Catherine Rinaldi will continue serving as Metro-North president.

Catherine Rinaldi will continue serving as Metro-North president. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Catherine Rinaldi announced Monday she will step down from her role as interim president of the LIRR, following growing calls from riders, elected officials and the MTA board’s two Long Island representatives for the railroad to have a full-time leader.

Robert Free, the LIRR’s senior vice president of operations, will take on the role of acting president, Rinaldi said at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board’s Railroad Committee meeting.

Rinaldi, who also serves as president of Metro-North, made the announcement after recapping a list of accomplishments at the LIRR since she assumed the role of interim president in February 2022. They included the completion of the Third Track in Nassau County, the opening of Grand Central Madison, $100 million in efficiencies, and new technological and ticketing innovations for riders.

“With these important accomplishments under our belt, it’s a good time to begin the process of my transitioning out of my role of interim president of the Long Island Rail Road,” Rinaldi said.

The change follows complaints from Long Island commuters and their representatives about the LIRR having to share a leader with sister railroad Metro-North. Earlier this month, the two MTA Board members representing Nassau and Suffolk told Newsday it was time for the LIRR to have its own leader.

Even while giving Rinaldi, who grew up in Huntington, high marks in her dual role, critics said having her do double duty resulted in some Long Island commuter concerns not receiving the attention they deserved.

Rinaldi’s tenure at the LIRR coincided with a major dip in customer satisfaction, according to survey results released in July. Riders railed against a schedule overhaul, related to the opening of Grand Central Madison, that resulted in fewer Penn Station trains, longer travel times for some and more inconvenient transfers.

Some riders also were unhappy with the recent elimination of the 20-Trip Ticket, which offered discounts for part-time commuters, and for what they said were substandard station conditions. The LIRR also saw two Queens train derailments in the course 35 days between August and September.

Because Rinaldi lives in Westchester County — Metro-North’s service territory — and split her time between the LIRR’s Jamaica headquarters and Metro-North’s Manhattan ones, she was also less visible on Long Island than some of her predecessors. Phillip Eng, who held the LIRR president’s job before Rinaldi, commuted on the Port Jefferson line from his Smithtown home.

Rinaldi will remain as head of Metro-North, a role she’s held for about six years, and also will provide strategic advice on matters affecting both railroads.

“I’m excited to assume this new role and build on what we already achieved,” Rinaldi said.

LIRR labor leader Anthony Simon, in a statement, commended Rinaldi for doing “an excellent job” in running the two busiest commuter railroads in the United States and thanked her for her leadership.

But Simon, who heads the railroad conductors union, agreed it is important that each railroad have its own leader “to take on nonstop challenges.”

Free joined the LIRR more than 30 years ago, beginning as a station cleaner and working his way up through the transportation department until getting the operations chief gig in March 2020.

Simon said Free’s operational experience and institutional knowledge “will serve him well in leading the way for the LIRR.”

Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, praised Rinaldi and expressed confidence in Free, who “knows all of the moving parts of the new LIRR schedules inside and out, including what the LIRR needs to do to continue to improve.”

Upon Eng’s resignation, Lieber appointed Rinaldi to the interim president’s job 18 months ago. With the LIRR working toward moving into Metro-North’s longtime home terminal at Grand Central upon the completion of East Side Access, Lieber reasoned it made sense to have one person lead both railroads.

The MTA Board’s two Long Island representatives on Monday both applauded Rinaldi for the job she did, while also acknowledging the LIRR needed to have its own leader.

“We owe you a big ‘thank you,’ ” Suffolk representative Samuel Chu said. “Certainly the Long Island Rail Road should have its own president. That was always the plan, to return to that. But we had extraordinary circumstance that necessitated someone with your knowledge and capacity coming into this role.”

Nassau representative David Mack said the move was “long overdue,” and that he had been advising Lieber for six months that he should appoint a dedicated president for the LIRR.

“Unfortunately, it took this long,” Mack said. “We love Cathy. I work with her. She’s great. But we need our own person.”

MTA Board members representing Metro-North’s service area appeared less convinced that the change was necessary. Blanca Lopez, of Westchester County, said she was “a little disappointed” because she expected the MTA would save money by not paying two railroad presidents’ salaries.

