Leaves accumulate near the crossing on Franklin Avenue of the...

Leaves accumulate near the crossing on Franklin Avenue of the LIRR Hempstead Branch in Garden City. Leaves on LIRR tracks were the cause of 22 percent of the railroad's delays in November. Credit: Howard Schnapp

The Long Island Rail Road’s on-time performance fell for the fifth straight month in November, compared to the same period last year, with delays caused by wet leaves keeping the LIRR on pace for its worst year since 1999.

But despite reporting more delays last month than in November 2017, LIRR president Phillip Eng defended the railroad’s performance. Were it not for several proactive measures taken to keep as many trains running as possible, Eng said, the problems could have been much worse in November — a month in which the railroad carried more riders than any month in its recorded history.

In November, 86.5 percent of LIRR trains operated on time, according to the statistics. That’s down from 92.1 in November 2017. The LIRR’s annual on-time performance through the first 11 months of the year was 90.2 percent — down from 91.6 percent through November 2017. 

This past November was the worst month for on-time LIRR trains since January when 83.9 percent of trains ran on time — the lowest monthly figure since 1996.

The LIRR ended last year with an on-time performance figure of 91.4 percent — the worst since 1999, when 91 percent of trains ran on time. The railroad considers a train on-time if it arrives at its final destination within 5 minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled time.

Through November, LIRR on-time performance has fallen in seven out of 11 months as compared to the same months in 2017. The railroad has attributed growing delays to a number of factors throughout the year, including necessary construction work and weather.

The railroad said 22 percent of all delays in November were caused by “low adhesion” — a problem that occurs when wet leaves on the tracks cause train wheels to slip and slide, resulting in trains having to operate at reduced speeds and, occasionally, being pulled from service for repairs to damaged wheels.

Leaf-related train car shortages resulted in heavy crowding on trains in November, a month in which the railroad carried more than 8 million people — the most for any month since the LIRR began keeping records in 1985, Eng said.

But Hicksville commuter Peter Sarian said blaming the latest delays on leaves “seems like a convenient excuse.”

“I don’t know that I buy that. It’s 2018. You’d think we would have figured out leaves by now,” said Sarian, 27, who noted that, for all of Eng’s promises of transforming the railroad since he arrived in April, “so far things have not really changed.”

Eng suggested that the on-time statistics don’t tell the whole story of the railroad’s performance last month, which he noted was one of the wettest Novembers in history. Eng said some of the delays were due to the railroad restricting train speeds during the height of the leaf season to avoid skidding.

“We knew that our delay numbers may take a hit, but when were managing them within the 10-minute range, we felt that was far better than the result we had last year,” Eng said at a Monday meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee.

Thanks to the increased measures taken by the railroad to combat the leaf problem — including expanded wheel-repairing capacity and power washing of rails — fewer train cars have needed to be sidelined than last year, and those that have needed repairs have returned to service more quickly, Eng told the MTA committee.

The railroad will “triple efforts” to address the leaf problem next year, Eng said, including, potentially, by proactively reducing the number of trains it runs in the fall months in order to build more travel time into other trains’ schedules.

Eng said he is also looking to bolster the railroad’s fleet by this time next year, both to have more trains in reserves for when some are taken out of service and also to address the railroad’s booming ridership. 

“I am focused on finding a way to increase the fleet, which has been clearly insufficient,” Eng said. “We need to make sure that we’re taking the necessary actions to meet current and future demands.”

Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has pushed for LIRR reforms in Albany, said the latest on-time stats are “unfortunately . . . not news for the thousands of miserable commuters who have endured the worst LIRR service in a generation.”

“Bizarrely, the MTA wants to ask these same commuters to pay more as quality decreases,” said Kaminsky, referencing the MTA’s planned 4-percent fare increase in March. “Albany must step up and ensure that the LIRR has the funding to make improvements, but legislators want to know that management understands the challenges in front of them and has the will to overcome them."

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