LIRR riders are starting to come back in big numbers, and many of them say railroad service levels need to come back, too.
With Long Island Rail Road weekday ridership levels at more than 50% of what they were in 2019 — a year the railroad set a modern ridership record — commuters and advocates say more trains are needed to give riders more options, and to allow them to keep a safe distance from each other.
"Today was the worst day. Four-seaters full. Six-seaters almost full. I had to fend off three people from sitting right next to me," Central Islip commuter Barbara Morrisey-Marquez said. "As of the last two weeks, it’s getting worse. And people are not OK with you saying, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with you sitting next to me.’ "
On several days this month, the LIRR has carried nearly 155,000 passengers on average, or roughly 54% of what it did in 2019. On weekends, the LIRR has regularly handled 80% of the riders it carried before the coronavirus pandemic.
Commuters say the difference is apparent the moment they arrive at their local train station and find mostly full parking lots. In the early days of the pandemic, the LIRR’s passenger counts plummeted to 3% of pre-COVID-19 levels.
While ridership levels have steadily increased, service levels have not. The railroad, which ran about 735 trains each a day before COVID-19, cut weekday service to around 70% of pre-pandemic levels in March 2020. After restoring it to as much as 90% in June 2020, it was again cut early this year.
The LIRR currently operates 638 trains every weekday, or about 85% of the 751 trains it ran in December 2019.
"I was on the train when I was the only one. And now I’m on the train when it’s a lot more full … You’re seeing a lot of people standing, which you never saw even six to eight weeks ago," said Freeport commuter David Kurman, 43, who has ridden the LIRR throughout the pandemic.
Kurman said that while he doesn't think the LIRR needs to put back its full schedule right away, "The conversation should be had now about, 'Where can we ease this a bit?' "
The railroad has been adjusting "schedules and service to match evolving ridership" since the pandemic started, LIRR spokesperson David Steckel said Tuesday. "The recent increases in weekday ridership are a positive sign. The LIRR will continue to be flexible, with focus on adding additional cars and narrowing gaps in service."
Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, raised the schedule issue to railroad brass at a meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board’s railroad committee on Monday. He noted that at some Montauk branch stations in Suffolk County, wait times between westbound trains can reach 1 hour and 21 minutes during the morning rush, and 1 hour and 39 minutes out of Penn Station during the evening peak travel period.
"We had lesser gaps during off-peak hours in the past," Bringmann said. "It makes it, in some cases, even better to drive than to try to take the train."
Robert Foran, chief financial officer for the MTA — the LIRR’s parent organization — has advocated "right-sizing" service to meet reduced demand as a way of keeping costs down. The MTA has projected that, by 2025, ridership may still be around 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels.
LIRR officials have said they closely monitor ridership levels and crowding conditions in real time, and make adjustments as needed, including by adding trains to the schedule or adding cars to a train. The LIRR’s next timetable adjustment, which takes effect Nov. 15, will add one morning and one evening rush-hour train on the Port Washington branch "in response to increased ridership."
That’s not nearly enough for some commuters, including Seaford customer Andy Cohen, who said he’s recently been on trains that seem nearly as crowded as they were before the pandemic started. And, with passengers’ comfort level in crowds far lower than before the pandemic, Cohen said it’s time the LIRR put its schedule back the way it was.
"I think they should go back to 100%," said Cohen, 55, who believes restoring service is especially urgent given the lax adherence to the LIRR’s mask policy on board trains. "If they’re not willing to enforce that, then they need to make sure there’s room on the train so you’re not on top of people."
What to know
LIRR riders say trains have become noticeably more crowded in recent weeks, and are urging the railroad to restore much of the service that it cut at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to railroad statistics, ridership has reached an average of nearly 155,000 on several days in October — roughly 54% of what the LIRR carried in 2019. But service levels remain about 85% of pre-COVID-19 levels.
LIRR officials have said they closely monitor ridership and crowding conditions in real time, and make adjustments as necessary, including by adding trains to the schedule and adding cars to trains.