Public records show that while serving in her dual role for most of 2022, Rinaldi earned $372,639 last year, making her the third-highest paid employee, behind Lieber and MTA Police Chief Robert Rau. As the respective presidents of Metro-North and the LIRR in 2022, Rinaldi and Eng both made around $323,000 in 2021.

LIRR officials would not say Monday whether Rinaldi would keep her salary, and what Free would be paid in his new role.

Putnam County representative Neal Zuckerman suggested that he favored closer synergy between the railroads, rather than creating “separateness for the sake of separateness.”

“There is no value in that. I understand why there’s the desire for a singular LIRR leader. I get that and I respect that decision and that choice. But please, let’s make sure we’re not doing things differently just to do it,” Zuckerman said.

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) launched the most recent push for the LIRR to have its own president, after seeing “too many little things fall through the cracks.” Following the announcement Monday, Solages thanked Rinaldi and acknowledged “the many contributions she made during her tenure as interim president.”

Solages welcomed Free into his new role, but also “strongly” urged the MTA to search for a permanent LIRR president.

“We must prioritize finding a leader who not only possesses the necessary expertise, but also understands the unique challenges of our Long Island commuters,” Solages said.

In brief remarks at the Manhattan meeting, Free thanked Lieber for the opportunity to lead the railroad, and called it “an honor to be able to be put in this position.”

“I just want everybody to know that I’ll try my hardest to make the best of the railroad and the MTA as a whole,” Free said.

Discussing the growing calls for a dedicated LIRR leader, Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business advocacy group, said “the issue has never been about Mrs. Rinaldi’s professionalism.”

“It is the fact that the LIRR is one of the most complex, heavily traveled commuter lines in the nation and requires the exclusive focus of the individual tasked with running it,” Strober said.

Catherine Rinaldi announced Monday she will step down from her role as interim president of the LIRR, following growing calls from riders, elected officials and the MTA board’s two Long Island representatives for the railroad to have a full-time leader.

Robert Free, the LIRR’s senior vice president of operations, will take on the role of acting president, Rinaldi said at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board’s Railroad Committee meeting.

Rinaldi, who also serves as president of Metro-North, made the announcement after recapping a list of accomplishments at the LIRR since she assumed the role of interim president in February 2022. They included the completion of the Third Track in Nassau County, the opening of Grand Central Madison, $100 million in efficiencies, and new technological and ticketing innovations for riders.

“With these important accomplishments under our belt, it’s a good time to begin the process of my transitioning out of my role of interim president of the Long Island Rail Road,” Rinaldi said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Metro-North president Catherine Rinaldi announced Monday that she is stepping down from her role as interim Long Island Rail Road president. LIRR senior vice president of operations, Robert Free, will take over as acting president.
  • The decision follows growing frustrations from LIRR commuters and their representatives about having to share a leader with another railroad — an arrangement they said resulted in neglect of some Long Island issues.
  • Rinaldi will continue to advise the LIRR on issues affecting both railroads.
Rinaldi, seen here on Feb. 22, 2022, will remain as...

Rinaldi, seen here on Feb. 22, 2022, will remain as head of Metro-North, a role she’s held for about six years. Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Auth/Marc A. Hermann

The change follows complaints from Long Island commuters and their representatives about the LIRR having to share a leader with sister railroad Metro-North. Earlier this month, the two MTA Board members representing Nassau and Suffolk told Newsday it was time for the LIRR to have its own leader.

Even while giving Rinaldi, who grew up in Huntington, high marks in her dual role, critics said having her do double duty resulted in some Long Island commuter concerns not receiving the attention they deserved.

Rinaldi’s tenure at the LIRR coincided with a major dip in customer satisfaction, according to survey results released in July. Riders railed against a schedule overhaul, related to the opening of Grand Central Madison, that resulted in fewer Penn Station trains, longer travel times for some and more inconvenient transfers.

Some riders also were unhappy with the recent elimination of the 20-Trip Ticket, which offered discounts for part-time commuters, and for what they said were substandard station conditions. The LIRR also saw two Queens train derailments in the course 35 days between August and September.

Because Rinaldi lives in Westchester County — Metro-North’s service territory — and split her time between the LIRR’s Jamaica headquarters and Metro-North’s Manhattan ones, she was also less visible on Long Island than some of her predecessors. Phillip Eng, who held the LIRR president’s job before Rinaldi, commuted on the Port Jefferson line from his Smithtown home.

