Phillip Eng, a lifelong Long Islander and career transportation engineer credited with helping to shepherd the Long Island Rail Road’s third-track project, will become the LIRR’s 40th president effective Monday.
Eng, 56, was appointed Thursday, replacing Patrick Nowakowski who announced Wednesday that after four years he was stepping down from leading the busiest U.S. commuter railroad. Last year, it carried a modern record 89 million riders, but has been plagued by major service and communication problems in recent months.
“It’s not about just doing the nuts and bolts of what we do,” Eng said in an interview Thursday. “It’s a people job and we need to keep a focus on our riders and a focus on the communities that live around the railroad.”
A resident of Smithtown, Eng is tasked with carrying out Nowakowski’s Performance Improvement Plan, which outlines more than 60 initiatives to strengthen the railroad against weather-related threats, improve communications and tighten on-time performance.
Eng called the job ahead a “monumental task,” and said he intends to work with existing LIRR staff, but also eventually bring in “fresh eyes” and move employees around the organization.
An Asian-American, Eng will become the LIRR’s first minority president. He joined the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in March 2017 to fill the vacant position of chief operating officer and led the MTA’s subway and bus operations as acting president of New York City Transit from October to January.
MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, who entrusted Eng with carrying out his $836 million plan to reverse dipping performance on the subways, said Thursday he “couldn’t imagine anyone better suited for this position at this crucial time.”
“Phil has shown exceptional leadership and dedication during his time at the MTA, and I know he will bring his enthusiasm for developing a world-class transportation system to the LIRR,” Lhota said. At a Brooklyn event Thursday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called Eng “a top-shelf operator.”
Eng grew up in Williston Park, later moved to Mineola and then to his current town, where he lives with his wife, two sons and twin daughters. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Cooper Union in Manhattan.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Eng said he learned the value of customer service growing up in the back of the laundry business run by his father and grandfather in Williston Park. “Although I’m an engineer, I’m also a people person. And I care a lot about the public.”
Since joining the MTA, the Port Jefferson Branch regular said he makes the two-hour-plus commute daily from Smithtown to Atlantic Terminal, often talking to other riders about railroad issues and trying to provide information during service disruptions.
“It’s up to us to regain their confidence and faith,” Eng said of LIRR customers.
His 35-year career in transportation includes more than three decades at the State Department of Transportation, where he rose through the ranks from a construction supervisor to eventually becoming executive deputy commissioner, ushering in important initiatives including a $2.5 billion capital program, the replacement of the Kosciuszko Bridge, and the state’s end of the LIRR’s Mainline Expansion Project. Designed in part by Nowakowski, the project includes building a third track between Floral Park and Hicksville and eliminating seven railroad grade crossings.
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, a construction trade group that works closely with the state DOT, said Eng “has the confidence of everyone who has ever worked for him.”
“Phil’s unflappable management style and integrity has always been an integral part of the success of so many important engineering projects he has spearheaded,” Herbst said. “The Long Island community, particularly our commuters, will quickly learn to appreciate the accessibility and responsiveness of this Smithtown resident once he takes the helm of our rail system.”
News of the appointment of a native Long Islander and regular LIRR customer to run the railroad was celebrated by elected officials and other community, business and transportation leaders on the Island. His replacement of Nowakowski comes as the railroad has struggled with major service and communications glitches as of late — problems that led to the railroad’s worst year in 18 years and worst month in 22 years for on-time performance.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, said he hoped Eng’s experience riding the railroad would help him relate to “the commuter’s plight.”
“That will be a big break for us — having somebody who understands, when we have problems, why we’re stating them vocally and publicly,” said Epstein, who wished for an improved relationship with the railroad’s leadership. “It is our hope that we will be allowed to meet with him as soon as possible, so we can sit down and discuss our concerns and the riders’ concerns.”
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said his fellow county resident “understands the importance of transportation on Long Island” and knows firsthand the LIRR’s importance to the region. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran wished Eng success in his new role and said she looks forward “to a productive relationship that helps improve the commuting experience for Long Islanders” and creates new economic development opportunities in LIRR communities.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR’s largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, called Eng a “seasoned professional” in the transportation field whose “problem-solving skills will be a tremendous asset” in moving the railroad forward.
A source who worked directly with Eng during his years at the DOT described his management style as “calm” rather than “dictatorial.”
“He was listening and digesting it all,” the source said. “He was relied upon by more senior folks and was well-liked . . . a real professional who knew his stuff.”
Like Nowakowski — and unlike Nowakowski’s predecessor, Deputy Nassau County Executive Helena Williams — Eng is expected to bring the approach of an engineer, rather than a politician, to address the railroad’s problems. But MTA Board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said he believes Eng, who helped lead several community meetings about the railroad’s third-track project, will be “more comfortable” than Nowakowski in the role of communicator.
“Phil needs to make the rounds with the community groups, the business groups, the elected officials and everybody else who has a stake in the success of the railroad now, so he is not just a name for them. He is a person,” Pally said. “I think the railroad needs at this moment a face with the name . . . It’s important for customers to know and believe that there is somebody at the helm who has their interest at heart.”
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) similarly said that reaching out to LIRR commuters directly needs to be Eng’s first order of business.
“Riders feel disconnected with an agency that they see as removed and uncaring, and it is important that he have a firsthand understanding of the urgency underlying the tasks in front of him,” Kaminsky said.
With Michael Gormley
Phillip Eng, new president of Long Island Rail Road
- Age: 56
- Hometown: Smithtown
- Education: bachelor of engineering from Cooper Union
- Married, with two sons, twin daughters
- Joined MTA in March 2017 as chief operating officer
- From October 2017 to January 2018, concurrently held position of acting president at New York City Transit
- Worked for NYDOT more than 33 years, starting in 1983 as a junior engineer
- Appointed LIRR president April 12, 2018