A new report from a fiscal watchdog group calls out the LIRR for being far less efficient than its sister MTA commuter railroad, Metro-North, which spends considerably less on labor expenses, despite employing more workers.
The report from the nonprofit Citizens Budget Commission drew several comparisons between the two similar-sized railroads and concluded that Metro-North is doing a better job of maximizing productivity while minimizing expenses than the Long Island Rail Road, whose costs per hour, per mile and per ride were all higher than that of Metro-North.
An MTA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the report, which looked at 2017 figures, “LIRR labor expenses were 14 percent greater than Metro-North’s — $1,051 million to $925 million; however, the LIRR employed 3.6 percent fewer workers — 6,107 to 6,332.”
The report attributes much of the difference in expenses between the two railroads to “legacy costs” at the LIRR, which is about 150 years older than Metro-North. The LIRR’s added costs include health benefits for more retirees than Metro-North and financial liability to an “underfunded pension plan that has required significant catch-up payments in recent years.”
Retiree health insurance costs totaled $60 million for the LIRR last year and $33 million for Metro-North.
Overtime costs were also higher at the LIRR than Metro-North. The LIRR reported about 2.2 million hours of OT in 2017, costing $130 million, compared with Metro-North’s 2.2 million, costing $92 million. The report noted that much of the LIRR’s overtime costs were the result of scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, as well as vacancy and absentee coverage.
The report did point out some significant differences between the railroads that creates unique operational challenges for the LIRR. The LIRR operates a far more bottlenecked system, with 10 of its 11 lines converging at Jamaica and having access to only five tracks during rush hours at Penn Station, which is owned and operated by Amtrak. In contrast, Metro-North has sole control of Grand Central Terminal and its 43 tracks.
Still, the commission said there were ways that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could reduce costs, and maximize productivity, at the LIRR — including by standardizing union work rules across the two railroads.
The report noted that some work rules unique to the LIRR, including one that dictates that only a “yard engineer” can move a train inside a rail yard, result in penalty payments to workers on top of their usual wages. Additionally, applying to the LIRR a Metro-North rule that pays train crews less during midday off-peak hours than during peak hours, could save the LIRR $13 million annually, the report said.
Such changes would need to be made through collective bargaining with railroad unions, and the report noted that the LIRR’s last two railroad contracts did not achieve any productivity gains.
Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, said in an interview Wednesday the appointment of Phillip Eng as new LIRR president could represent an opportunity to make some needed changes at the LIRR, which carried 89 million people last year, compared with Metro-North’s 86.5 million.
“Now is the time to be looking ahead and to be determining what is on the agenda for productivity reform, especially in light of new management and the challenges that the railroad is facing,” Dague said.
Comparing LIRR and Metro-North
Figures are all from 2017.
LIRR: 89.4 million
MNR: 86.6 million
Operating expenses (in millions)
Labor expense per employee, not including retiree health care and pension benefits:
LIRR: $130 million
MNR: $92 million
Expense per hour of service
Expense per mile
Expense per ride: