Rob Free started as a station cleaner at the Long Island Rail Road and is now its new acting president. Newsday transportation reporter Alfonso Castillo reports. Credit: Corey Sipken

Robert Free, the LIRR's acting president, still remembers his first assignment at the Long Island Rail Road in 1992 — cleaning the employee train station at Hillside, Queens.

“This is really hard,” Free, 52, recalls thinking to himself. Still, the Brooklyn native said he was sure to do his job with meticulous detail, even polishing brass fixtures. “I’m a believer in, no matter what you do, try to be the best at it.”

More than three decades later, Free said he brought the same attention to detail as he rode from Port Jefferson Station to the first day of his newest job last week.

“I made sure all the lights were working in my car. I checked the bathroom. I checked the seat cushion to make sure there was no tape," he said. "It was just a normal day.”

The significance of Free’s rise from a station cleaner to running the largest commuter railroad in North America is not lost on the Port Jefferson Station resident. And it’s that experience climbing through the ranks that Free believes makes him uniquely suited to lead the railroad during a critical time. Ridership continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the commutes of tens of thousands of Long Islanders have been transformed by the completion of the Third Track in Nassau County and a new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison.

“I pretty much know every facet of this operation, even on the engineering side,” Free said in an interview Thursday. "I think it gives me a deep insight as to what goes on around here, and, hopefully, some insight on how to fix some things around here that we need to fix."

The new railroad chief succeeds Catherine Rinaldi, who did double duty for 18 months as Metro-North president and interim LIRR president. The arrangement bred resentment among some Long Island commuters and elected officials who wanted a leader who would be solely focused on their concerns, which include rising fares, surging employee overtime costs, and a sharp increase in the number of train delays.

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), who led the most recent push for the LIRR to have a full-time chief, called Free’s rise through the LIRR “almost like a Cinderella story.” But she also expressed concern about whether the veteran MTA employee will have the “true independence” that riders would want.

“I hope that he’s given the autonomy to fight, fully, for the commuters, and not the interests of the MTA,” said Solages, who dealt with Free in his previous role as the LIRR’s operations VP and believes he’s a good fit for his new role. “At the end of the day, I’d rather have somebody who understands the railroad and is not learning the job while doing the job.”

Although there hasn’t been a permanent president at the helm of the LIRR since February 2022, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber defended his decision not to immediately give the permanent job to Free, who most recently served as the LIRR’s senior vice president of operations.

“I think we have an obligation to go through a national search and to make a decision. We don’t hand people jobs of this importance without going through a process,” Lieber said. “Rob Free is running the Long Island Rail Road. And he’s incredibly qualified to do it and he has my support.”

Lieber has said he expects the MTA to decide on a permanent LIRR president within the next six months. Free made it clear he plans to be in the running. “I think it would be an incredible way to end my career here,” Free said.

A father of four who has held various jobs at the LIRR — including as a “block operator” working in signal towers, handing paperwork to train engineers at the end of a long stick — Free said he has three top priorities in his new job: “safety, reliability, and the customer experience.”

One of Free's immediate goals is to ride the train with MTA Police to get a better understanding of customers' safety concerns. He wants to continue to beautify stations, with measures as simple as adding potted plants. And he wants to continue to plug away at the LIRR’s schedules, which were overhauled earlier this year with the opening of Grand Central Madison, leading to widespread frustration among customers.

Lieber said Free “engineered” the most recent schedule changes, which addressed several key complaints, including the lack of direct train service between Long Island and Atlantic Terminal. Free said two more Brooklyn “through trains” are on the way next month, and he wants to make other improvements, including shortening the wait times at Jamaica between trains bound for Penn Station and those bound for Grand Central.

 “We’ve made tremendous progress. We need to continue to look at that and make adjustments to make it that much better,” Free said.

Free also plans on being a visible presence on Long Island — a role that Rinaldi, who lives in Westchester County, struggled to fill. 

“I’ll be out there talking to constituents, talking to communities, talking to people to get their feedback on how we’re doing. That’s obviously part of the job,” Free said. “I’m the face of the railroad, which I fully embrace.”

Before heading to his new Jamaica office for his first day on the job, Free met Thursday morning with members of the Association for a Better Long Island, a pro-business group. A week earlier, he met with the LIRR Commuter Council. Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the council, said he expects Free  to have an uphill battle winning over some frustrated commuters who might see a 31-year LIRR veteran as part of the status quo.

“If I could talk to the commuters, I’d tell them, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance. He’s got the experience. He’s got the knowledge. Let’s see what he can do now that he’s the man,' ” Bringmann said.

Free is also counting on having the respect of LIRR workers, having been one for so long. LIRR union leader Anthony Simon — who came up cleaning railroad stations alongside Free — said their shared experience on the railroad’s front lines will benefit riders.

“We know what they feel when they see a dirty train. We know what they feel if they’re treated badly,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART). “It’s been a very long time since we’ve had somebody who has this type of operational experience, that can handle the job, and can handle me.”

Robert Free, the LIRR's acting president, still remembers his first assignment at the Long Island Rail Road in 1992 — cleaning the employee train station at Hillside, Queens.

“This is really hard,” Free, 52, recalls thinking to himself. Still, the Brooklyn native said he was sure to do his job with meticulous detail, even polishing brass fixtures. “I’m a believer in, no matter what you do, try to be the best at it.”

