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LIRR president sees room for service improvement in snowstorms

Workers clear snow from Long Island Railroad tracks

Workers clear snow from Long Island Railroad tracks after a Jan. 23 blizzard caused massive delays for commuters. Credit: Uli Seit

The LIRR could perform better in major winter storms with more snow-fighting equipment, but commuters won’t see major improvements from the agency’s customer communications anytime soon, Long Island Rail Road president Patrick Nowakowski said Monday.

At a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s LIRR Committee, Nowakowski acknowledged areas where the railroad “could do better,” but said “don’t expect miracles” when it comes to improving the way train information is relayed to riders in storm events.

Nowakowski said bolstering the LIRR’s fleet of snow equipment, including additional track snow plows, jet engine-powered snowblowers and fuel trucks to keep blowers running, would help improve service in future blizzards. The railroad went through 35,000 gallons of fuel during the storm, he said.

“Obviously you need to get the fuel to where these things are and access is not always the easiest thing,” Nowakowski said. “That results in down time.”

Nowakowski said the railroad was looking at buying the additional equipment through its capital budget, but did not address other ways it would improve its snow response.

That drew concern from MTA board member Ira Greenberg, who represents the LIRR Commuter Council. Greenberg said the railroad’s communication problems during the blizzard were a key frustration for customers, including untimely, conflicting and inaccurate messages about service levels.

“Ultimately, what it winds up doing is ruining the credibility of the railroad,” said Greenberg, who suggested the LIRR consider hiring an outside contractor to improve communications with riders. “It’s not just this snowstorm. It’s an ongoing issue. It’s been ongoing for years.”

Nowakowski commended his employees for their “extraordinary effort” in restoring service after the Jan. 23 blizzard, which he said dumped around 30 inches of snow throughout most of the LIRR system. He also defended the LIRR’s communications efforts but said he understood riders want up-to-date information during a service problem although “we don’t always know what’s happening exactly when it happens.”

He said “there are times that information changes. Sometimes we can’t meet people’s expectations.”

In the short term, Nowakowski said, the LIRR is working on fixes to the railroad’s automated electronic station messages, which are known to provide inaccurate information during a major service disruption.

To significantly improve its communications with customers, Nowakowski said, the LIRR needs to centralize its train control operations. Currently, the LIRR controls most of its system from arcane signal towers spread across its system.

“It’s like going into the dark ages,” Nowakowski said, describing the LIRR’s dispatching operation, where dispatchers communicate with train crews and directors in towers over radios.

“In the long term, we need to get to centralized train control,” Nowakowski said. “We need to have the ability to know where all our trains are.”

LIRR commuter Michael Radzicki, of Lindenhurst, said there’s no excuse for some of the railroad’s communications woes.

“They’ll announce at 5:50 that the 5:46 train is on time. Then, 30 seconds later, they’ll say it’s late,” said Radzicki, 51, who works in the technology sector. “Every time there’s a major issue, the story from the Long Island Rail Road is exactly the same. They say, ‘We’re going to work to get better. We apologize.’ At what point do they say, ‘All right. This is a priority.’ ”

It’s been a rough several weeks for the LIRR because of the storm and other recent major, rush-hour service disruptions, Nowakowski acknowledged. He cited separate disruptions caused by a faulty Amtrak signal cable, a suspension air bag rupturing under a train inside one of the East River Tunnels, and a train’s doors failing to close at Penn Station.

“We’ve gone through a bad stretch here lately,” Nowakowski said. “We’re all very focused to get ourselves back on track.”

The rough start to 2016 followed a record year for train reliability in 2015, according to the LIRR.

The agency reported Monday that the average distance trains traveled before breaking down last year was 208,383 miles — the highest since the railroad began keeping records 35 years ago.

Last year was also more than 300 percent better than 2005, when trains broke down every 50,000 miles. The railroad attributed the improvement to better train maintenance.

In a statement, the LIRR Commuter Council said the improved reliability figures don’t tell the full story of the commuting experience, which includes “dirty and unusable on-board restrooms, damaged seats repaired with advertising posters or tape, overcrowding, signal problems, delayed trains, and confusing and contradictory information about service status.”

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski addressed the railroad’s performance during last month’s snowstorm and other recent service disruptions. Here’s what he said:

  • The LIRR could use more plows, snowblowers and fuel trucks to fight winter weather.
  • The LIRR is doing its best to communicate with riders, but in a rapidly changing situation, doesn’t always have the information riders seek.
  • The LIRR is looking for ways to improve its problematic electronic messaging system at station platforms, but riders shouldn’t expect “a miracle.”
  • Centralized train control is needed to better monitor and communicate with trains in real time during a major service problem.
  • Despite recent problems, LIRR stats show that, on average, trains broke down once every 208,383 miles — less than in any other year in recorded history.

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