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LIRR: Plenty of seats available for riders

A rush-hour train to Penn Station. (May 4,

A rush-hour train to Penn Station. (May 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Nancy Borowick

You may want to sit down for this.

If you're standing on a Long Island Rail Road train, it's probably because you didn't try hard enough to find a seat, according to LIRR figures that show that, on most trains, there's plenty of room for everyone to take a load off.

Still, there are a few trains that the LIRR sends out each day knowing that there will be more passengers than there are seats. The problem, they say, is the byproduct of limitations in capacity and infrastructure on the 178-year-old railroad.

Responding to years of calls from the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad in 2010 began publishing monthly "standee reports" that offer insight into the problem of commuters standing in train vestibules and aisles during their trips. The reports don't offer an actual head count of how many people stand on trains, but rather how many people have to do so because trains are otherwise full.

Of about 260,000 people who ride the LIRR each day, there are enough seats to accommodate all but a few hundred on most days, according to the reports.

But that's not the experience of many riders, including Heifi D'Agostino, 42, of Huntington, who says standing-room-only trains are common during her evening commute on the Huntington line.

"Coming home, you never know what you're going to get," D'Agostino, a market researcher, said. "There's a lot of people who have worked a long day and then are jammed on a train and they aren't happy."

The LIRR is encouraging people to use all available seats. "We always seek to refine our schedules and overcome infrastructure constraints to try and provide every customer with a seat. On some trains, we recognize there are standees," the railroad said in the statement. "Sometimes, however, seats on trains go unused for a variety of reasons, including by customers who prefer to stand rather than sit in empty middle seats. And sometimes, unfortunately, other customers block available seats with bags, briefcases or luggage."

Factors for crowded trains

Those riders who have no choice but to stand are concentrated on a pair of morning trains with unique capacity challenges. One is the 8:03 a.m. westbound train out of Huntington, where LIRR officials have said they'd need a rail yard to add more cars to each train, or add more trains to the schedule.

There are typically about 40 more riders than there are seats on that train. LIRR officials plan to meet with those from the Town of Huntington later this month to discuss possible solutions.

The other is what LIRR officials say is likely the most crowded train in the system: The 7:39 a.m. out of Long Beach to Penn Station travels during the so-called "peak of the peak" and makes several connections at Jamaica station. That train is short about 100 seats once it leaves Jamaica.

Short of a major infrastructural change at Jamaica, LIRR officials say there's no way around that train getting particularly crowded.

There are generally fewer standees during the evening peak hours, averaging 112 each month from October to March, according to the reports. The Port Washington line has the largest shortage of seats during the evening rush.

Crowding gets worse when equipment problems force the LIRR to run a train a few cars short. But still, the standee reports show that, by and large, LIRR riders could be sitting if they really wanted to do so.

According to the reports, between October 2011 and March 2012, on average, there was a shortage of just 160 seats systemwide each month during the morning peak hours, and 112 during the evening rush.

That accounts for about a tenth of 1 percent of the LIRR's daily ridership.

But seats not always taken

At a recent Metropolitan Transportation Authority board meeting, MTA chairman Joseph Lhota identified the "biggest problem" contributing to train standees: the dreaded middle seat.

"The seats in the middle -- of which there are hundreds on every train -- stay empty," Lhota said. "I think the right approach is to have all the riders understand how important it is that we've purchased cars with three seats, and the middle [seat] is not a second-class seat. It's a real seat and we should encourage everyone to take advantage of that."

But LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said that while riders may often have an option other than standing, it's not "a realistically comfortable option."

"Do seats go unused? Yes, they do sometimes. It's because of the configuration of trains," Epstein said. "Sharing a seat with someone else is really uncomfortable."

And as ridership has steadily increased over the last seven months, the problem has worsened, said Epstein. He called on the LIRR to make passenger comfort a priority as it considers specifications for new M-9 electric cars.

The MTA is spending $1.1 billion by 2014 on 236 of the new cars, which are still being designed. LIRR officials said they do not expect to increase the number of seats or how they are configured in the new cars.

If so, the LIRR would actually be losing seats with the new cars, which are set to replace the fleet's aging M-3 electric cars.

Still, LIRR officials maintain that the number of riders standing during their commutes has less to do with how many seats are available than it does with how far they're going.

LIRR service planning general manager Tim Keller, who has studied the problem, said it's not unusual for one train to carry 300 more passengers than another, but have few of them standing. The difference, he said, is that a commuter going from Penn Station to Ronkonkoma is more likely to take a seat than one going to New Hyde Park.

Regardless, Keller said that even those trains that are typically most crowded still fall well below the railroad's standard limit capacities for cars.

MTA board member Mitchell Pally said it's in the LIRR's interest to alleviate the problem of standing commuters, which he said not only has an impact on riders' comfort, but also makes it difficult for conductors to collect tickets, and burdens parking lots at stations where trains originate.

"It's not that the railroad doesn't provide the seats," Pally said. "It's that people don't want to sit where there's a seat available."


STANDING ROOM ONLY

The LIRR says it has plenty of seats to accommodate passengers on most trains. Still, it's common to see people standing during their commutes. Here are a few reasons why, according to the LIRR.

THE MIDDLE SEAT. Many riders are reluctant to sit in the middle seat of a three-seat row, uncomfortably sandwiched between two other passengers. LIRR officials encourage riders to use every seat available.

TRIP DISTANCE. LIRR officials say passengers with shorter commutes are less likely to look for a seat on a crowded train than those with a longer trip.

UNEVEN LOADING. Trains that depart on tracks 13 through 16 at Penn Station tend to have more people standing because the main stairway is at the front of the train, causing overcrowding in the first few cars. In some cases, train crews will direct passengers to rear cars, including by temporarily keeping doors closed near the front.

SHORT PLATFORMS. Because some station platforms aren't long enough to fit an entire train, passengers sometimes become concentrated in particular cars. Train crews try to alternate which cars platform at short stations to reduce the problem.

CAR SHORTAGES. Equipment problems sometimes result in a train operating with fewer cars than usual.

INCONSIDERATE RIDERS. Some passengers will take up seats with bags, or even their propped-up feet. LIRR officials ask riders to be considerate to others by not taking extra seats and by using overhead racks for baggage.

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