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LIRR: Major upgrades coming to station arrival clocks

Previous software only allowed billboards to display scheduled train arrival times; the new technology is designed to show, in real time, how many minutes before a train will actually arrive.

Riders wait for their train on Thursday near

Riders wait for their train on Thursday near the countdown clock at the Mineola station. Photo Credit: Alfonso A. Castillo

Newly rolled-out arrival countdown clocks at most Long Island Rail Road stations are frustrating some commuters who say they are not accurate, but LIRR officials said major upgrades are on the way to improve their reliability.

The railroad last week completed the installation of the subway system-inspired countdown clocks on the existing digital billboards at 121 of its 124 stations. Penn Station, Atlantic Terminal and Jamaica, which use different technology for displaying train arrival and scheduling times, are not part of the project.

Unlike previous software, which only displayed scheduled train-arrival times, the new technology is designed to allow the billboards to show, in real time, how many minutes before a train will arrive. The messages also tell customers when a train is “arriving,” “boarding” or “departing.”

The countdown clocks rely on two pieces of technology: “timing points” built into tracks that interface with trains at various locations — including when they pull into and out of a station — and GPS systems installed on trains that allow the railroad to track their whereabouts.

LIRR officials said the new countdown clocks also aim to address complaints from customers about a train being reported as on time even if it is running up to five minutes behind — the railroad’s threshold before considering a train late.

“Our customers want information on where their trains are and they want it to be accurate and quickly accessible. Creating this new countdown clock system will do just that,” said new LIRR president Phillip Eng, who has pushed to expedite and expand the countdown clock program in his “LIRR Forward” plan announced last week.

“This initiative is a great example of incorporating and accelerating critical work that improves service and communication with our customers in a manner that looks to maximize production and find efficiencies in our work,” Eng added, in comments offered at the time he announced the plan.

But rather than provide them with useful information, some customers say the new countdown clocks have only added to their confusion.

On Thursday at Mineola station, where countdown clocks were installed last summer, digital signs counted down the minutes for a Penn-bound train that was scheduled to arrive at 12:26 p.m. At 12:25, the signs said it was a minute away even as audio announcements told riders the train was running late.

The signs continued to tell customers that the train was one minute away until it arrived — around 10 minutes late.

Antonio Gerena, who takes that train most days, said the countdown clocks are inaccurate more times than not.

“It don’t help,” said Gerena, 55, of the Bronx, who uses the LIRR to get to and from his job at a Merrick day camp. “That’s why I don’t even pay it no mind.”

LIRR officials acknowledged that, until they complete the installation of GPS devices on most trains, the countdown clocks will not be fully functional. Some now rely on algorithms that consider scheduled train times, historic on-time performance and limited GPS coordinate data, the LIRR said.

The new GPS systems will provide real-time data about a train’s whereabouts every 10 seconds, the LIRR said. The railroad expects to complete installation of the devices by the end of the summer. Older-model electric trains, which will begin to be phased out of the fleet this year, will not get the upgrades.

Huntington commuter Carl Esposito doubts that, even in their final version, the countdown clocks will be useful.

“The only thing I find are reliable are live announcements,” Esposito, 60, said.

Despite the existing software limitations, LIRR commuter George Lawrence said he appreciated the technological upgrade, and the railroad’s effort to better communicate with its customers.

“I’ve seen it work properly before. . . . And I’ve seen it say ‘1 minute’ and it’s really turned out to be seven minutes,” said Lawrence, 59, of Hempstead, as he waited for an eastbound train at Mineola Thursday. “You still feel comfortable just knowing that the train is coming, anyway. That’s the bottom line. It’s going to happen.”

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