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Patrick Nowakowski, embattled head of the LIRR, to step down

On May 12, 2014, his first day as

On May 12, 2014, his first day as president of the LIRR, Patrick Nowakowski rides an elevator at Jamaica Station en route to railroad offices. Credit: Uli Seit

Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski will resign from his office effective Friday, MTA officials said Wednesday.

Nowakowski’s resignation comes amid growing calls from commuters, advocates, MTA board members and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota for a shakeup at the LIRR, which has been beset by service and communications woes. Last year was the railroad’s worst for on-time performance in 18 years and, January, its worst month in 22 years.

“I thank Pat for his service to LIRR customers and his steady and evenhanded leadership of the railroad at a time when external events caused challenges for the railroad, particularly Amtrak’s renewal of tracks and infrastructure at Penn Station that the entire LIRR depends on,” Lhota said in a statement Wednesday night.

Nowakowski, 64, recently proposed a comprehensive improvement plan for the railroad, which is expected to cost up to $20 million and include dozens of initiatives to upgrade technology, harden infrastructure and boost communication efforts.

But the 39th president of the LIRR will not be around to see his plan through.

Nowakowski, who has served as the head of the LIRR for four years, said Wednesday his decision came after taking “a few days off to think about things.”

“I’m pleased with the direction the railroad is headed under the Performance Improvement Plan, and I decided that now was a good time to step aside and allow new leadership to continue the progress we’ve begun to make on improving customer service,” Nowakowski said in a statement.

Critics have derided Nowakowski for what they deem questionable decisions, and not doing enough to keep the public in the loop about what’s going wrong and how problems will be fixed. He has kept a low public profile throughout the railroad’s recent struggles — typically only surfacing at monthly MTA meetings to provide explanations and, occasionally, face rebukes from some MTA Board members.

Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a nonprofit advocacy group, said last week that running the LIRR demands both “professional expertise and public engagement,” and that Nowakowski’s failure to master the latter has hurt him.

“Pat is a skilled technocrat who understands the nuts and bolts of the railroad, but he has failed at understanding the LIRR commuter,” Strober said. “Unlike his predecessor, Helena Williams, who had an omnipresence on Long Island, Pat has never publicly expressed empathy for the commuters’ daily experience unless he was compelled to do so before the MTA Board.”

Nowakowski arrived at the LIRR in 2014, replacing Williams, who is now deputy Nassau County executive.

“The LIRR has endured some very difficult times with many more challenges ahead,” Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR’s largest union, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, said Wednesday. “We wish him luck in the future. My organization and I will work with the new leadership and assist in whatever way we can to help them succeed.”

Nowakowski, who had extensive experience leading rail systems in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., was cast as the antithesis of the politically smooth and image-conscious Williams: a sharp, albeit unpolished, engineer who would focus on fixing problems rather than talking about them.

That approach was on display when, a year after a crush of riders leaving the Belmont Stakes caused dangerous crowding and hours of delays, Nowakowski came up with a plan to overhaul service at the racetrack, including by upgrading the LIRR station and using tracks on the adjacent Hempstead branch to store trains. Belmont Stakes service has gone off without much of a hitch since.

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