Rinaldi will remain as head of Metro-North, a role she’s held for about six years, and also will provide strategic advice on matters affecting both railroads.

“I’m excited to assume this new role and build on what we already achieved,” Rinaldi said.

LIRR labor leader Anthony Simon, in a statement, commended Rinaldi for doing “an excellent job” in running the two busiest commuter railroads in the United States and thanked her for her leadership.

But Simon, who heads the railroad conductors union, agreed it is important that each railroad have its own leader “to take on nonstop challenges.”

New LIRR head started as station cleaner

Free joined the LIRR more than 30 years ago, beginning as a station cleaner and working his way up through the transportation department until getting the operations chief gig in March 2020.

Simon said Free’s operational experience and institutional knowledge “will serve him well in leading the way for the LIRR.”

Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, praised Rinaldi and expressed confidence in Free, who “knows all of the moving parts of the new LIRR schedules inside and out, including what the LIRR needs to do to continue to improve.”

Upon Eng’s resignation, Lieber appointed Rinaldi to the interim president’s job 18 months ago. With the LIRR working toward moving into Metro-North’s longtime home terminal at Grand Central upon the completion of East Side Access, Lieber reasoned it made sense to have one person lead both railroads.

The MTA Board’s two Long Island representatives on Monday both applauded Rinaldi for the job she did, while also acknowledging the LIRR needed to have its own leader.

“We owe you a big ‘thank you,’ ” Suffolk representative Samuel Chu said. “Certainly the Long Island Rail Road should have its own president. That was always the plan, to return to that. But we had extraordinary circumstance that necessitated someone with your knowledge and capacity coming into this role.”

Nassau representative David Mack said the move was “long overdue,” and that he had been advising Lieber for six months that he should appoint a dedicated president for the LIRR.

“Unfortunately, it took this long,” Mack said. “We love Cathy. I work with her. She’s great. But we need our own person.”

MTA Board members representing Metro-North’s service area appeared less convinced that the change was necessary. Blanca Lopez, of Westchester County, said she was “a little disappointed” because she expected the MTA would save money by not paying two railroad presidents’ salaries.

Public records show that while serving in her dual role for most of 2022, Rinaldi earned $372,639 last year, making her the third-highest paid employee, behind Lieber and MTA Police Chief Robert Rau. As the respective presidents of Metro-North and the LIRR in 2022, Rinaldi and Eng both made around $323,000 in 2021.

LIRR officials would not say Monday whether Rinaldi would keep her salary, and what Free would be paid in his new role.

Putnam County representative Neal Zuckerman suggested that he favored closer synergy between the railroads, rather than creating “separateness for the sake of separateness.”

“There is no value in that. I understand why there’s the desire for a singular LIRR leader. I get that and I respect that decision and that choice. But please, let’s make sure we’re not doing things differently just to do it,” Zuckerman said.

Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) launched the most recent push for the LIRR to have its own president, after seeing “too many little things fall through the cracks.” Following the announcement Monday, Solages thanked Rinaldi and acknowledged “the many contributions she made during her tenure as interim president.”

Solages welcomed Free into his new role, but also “strongly” urged the MTA to search for a permanent LIRR president.

“We must prioritize finding a leader who not only possesses the necessary expertise, but also understands the unique challenges of our Long Island commuters,” Solages said.

In brief remarks at the Manhattan meeting, Free thanked Lieber for the opportunity to lead the railroad, and called it “an honor to be able to be put in this position.”

“I just want everybody to know that I’ll try my hardest to make the best of the railroad and the MTA as a whole,” Free said.

Discussing the growing calls for a dedicated LIRR leader, Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a business advocacy group, said “the issue has never been about Mrs. Rinaldi’s professionalism.”

“It is the fact that the LIRR is one of the most complex, heavily traveled commuter lines in the nation and requires the exclusive focus of the individual tasked with running it,” Strober said.

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

Updated now A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports. Credit: Newsday Staff

Updated now A Newsday analysis shows the number of referees and umpires has declined 25.2% in Nassau and 18.1% in Suffolk since 2011-12. Officials and administrators say the main reason is spectator behavior. NewsdayTV's Carissa Kellman reports.

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