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LIRR’s Phillip Eng: Improvements need to come sooner

LIRR president Phillip Eng attends the MTA's LIRR

LIRR president Phillip Eng attends the MTA's LIRR committee meeting on Monday. Credit: Corey Sipkin

The Long Island Rail Road’s new president vowed Monday to speed up some of the railroad’s most needed fixes — chief among them replacing several faulty track switches by the end of 2018.

At his first meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR committee, Phillip Eng said the LIRR Performance Improvement Plan outlined last month by his predecessor, former railroad president Patrick Nowakowski, “needs to be more proactive.”

Eng, 56, joined the LIRR as its 40th president a week ago.

Nowakowski resigned April 13 amid growing calls from commuters, advocates, MTA board members and Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph Lhota for a shake-up at the LIRR, which has been beset by service and communications woes. The LIRR posted its worst annual on-time performance numbers in 18 years and, in January, its worst month in 22 years.

Eng said he has directed his staff to “rewrite the plan” to make its goals more aggressive, dedicate resources where they are most needed, and accelerate time frames — including taking advantage of the spring and summer weather for construction work.

“I want to assure everyone that, while we are reworking the plan, we are not waiting until it is fully developed,” Eng said. “There’s not a moment to spare. Our actions will demonstrate the sense of urgency we are instilling in everything that we do.”

As one example, Eng talked about a faulty track switch at Jamaica that caused problems for commuters on Friday. Eng noted that Nowakowski’s plan did not include replacing switches, because the railroad separately planned to do so as part of the MTA’s next five-year capital program. MTA officials said that likely wouldn’t have happened before 2021 at the earliest.

“We’re not waiting for that switch to fail again,” said Eng, adding that other faulty switches will be replaced throughout the LIRR system by the year’s end.

Similarly, Eng said the original Performance Improvement Plan sought to make safety upgrades this year at 20 out of 65 railroad-grade crossings in line for improvements, including the installation of road striping that would continue through the crossing, and reflective “delineators” to prevent motorists from accidentally turning onto railroad tracks.

Eng said the railroad instead will take on all 65 crossing projects this year.

The revised Performance Improvement Plan also will include other priorities made clear by riders, including station and train cleanliness and communication that is “meaningful, helpful and allows them to make informed decisions.”

Following the recommendations of a customer he met in Mineola last week, Eng said railroad train crews already have been directed to provide information on relevant subway service disruptions. Also responding to rider feedback, Eng said the LIRR is now giving more detailed information about schedule impacts from service issues in tweets.

Eng said the LIRR’s weekly operations meetings also will include reviewing the railroad’s communications with customers during service disruptions, including “every tweet, every notification and every announcement made.”

“I can promise you this: Today is a new day for the Long Island Rail Road. We are turning the page,” Eng said. “We are creating a culture that puts customers first.”

Eng’s comments were well-received by MTA board members, including railroad labor and commuter representatives who wished him luck and pledged to work with him.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who has led calls for LIRR reform in Albany, also liked what he heard.

“Hearing President Eng talk about the need for urgency at the LIRR and some steps he has already taken in furtherance of that effort was encouraging and welcomed,” Kaminsky said. “For the LIRR to improve, it will need an ‘all hands on deck’ mentality and it seems at this early point that Eng gets that.”

Planned LIRR improvements

  • Safety upgrades at 65 railroad-grade crossings by the year’s end.
  • Repairs to faulty track switches by the year’s end.
  • Addressing concerns raised by riders, including cleanliness and communications.
  • Weekly operations meetings will include reviewing the railroad’s communications with customers during service disruptions.

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