problem.” He urged the LIRR railroad to focus its efforts on providing employees in the field with “the resources and ability to communicate in real time.”
“If the LIRR wants our help and our ideas . . . then they need to bring us in from the beginning, not at the tail end when it needs to be cleaned up,” Simon added. “If this is truly a joint effort, then that is the way to start and we will be there to do whatever it takes to improve for our riders.”
Nowakowski said the railroad will mine its workforce, community groups and commuter advocates for more ideas on improving service. Nowakowski said the LIRR will also work to fill vacancies on the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, which has criticized the agency for not seeking its input.
Board members praised the proposal, but also raised concerns about how the LIRR could realistically pay for it and carry it out. Some board members suggested the agency is already spread too thin with projects that are sucking up resources and diverting management’s attention on daily service, including megaprojects such as East Side Access and the recently approved plan to build a third track on the Main Line.
Board member Charles Moerdler suggested putting off the $10.3 billion East Side Access plan, which would link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022, and use the funds to address the LIRR’s most pressing needs.
“You just cannot have it all,” board member Neal Zuckerman said. “Somebody has to pay eventually.”
Nowakowski noted that expanding the railroad’s extremely limited capacity — as planned through projects such as East Side Access and the third track — is critical to addressing the recurring service problems at the LIRR, which carried 89 million people last year, tying a modern record.
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) — who has pushed in Albany for LIRR reform — on Tuesday called the plan “an honest assessment of how far behind the LIRR has fallen” and an “interesting laundry list” of solutions that he said was needed long ago.
“Some of the ideas expressed were innovative and I hope that the LIRR acts with urgency to nail down and implement them as soon as possible,” Kaminsky said. “Importantly, the top brass of the LIRR needs to come out to Long Island and listen to riders to understand what they’re experiencing.”
LIRR Performance Improvement Plan Highlights:
n Purchase and install technology, including third rail heaters and switch covers, to prevent freezing, and step up efforts to remove ice from tracks.
n Conduct more frequent rail inspections to find track defects and increase “rail grinding” efforts to eliminate those defects.
n Step up efforts to cut back trees and brush near tracks, cleaning debris and leaves, and applying traction gel to rails.
n Improve training for crews on how to operate in inclement weather.
n Expedite superstorm Sandy resiliency projects to prevent flooding at key facilities.
n Speed up the purchase and installation of an additional train wheel repair machine to address wheels flattened out by skidding on wet leaves.
n Replace problematic “threshold plates” — installed to shrink gaps between trains and station platforms — that are rusting and causing train doors to malfunction.
n Buy more snow-removal equipment.
Faster recovery from problems:
n Speed up traction motor replacement on old trains more vulnerable to snow-related breakdowns.
n Better pre-positioning of crews and rescue locomotives to respond to incidents.
Enhanced communication efforts:
n Share the same real-time service information available to LIRR personnel online with customers.
n Improve the quality and quantity of performance information available, including by increasing GPS data points throughout the LIRR system.
n Provide training for train crews to better communicate with passengers, including by providing estimates on how long a delay should last.
n Reduce the LIRR’s reliance on automated service messages, and more frequently provide direct, customized announcements for specific stations and branches.
n Roll out countdown clocks at all stations to let customers know when their train will arrive.
n Mine the LIRR workforce, community groups and commuter advocates for ideas on how to improve service.
n Create a management position focused on customer service that will answer directly to the LIRR president.