More than three decades later, Free said he brought the same attention to detail as he rode from Port Jefferson Station to the first day of his newest job last week.

“I made sure all the lights were working in my car. I checked the bathroom. I checked the seat cushion to make sure there was no tape," he said. "It was just a normal day.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Robert Free last week assumed the role of acting president of the Long Island Rail Road, replacing Catherine Rinaldi, who did double duty for 18 months as Metro-North president and interim LIRR president.
  • Since joining the LIRR in 1992 as a station cleaner, Free, 52, has worked his way up through the ranks of the railroad, most recently serving as senior vice president of operations.
  • The Port Jefferson Station resident said his top priorities are addressing safety, reliability and the customer experience, including by continuing to improve the schedules the LIRR adopted with the opening of Grand Central Madison earlier this year.

The significance of Free’s rise from a station cleaner to running the largest commuter railroad in North America is not lost on the Port Jefferson Station resident. And it’s that experience climbing through the ranks that Free believes makes him uniquely suited to lead the railroad during a critical time. Ridership continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the commutes of tens of thousands of Long Islanders have been transformed by the completion of the Third Track in Nassau County and a new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison.

“I pretty much know every facet of this operation, even on the engineering side,” Free said in an interview Thursday. "I think it gives me a deep insight as to what goes on around here, and, hopefully, some insight on how to fix some things around here that we need to fix."

Commuters face rising fares, train delays

The new railroad chief succeeds Catherine Rinaldi, who did double duty for 18 months as Metro-North president and interim LIRR president. The arrangement bred resentment among some Long Island commuters and elected officials who wanted a leader who would be solely focused on their concerns, which include rising fares, surging employee overtime costs, and a sharp increase in the number of train delays.

LIRR acting president Robert Free in the Jamaica Central Control...

LIRR acting president Robert Free in the Jamaica Central Control room Thursday in Queens. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont), who led the most recent push for the LIRR to have a full-time chief, called Free’s rise through the LIRR “almost like a Cinderella story.” But she also expressed concern about whether the veteran MTA employee will have the “true independence” that riders would want.

“I hope that he’s given the autonomy to fight, fully, for the commuters, and not the interests of the MTA,” said Solages, who dealt with Free in his previous role as the LIRR’s operations VP and believes he’s a good fit for his new role. “At the end of the day, I’d rather have somebody who understands the railroad and is not learning the job while doing the job.”

Although there hasn’t been a permanent president at the helm of the LIRR since February 2022, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber defended his decision not to immediately give the permanent job to Free, who most recently served as the LIRR’s senior vice president of operations.

“I think we have an obligation to go through a national search and to make a decision. We don’t hand people jobs of this importance without going through a process,” Lieber said. “Rob Free is running the Long Island Rail Road. And he’s incredibly qualified to do it and he has my support.”

Lieber has said he expects the MTA to decide on a permanent LIRR president within the next six months. Free made it clear he plans to be in the running. “I think it would be an incredible way to end my career here,” Free said.

A father of four who has held various jobs at the LIRR — including as a “block operator” working in signal towers, handing paperwork to train engineers at the end of a long stick — Free said he has three top priorities in his new job: “safety, reliability, and the customer experience.”

Safety, station beautification on Free's list

One of Free's immediate goals is to ride the train with MTA Police to get a better understanding of customers' safety concerns. He wants to continue to beautify stations, with measures as simple as adding potted plants. And he wants to continue to plug away at the LIRR’s schedules, which were overhauled earlier this year with the opening of Grand Central Madison, leading to widespread frustration among customers.

Lieber said Free “engineered” the most recent schedule changes, which addressed several key complaints, including the lack of direct train service between Long Island and Atlantic Terminal. Free said two more Brooklyn “through trains” are on the way next month, and he wants to make other improvements, including shortening the wait times at Jamaica between trains bound for Penn Station and those bound for Grand Central.

 “We’ve made tremendous progress. We need to continue to look at that and make adjustments to make it that much better,” Free said.

Free also plans on being a visible presence on Long Island — a role that Rinaldi, who lives in Westchester County, struggled to fill. 

“I’ll be out there talking to constituents, talking to communities, talking to people to get their feedback on how we’re doing. That’s obviously part of the job,” Free said. “I’m the face of the railroad, which I fully embrace.”

Before heading to his new Jamaica office for his first day on the job, Free met Thursday morning with members of the Association for a Better Long Island, a pro-business group. A week earlier, he met with the LIRR Commuter Council. Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the council, said he expects Free  to have an uphill battle winning over some frustrated commuters who might see a 31-year LIRR veteran as part of the status quo.

“If I could talk to the commuters, I’d tell them, ‘Let’s give this guy a chance. He’s got the experience. He’s got the knowledge. Let’s see what he can do now that he’s the man,' ” Bringmann said.

Free is also counting on having the respect of LIRR workers, having been one for so long. LIRR union leader Anthony Simon — who came up cleaning railroad stations alongside Free — said their shared experience on the railroad’s front lines will benefit riders.

“We know what they feel when they see a dirty train. We know what they feel if they’re treated badly,” said Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART). “It’s been a very long time since we’ve had somebody who has this type of operational experience, that can handle the job, and can handle me.”

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