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LIRR: Historic gain from off-peak job, leisure ridership

Morning commuters board a westbound Long Island Rail

Morning commuters board a westbound Long Island Rail Road train at the Freeport station on March 11, 2014. Big increases in leisure travel, including summer beach outings, helped the LIRR carry more customers in 2015 than any time in 66 years, according to a new LIRR report. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Changes in where, when and how often New Yorkers go to work have helped drive big ridership gains during off-peak hours on the LIRR, which carried more customers in 2015 than any time in 66 years, according to a new Long Island Rail Road report.

The LIRR’s 2015 Annual Ridership Report, released Monday, showed that off-peak travel climbed 2.1 percent last year, more than the 2 percent growth in rush-hour rides.

While leisure trips were up 6.6 percent last year, William Wheeler, director of special project development and planning for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said a growing number of what has traditionally been referred to as “non-commutation” riders are actually customers traveling to and from work.

According to the report, systemwide LIRR ridership has grown by 15 percent over the last 30 years, while non rush-hour travel has risen by 20 percent in just the last 10 years.

Wheeler said part of the off-peak growth has been driven by a “gig economy,” where employers are assigning employees to work from different locations and at different times throughout a year. Other changes in job patterns include some commuters working from home part of the week, and retired workers increasingly taking part-time jobs.

“The perception always was that the person outside of the peak was a discretionary trip . . . That is no longer the case. It’s a work trip, just outside of the normal peak hours. There may now be different peak hours,” MTA Board Member Mitchell Pally said. “The number of people going to work at 9:30 is significantly different than it used to be.”

In addition to changes in the traditional 9-to-5 work week, a rise in the number of people taking trains to leisure actvities also fueled the LIRR’s ridership growth. Beach travel alone was up 12.6 percent.

And, the report said, the LIRR benefited from the Islanders’ first season in Brooklyn, the Mets’ post-season run and an increase in the number of concerts at Forest Hills Stadium. The number of people choosing to take the train came despite gas prices dropping.

“It’s becoming a way of life. People are taking rail as opposed to driving to these events,” Wheeler said.

In total, the LIRR carried 87.6 million riders last year –breaking the LIRR’s modern ridership record of 87.4 million, set in 2008. The LIRR’s all-time ridership record was set in 1949, when the railroad carried 91.8 million riders.

The LIRR ran 1,700 more trains in 2015 than in 2014, contributing to big ridership increases, including on lesser-used lines.

Ridership on the Oyster Bay branch grew 4.6 percent. And the West Hempstead branch carried 5.7 percent more riders last year than in 2014 — the biggest percent increase of any LIRR branch. The busiest LIRR branch was the Huntington/Port Jefferson line. It carried 18,651,978 riders, 0.3 percent more than in 2014.

The report predicted that the LIRR will “maintain the upward trend of ridership growth” in 2016, in part because of continued growth in New York City employment and “the impressive lineup of performances” at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Through March, 2016, ridership has already grown by more than 3 percent as compared to the same period in 2015.

The trend of ridership improving coincides with a trend of service worsening in recent years. On-time performance fell for the third straight year in 2015—the year in which the LIRR posted its worst punctuality number in 15 years, 91.6 percent.

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said the ridership growth should signal the MTA to improve and add service, and to rethink its next planned fare increase next year.

“The riders are doing their job. It’s up to the MTA now to do its job,” Epstein said. “People are taking the train, but that’s not saying they’re taking it happily.”

Ridership by branch

(Branch name, 2015 ridership, 2014 ridership, % difference)

Babylon: 18,242,236/ 17,956,348/ 1.6%

City Zone: 7,057,723/ 6,793,300/ 3.9%

Far Rockaway: 5,931,677/ 5,753,156/ 3.1%

Greenport: 58,216/ 58,143/ 0.1%

Hempstead: 4,031,759/ 3,903,415/ 3.3%

Long Beach: 4,822,457/ 4,680,914/ 3.0%

Montauk: 2,303,670/ 2,247,711/ 2.5%

Oyster Bay: 1,837,035/ 1,755,844/ 4.6%

Port Jefferson: 18,705,294/ 18,651,978/ 0.3%

Port Washington: 13,802,816/ 13,307,163/ 3.7%

Ronkonkoma: 9,906,530/ 9,863,213/ 0.4%

West Hempstead: 948,633/ 897,062/ 5.7%

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