LIRR ridership jumps 50%, but still millions of passengers below peak
The Long Island Rail Road saw a 50% increase in ridership last year compared to 2021 while maintaining near record high on-time performance, but ridership levels remain well below pre-pandemic levels.
The 52.5 million passengers carried in 2022 is still substantially less than the 91.1 million the LIRR transported in 2019, the most in 70 years. The following year, ridership plummeted to just 30 million as the COVID-19 pandemic decimated transit ridership throughout the U.S. It rose to 35 million riders in 2021.
As a sign some lapsed commuters finally returned to the office last year, rush hour ridership climbed 117% percent over 2021. The gains came even after the railroad in March returned to charging higher fares during peak periods. The railroad had suspended peak pricing since the start of the pandemic.
The 2022 annual ridership number factors in months early in the year, when ridership was still reeling during the spread of the omicron variant. Currently, the LIRR is carrying about 64% of its pre-COVID weekday ridership.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The Long Island Rail Road’s annual on-time performance reached 95.8% in 2022, a hair below its record, set in 2021, of 96.3%.
- LIRR and MTA officials noted that they sustained reliability even as ridership grew by 50% as compared to previous year. The railroad carried 52.5 million riders in 2022.
- Although the LIRR’s improved punctuality has come as it has carried fewer riders and run fewer trains because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the railroad’s interim president said it is also due to infrastructure investments made in recent years.
Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad's state-regulated rider advocacy group, said that while the railroad's latest ridership numbers are "encouraging," the railroad still has a long way to go. MTA officials have said they don’t expect ridership to return to pre-COVID levels until around 2035.
"People are coming back. But are enough of them coming back? That's the concern," said Bringmann, who noted that the decreased ridership has contributed to the MTA's fiscal woes. "We can't sit back and rest on our laurels and say, 'Hey, they're coming back. It's all good.'"
Pointing to the lost fare revenue caused by remote working, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR's parent organization — has projected a recurring $2 billion annual deficit. The MTA has been making its case to state lawmakers about why they should support a financial rescue that includes a 5.5% fare increase and a 47% increase on the payroll mobility tax paid by eligible employers in the region. Long Island elected officials and riders have spoken out against the proposed tax increase, with some complaining about the levels of service.
MTA leaders have also pointed out to lawmakers that, even as millions of riders returned to the trains, the LIRR's on-time performance held steady at 95.8%, half a percentage point less than the railroad’s record-setting on-time performance in 2021, 96.3%. MTA chairman Janno Lieber, at a January 30 MTA Board meeting, called it “for real, the best on-time performance … in real world conditions.”
LIRR trains have run on-time more frequently since the coronavirus outbreak, in part because the railroad has run fewer trains throughout the pandemic, and because crowding on trains and at station platforms had historically been a key contributor to train delays. But, with service at about 89% of pre-COVID levels, and the majority of riders back on trains, railroad officials say their improved performance is about more than just the effects of the pandemic.
“I think you’re beginning to see … the real payoff with respect to the years of investment in the infrastructure,” LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi said earlier this month. The LIRR considers a train on-time if it arrives at its final destination within five minutes and 59 seconds of scheduled time.
After sinking to 20-year lows in on-time performance in back-to-back years, the LIRR under former railroad president Philip Eng launched its “LIRR Forward” initiative in 2018, which sought to address the root causes of frequent delays, including failing infrastructure and weather events.
The railroad replaced aging track switches and cut back tree limbs near railroad property, so that they were less likely to fall onto tracks during storms. The railroad’s on-time performance steadily improved after the initiative was adopted.
Rinaldi noted that recent projects to increase the railroad’s capacity, including the Third Track between Floral Park and Hicksville, will help the LIRR sustain its improved performance.
Some LIRR riders said they’ve seen the improvements for themselves.
“Whenever I’ve taken it, it has been very reliable. I think that they have been very, very timely — almost to the minute a lot of the times,” Rhonda Scharf, of Roslyn, said upon arriving at the LIRR’s new Grand Central Madison station for the first time last week.
But New Hyde Park commuter Gordon Lewis said, in his observation, “there has not been much change, when you consider their definition of ‘on time.’” Gordon said his morning train—the 8:13 a.m. from Jamaica to Hunterspoint Avenue—picks him up “five to seven minutes late . . . almost every day.” But, it typically arrives at its final stop, Hunterspoint Avenue, less than six minutes after its scheduled time.
“I call that habitually late, but the LIRR calls that on-time,” Gordon said.