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LIRR commuters weigh in on pluses, minuses of railroad's new M9 train

Kelly McConville, of Valley Stream, was so happy

Kelly McConville, of Valley Stream, was so happy to have the electrical outlet on the LIRR's new M9 train that she photographed it and sent it to her boyfriend. Credit: Todd Maisel

The arrival of the Long Island Rail Road’s newest train has been quickly followed by commuter complaints, ranging from a lack of Wi-Fi, insufficient leg room at some seats, and the peculiar location of one of the trains’ most anticipated features — electrical outlets.

Still, many other riders are raving about the M9 train, which made its maiden voyage out of Huntington on Wednesday morning, and since has operated on several other lines, including the Babylon, Hempstead and Far Rockaway branches.

The eight-car train features modern amenities such as LED lighting, push-button automatic sliding doors between cars, and digital multimedia screens, as well as low-tech improvements, including displays telling riders which car they’re in (e.g. Car 2 of 8).

But many riders, upon getting their first look at the M9s, zeroed in on what they said is a major design flaw: the placement of two electrical outlets against the walls, beneath the windows, of every row of seats.

Commuter Mark Berry, who rode the train out of Huntington on Wednesday, said the “clumsy installation” could lead to arguments between passengers, “or more.”

“If someone who is not sitting by the window wants to use them, cables are going to be draped across the person by the window. They would either need to ask the person by the window to plug in for them or invade their personal space,” Berry said. “The LIRR should have had a passenger focus group so they can realize this sort of thing before it's too late. Passengers saw this obvious inconvenience straight away.”

The LIRR did organize some focus groups during the design stage of the trains. LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein, who participated in the panels, said his council brought up the problematic placement of the outlets, which he said was at the top of his list of recommended changes.

“As soon as we saw it, we said that was not functional. You’re either going to have the people who are sitting in the windows using both of them, or someone wanting to stretch their wires from the outside across someone’s lap, which no one’s going to want,” Epstein said. “We told them in writing and we told them in person that if you’re going to do it, it’s got to be in each seat.”

Epstein said his group proposed various other locations for the outlets, including behind or underneath seats — as on some coach buses — but was told those configurations were not feasible.

LIRR officials said Friday that they had not observed any issues, nor received any formal complaints, related to the location of the outlets, which originated eight years ago in sister railroad Metro-North's M8 cars. The LIRR noted that the 80 outlets per car — as compared with four in the previous generation of cars — represents a 1,900 percent increase.

“We take all customer feedback very seriously and we anticipate additional amenities being offered with the next class of cars," LIRR president Phillip Eng said in a statement.

Epstein said the Commuter Council also pushed for the inclusion of another modern technical amenity that was left off the trains: built-in Wi-Fi. Todd Orelli, who was among the first passengers to board an M9, immediately noticed the omission after he took his seat on the 6:50 a.m. out of Huntington on Wednesday.

“I really feel like you should have Wi-Fi service. I’ve been to other countries, and even on a small bus they have Wi-Fi service,” Orelli said. “We’re in the United States. We’re a leader in the world. Why do we not have these things?”

The LIRR previously explored the possibility of Wi-Fi onboard trains, and even issued a request for proposal from wireless providers a decade ago. But despite rail providers such as Amtrak and Boston’s MBTA successfully deploying Wi-Fi systems in recent years, the LIRR largely has abandoned those plans, which they have said are technically challenging. The railroad has also reasoned that most customers already have internet access via their cellular data plan.

The LIRR has focused instead on improving cellular connectivity throughout its system, including with recent infrastructure upgrades to provide 4G/LTE connectivity in its Brooklyn tunnels, and by providing free Wi-Fi at several recently renovated stations, including Mineola and Hicksville.

Other early gripes from riders include the seemingly reduced legroom at some multiseat rows, where riders sit face to face; the lack of USB ports on the new electrical outlets; and air conditioning malfunctions.

The LIRR has said the new design of the train allows seats to be slightly wider, and include up to six more seats per every pair of cars, as compared with older trains. The railroad also has said it expects to include USB ports in its next generation of train car, known as the M9A. The cars could be funded in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s next five-year capital program, which is expected to be released this week.

And railroad officials said they immediately responded to reports of malfunctioning air conditioning on some M9 train cars, and found it to be working properly.

For some LIRR riders, the early complaints seem petty, especially considering the conditions of the rest of the railroad’s fleet, which includes some "M3" model cars going on 40 years old.

"The bottom line is that the trains are nice, new and clean with some amenities and a couple of design flaws. And they don’t squeak," said Lew Bader, who boarded the M9 at Hicksville on Wednesday. "I’d rather ride one of these than an M3."

Longtime LIRR rider and self-professed train buff Paul Lehmuller said he found the new train “really, quite impressive,” and called some criticisms, including about the lack of USB ports, “nitpicking.”

“This isn’t a first-class airline going out to California or something. You’re not on a transcontinental flight, where you’re going to have every type of port and plug that you need,” sad Lehmuller, of Bethpage, who recalls similar complaints when the railroad’s previous generation of cars, the M7s, rolled out in 2002 and featured seat armrests that snagged riders’ clothes. The railroad later spent $2.56 million to replace the armrests.

“They fixed that,” Lehmuller said. “It’s just one of those things that you have to work out.”

The LIRR said it will add more M9s to its fleets in the coming weeks and months, as testing is completed, until all 202 cars are in service by around March 2021. The total cost of the purchase from Kawasaki Rail Inc. is $550 million, the railroad said.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT THE M9s

The early reviews are in for the LIRR’s new M9 train cars. Here’s a look at what riders like about them, and what they don’t.

Pluses

  • Electrical outlets: There were just a few electrical outlets on the previous generation of trains, and they could be hard to reach. The new trains have two outlets at every row of seats.
  • Automatic sliding doors between cars: Instead of the heavy doors on older trains, passengers can move between some cars with the push of a button.
  • Know where you are: Digital displays tell riders what car they’re in (e.g.: Car 2 of 8) so they can know whether they have to move to get off at a station with shorter platforms.
  • More places to sit: A new configuration allows for up to six more seats for every pair of train cars. Seats are also slightly wider than in past cars.
  • Other perks: Touchless faucets, soap dispensers and hand dryers in bathrooms; brighter LED lighting; clearer public announcement system; closed loop armrests won’t rip clothes; multimedia screens display ads and service info.

Minuses

  • Placement of electrical outlets: With outlets located on walls, riders sitting near aisles will have to run wires across their neighbors’ legs to charge their devices.
  • No USB ports: Passengers hoped that electrical outlets would include USB ports, so they could charge their phones without an adapter.
  • No Wi-Fi: Some customers expected built-in wireless capabilities, although the LIRR never promised it.
  • Leg room: Riders have said the space between seats that face each other is barely wide enough for one pair of legs, much less two.
  • Possible air conditioning problems: On the M9’s first day in operation — and with temperatures in the high 80s — a few passengers reported that the AC system was not working in some cars. The LIRR responded to the report, and said it found the air conditioning to be working properly.

SOURCE: LIRR, Newsday research

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