The LIRR’s lengthy delay in getting new M9 train cars means the return of the old 1980s-era M3 cars by year's end, which haven't been used since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Newsday TV's Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp; File Footage; Photo Credit: Nancy Borowick

The Long Island Rail Road’s 1980s-era "M3" train cars, with their wood-paneled walls and duct-taped upholstery, will return to the fleet by year’s end, as delays in the arrival of the LIRR’s newest fleet are forcing the railroad to bring back its oldest cars, officials said.

The cars have been parked at various yards since March 2020, when the railroad reduced service because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The railroad is counting on them to fill a fleet shortage that has been made worse by a three-year delay in the complete arrival of its "M9" cars.

LIRR officials said the M3 cars are undergoing testing and inspections, and 100 of them should be back in the lineup by the fourth quarter, as the railroad increases service for the opening of its second Manhattan terminal. The M3s, however, will not travel in and out of the new station, Grand Central Madison, as part of East Side Access.

“We’ve known for some time now that we were going to need to bring them [the M3s] back to be able to support opening-day East Side Access service," LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi said. "So, we have been bringing them back over the course of the summer. They’re performing well. I don’t think any of our customers should have any concerns about these trains."

The cars, built by the now-defunct Budd Co./Transit America of Philadelphia, first rolled out in 1985. The LIRR bought 174 M3 cars for $188.4 million.

The LIRR expected to have 202 new M9 cars by now, at a cost of $734 million, and blames the delays on "workmanship" issues by the manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail. The cars have been plagued with defects that the LIRR has demanded Kawasaki address, but only 126 M9 cars are in service, and railroad officials said they don’t expect to have all the cars in place until late 2023 — three years later than planned.

The railroad's fleet also includes 836 "M7" electric cars, which were introduced in 2002, and 179 diesel cars.

The LIRR has fallen even further behind in the introduction of its next generation of train cars, known as the M9-A. The railroad expected to award a contract in 2019 to a manufacturer to build the trains. But a contract was put on hold after bidders came back with higher prices, and longer timelines, than expected. The LIRR has said new proposals from bidders "are being evaluated.” 

The M3 fleet was once pegged for retirement in 2016. But Rinaldi said she expects the railroad will keep the cars around until the arrival of M9-A cars, which are expected some time in 2027. The M3 will celebrate its 42nd birthday that year.

“It’s an unfortunate necessity,” said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s state-regulated rider advocacy group. “They’ve been sitting around for two or three years. They haven’t been abused. They’ve just been sitting around in a yard...

"The old M3s are better than not having trains at all, because then we wouldn’t be able to offer the service.”

Cold Spring Harbor commuter Stephen Muto chided railroad officials for their “ineptitude” in purchasing new trains. But he took in stride the news of the impending return of the M3s, which he remembered riding for the first time in the early 1990s, when they were the newest cars in the fleet.

“I assumed they were gone for good, but the old trains aren’t really an issue,” Muto, 56, said. “Yes, the bathrooms were gross, but not really a big deal, considering the average train ride is probably less than an hour.”

Adena Berkowitz, of Lido Beach, said she’d also be OK riding an M3 train, but “not for a $14 ride into the city.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Berkowitz, just before boarding an afternoon train out of Long Beach. “If you’re charging that, you better have a high-end product.”

Railroad historian Michael Boland said that despite their age, the M3s are “still modern,” and that it is not unusual for a commuter railroad to use train cars for several decades. The M3’s “older brother,” the M1, debuted in 1968, and wasn’t retired until 2006, Boland said. 

“The M3 was basically the M1 with some improvements,” said Boland, who noted the biggest upgrade was the installation of a device to prevent snow from being sucked into and disabling the traction motors. They also were the first cars to carve out space for passengers in wheelchairs, among the cars’ signature navy blue and burgundy vinyl seats.

“The décor is dated. There's no question about it. But they should still be able to perform,” said Boland, a member of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. “I think it still is capable of giving everybody a good ride, a dependable ride, and a comfortable ride.”

But more than just being less appealing than the rest of the LIRR’s electric fleet, the M3 cars are far less reliable, according to the railroad’s data. On average, the trains break down about once every 66,000 miles. That’s about six times as frequent as their successors, the M7 cars, which make up the majority of the LIRR’s fleet and average about 409,000 miles between mechanical failures.

Still, Kevin Sexton, leader of the union representing LIRR train operators, said riders should not worry about their safety on board an M3 — the car in which he was trained when he joined the railroad more than 20 years ago. Sexton acknowledged that some newer engineers have never operated the old cars, but said they’ll be trained and ready for their return.

And, while the M3 lacks some of the amenities of newer cars — including a more spacious control cab — Sexton said they do the job just fine. 

“A 1973 Buick doesn’t have Bluetooth, and everybody wants their Bluetooth,” said Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 269. “It would go without question that people would prefer the newer equipment, but there’s not a concern I have about the safety of anybody just because the M3s are back in service.”

The Long Island Rail Road’s 1980s-era "M3" train cars, with their wood-paneled walls and duct-taped upholstery, will return to the fleet by year’s end, as delays in the arrival of the LIRR’s newest fleet are forcing the railroad to bring back its oldest cars, officials said.

The cars have been parked at various yards since March 2020, when the railroad reduced service because of the COVID-19 outbreak. The railroad is counting on them to fill a fleet shortage that has been made worse by a three-year delay in the complete arrival of its "M9" cars.

LIRR officials said the M3 cars are undergoing testing and inspections, and 100 of them should be back in the lineup by the fourth quarter, as the railroad increases service for the opening of its second Manhattan terminal. The M3s, however, will not travel in and out of the new station, Grand Central Madison, as part of East Side Access.

“We’ve known for some time now that we were going to need to bring them [the M3s] back to be able to support opening-day East Side Access service," LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi said. "So, we have been bringing them back over the course of the summer. They’re performing well. I don’t think any of our customers should have any concerns about these trains."

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The LIRR’s 37-year-old M3 train cars will return to service later this year after sitting in storage since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, when the railroad reduced service levels. 
  • The railroad hoped to retire the M3 cars years ago, but needs them to flesh out its fleet for when it increases service upon the opening of its new Grand Central Madison station in Manhattan in December. New trains that were supposed to replace the aging M3 cars have been delayed by years. 
  • In addition to having fewer amenities, the M3 cars also are less reliable than the rest of the railroad’s electric fleet, traveling an average of about 66,000 miles between breakdowns, as compared to the 409,000 miles traveled by their successor, the M7.

The cars, built by the now-defunct Budd Co./Transit America of Philadelphia, first rolled out in 1985. The LIRR bought 174 M3 cars for $188.4 million.

The LIRR expected to have 202 new M9 cars by now, at a cost of $734 million, and blames the delays on "workmanship" issues by the manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail. The cars have been plagued with defects that the LIRR has demanded Kawasaki address, but only 126 M9 cars are in service, and railroad officials said they don’t expect to have all the cars in place until late 2023 — three years later than planned.

The railroad's fleet also includes 836 "M7" electric cars, which were introduced in 2002, and 179 diesel cars.

Credit: Photos by Jason DeCrow; Howard Schnapp; Graphic by Newsday/Andrew Wong

The LIRR has fallen even further behind in the introduction of its next generation of train cars, known as the M9-A. The railroad expected to award a contract in 2019 to a manufacturer to build the trains. But a contract was put on hold after bidders came back with higher prices, and longer timelines, than expected. The LIRR has said new proposals from bidders "are being evaluated.” 

The M3 fleet was once pegged for retirement in 2016. But Rinaldi said she expects the railroad will keep the cars around until the arrival of M9-A cars, which are expected some time in 2027. The M3 will celebrate its 42nd birthday that year.

“It’s an unfortunate necessity,” said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s state-regulated rider advocacy group. “They’ve been sitting around for two or three years. They haven’t been abused. They’ve just been sitting around in a yard...

"The old M3s are better than not having trains at all, because then we wouldn’t be able to offer the service.”

Passengers ride an M3 LIRR railroad car, an older model...

Passengers ride an M3 LIRR railroad car, an older model that shows signs of age, including torn seats covered by tape, in September 2013. Credit: Nancy Borowick

Cold Spring Harbor commuter Stephen Muto chided railroad officials for their “ineptitude” in purchasing new trains. But he took in stride the news of the impending return of the M3s, which he remembered riding for the first time in the early 1990s, when they were the newest cars in the fleet.

“I assumed they were gone for good, but the old trains aren’t really an issue,” Muto, 56, said. “Yes, the bathrooms were gross, but not really a big deal, considering the average train ride is probably less than an hour.”

Adena Berkowitz, of Lido Beach, said she’d also be OK riding an M3 train, but “not for a $14 ride into the city.”

“That’s a lot of money,” said Berkowitz, just before boarding an afternoon train out of Long Beach. “If you’re charging that, you better have a high-end product.”

Railroad historian Michael Boland said that despite their age, the M3s are “still modern,” and that it is not unusual for a commuter railroad to use train cars for several decades. The M3’s “older brother,” the M1, debuted in 1968, and wasn’t retired until 2006, Boland said. 

“The M3 was basically the M1 with some improvements,” said Boland, who noted the biggest upgrade was the installation of a device to prevent snow from being sucked into and disabling the traction motors. They also were the first cars to carve out space for passengers in wheelchairs, among the cars’ signature navy blue and burgundy vinyl seats.

The LIRR's M-3 electric cars were the first to carve out space for passengers in wheelchairs. Credit: Long Island Rail Road

“The décor is dated. There's no question about it. But they should still be able to perform,” said Boland, a member of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. “I think it still is capable of giving everybody a good ride, a dependable ride, and a comfortable ride.”

But more than just being less appealing than the rest of the LIRR’s electric fleet, the M3 cars are far less reliable, according to the railroad’s data. On average, the trains break down about once every 66,000 miles. That’s about six times as frequent as their successors, the M7 cars, which make up the majority of the LIRR’s fleet and average about 409,000 miles between mechanical failures.

Still, Kevin Sexton, leader of the union representing LIRR train operators, said riders should not worry about their safety on board an M3 — the car in which he was trained when he joined the railroad more than 20 years ago. Sexton acknowledged that some newer engineers have never operated the old cars, but said they’ll be trained and ready for their return.

And, while the M3 lacks some of the amenities of newer cars — including a more spacious control cab — Sexton said they do the job just fine. 

“A 1973 Buick doesn’t have Bluetooth, and everybody wants their Bluetooth,” said Sexton, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen Division 269. “It would go without question that people would prefer the newer equipment, but there’s not a concern I have about the safety of anybody just because the M3s are back in service.”

GOING BACK TO 1985

The oldest trains in the LIRR’s fleet are making a comeback — 37 years after they first rolled out. Here’s what was going on when commuters first boarded the "M3" on Oct. 14, 1985:

  • No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100: “Take On Me” by A-ha
  • No. 1 in the box office: “Commando” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Top-rated TV show: “The Cosby Show”
  • Sports: St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith hits a game-winning home run in game 5 of the National League Championship Series. 
  • Current events: President Ronald Reagan’s administration seeks justice for an American man killed during the Palestinian hijacking of the Italian ocean liner the Achille Lauro off the coast of Egypt.
  • Monthly LIRR ticket from Babylon to Penn Station: $123