The Long Island Rail Road in January posted its worst on-time performance in more than two decades.
The LIRR’s 83.9 percent on-time performance rate for the month — released to riders Friday morning in the agency’s monthly “Train Talk” newsletter — was the lowest since January 1996, when just 73.5 percent of trains were on time.
The release of the January on-time rate comes less than five months after MTA head Joseph Lhota promised that improved service reliability at the LIRR would be the “new normal.”
LIRR officials have suggested January’s bad commute — which included at least 21 times that service was suspended on all or part of a branch — was an anomaly caused by a number of converging factors. There was a shortage of train cars due to wheel damage caused by leaves on the tracks in early December; sustained arctic temperatures that caused rails to break, switches to freeze and various mechanical malfunctions on trains; the Jan. 4 “bomb cyclone” snowstorm, and several infrastructure failures at Penn Station, which is owned and maintained by Amtrak, the officials said.
But some riders said the on-time performance last month was the culmination of steadily deteriorating service and to some degree, statistics back that up. The LIRR’s on-time performance for all 2017 was 91.4 percent, the worst since 2000. Annual on-time performance has dropped in four out of five years since 2012.
The railroad considers a train on time if it arrives at its final destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled time.
News of the historically low mark for January served to fuel calls from commuters, elected officials and MTA leaders for a major overhaul at the LIRR, the busiest commuter railroad in the United States, which last year tied its own modern ridership record by carrying about 89 million riders.
Joseph Jahn of Baldwin, who has been commuting on the LIRR since 1984, said the first month of 2018 “absolutely” was among the worst he could remember.
“It was brutal. And the excuses are just so lame. Leaves on the tracks? Give me a break,” said Jahn, 52, who works as an electrician. “For the most part, I think that the Long Island Rail Road is not managed properly, and that’s the way it’s always been.”
Another commuter who has been riding the railroad since the last time it had such a bad month is Kathy Burke of Malverne, who works for the MSG Network. She, too, can’t remember as sustained a period of commuting misery as in recent weeks.
“It is just ridiculous that every day I end with my boss [saying] not ‘Goodbye’ or ‘Good night,’ but ‘Good luck,’ ” said Burke, 53, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. “I know I’m physically capable of doing my job . . . the physical capability of commuting is what’s getting to me.”
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials said Friday that they, too, were not surprised by the numbers, and are taking steps to address them. Details of some of those efforts are expected to be discussed at the authority’s railroad-committee meeting Tuesday.
Knowledgeable sources said the railroad is looking to buy an additional train-wheel repair machine to minimize trains being kept out of service and are exploring enhancements of the systems through which the LIRR communicates with passengers.
Lhota has recently expressed his disappointment with the LIRR’s woeful service, especially coming months after the railroad received praise for its performance during and in the months immediately following the “summer of hell” service disruptions caused by Amtrak repairs at Penn in July and August.
Lhota has criticized LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski and his administration for a “lack of urgency” in addressing recent problems, and has promised a shake-up. The railroad’s head of engineering, Bruce Pohlot, resigned last month.
LIRR officials have also said they are putting together an “emergency action plan,” similar to that recently adopted for the subway system, to reverse declining service.
Even with those measures already planned, MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said Friday that the January figures should prompt a heightened response from the railroad.
“I don’t think that there’s any question that the results are both alarming and of great concern to all of us, and are going to necessitate taking appropriate action both in the short term — now — and in the longer term to ensure that next winter we don’t have the same issues again,” Pally said. “The situation is unacceptable.”
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s state-designated watchdog group, was “not surprised” that January service was the worst in decades.
“It certainly felt that way,” said Epstein, who has pushed the railroad to better communicate with customers and with the council, which he has said can provide valuable feedback on how to improve service. “We all want it to be better. We don’t want to complain. We want better rides, because it’s our livelihood to get to work and home on time.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has pushed for LIRR reform in Albany, said Friday he looks forward to seeing MTA officials roll out a plan to improve the LIRR, “as well as follow through on their promise to speak with riders directly to get a better understanding of what they face on a daily basis.”
The last time service was this bad in any month, January 1996, a blizzard had devastated the railroad and snarled service for weeks.
Bruce McIver, who served as LIRR president from 1984 to 1989, recalled mobilizing the heads of the agency’s various departments in a “crisis management kind of approach” whenever there was a sustained drop-off in service that was not easily explained.
“When I was running the Long Island Rail Road, the first thing I looked at every morning was on-time performance,” he said. “For me it was the most critical measure of our operations. It’s the one measure that captures almost everything that you do.
“The thing that is most important, particularly during commuting hours, is that the expectations of people are met,” he added. “That should be the focus of the person who runs the railroad.”
LIRR’s worst on-time months over the last 30 years
1. January 1996: 73.5
2. February 1994: 77.4 percent
3. January 1994: 81.2 percent
4. November 1989: 80.6 percent
5. January 2018: 83.9 percent