Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joseph Lhota still believes new Long Island Rail Road president Phillip Eng is the right person to turn around the struggling agency, even as a growing number of riders say the quality of commutes has deteriorated sharply under the new leadership.
Lhota, the head of the MTA, said rather than hold against Eng the series of mishaps the LIRR has encountered this summer — including three derailments within two weeks and three straight days of snarled rush hours last week — he has been impressed with the railroad president’s response to every obstacle he has encountered.
“What’s amazed me is how quickly, in each and every one of these incidents, Phil is on the spot. Phil has deployed and redeployed resources. And the railroad comes back up quickly — a lot faster than it had,” Lhota said. “My confidence in Phil is as high today as when he was appointed president of the Long Island Rail Road.”
That vote of confidence is not shared by some railroad commuters who say they have been enduring one of the most prolonged stretches of miserable service they can remember. A change.org petition started Wednesday by Commack commuter Eric Trinagel, calling for fare refunds for riders who “have endured mental and physical anguish at the hands” of the LIRR, received nearly 1,200 signatures in its first day.
“I’ve been commuting out of Ronkonkoma since late 1991. Throughout all those years, it's never been as bad as it is now,” said Michele Meyer, who has battered the LIRR on Twitter in recent weeks over unreliable service and woeful communication with customers.
Despite Eng having joined the railroad just four months ago, Meyer has already called for his resignation, as has frequent LIRR user Matt Kamper of East Meadow.
“I think it’s warranted,” said Kamper, 24, a frequent critic of the LIRR on social media and on his YouTube channel. “Some stuff — obviously the maintenance and stuff like that — it can’t happen overnight. But the communication, I thought would be a lot better . . . than it has been.”
Eng, a lifelong Long Islander and Smithtown resident, said he sympathizes with his fellow commuters and remains confident that the answer to many of the railroad’s ailments is his LIRR Forward initiative, which aims to spend $132 million over the next four years on various service improvements.
“They have the right to their opinion. And I know that my intention is to gain their trust, and in the case of the ones that are calling for my resignation, to regain their trust. I care tremendously about what we’re doing. I wouldn’t have taken this position if I didn’t believe we could turn this around,” Eng said. “I know right now it looks like the same Long Island Rail Road. But it is a different attitude. It is a different approach.”
But, according to the LIRR’s own on-time performance metrics, little has changed since last year, when the railroad reported its worst performance rate in 18 years. Through June, the LIRR reported 90.5 percent of its trains running on time — slightly better than the first six months of 2017, when 90.1 percent of its trains were punctual. Statistics were not yet available for July, which saw several rush hours snarled by long delays and cancellations, including those caused by a derailment near Penn Station.
LIRR officials noted that some recent improvements have already made a difference, although they may not be readily apparent to customers. Since the LIRR elevated its Post Avenue Bridge in Westbury in October, there have been no Main Line disruptions caused by a truck striking the overpass there.
And, after witnessing a sharp increase in the number of incidents of motorists accidentally driving onto LIRR tracks at grade crossings, Eng expedited a project to install new safety devices at all 296 of its crossings, completing it last week, months ahead of schedule. Eng said there has been no recurrence of such accidents at crossings that have gotten the upgrades.
Lhota hand-picked Eng to run the LIRR in April, after expressing his dissatisfaction with what he said was a "lack of urgency" in addressing systemic problems at the railroad. Those issues were highlighted in a report issued Tuesday by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli that examined several service disruptions last winter and found that the railroad "did not have plans" in place to respond to many of them, and, in other cases, didn't follow the protocols that were in place. Lhota said Thursday he believes, under Eng, it's a different LIRR.
“Phil knows what it means to be able to respond quickly. He believes the same as I believe,” Lhota said. “They’re not just riders. They’re customers. And we've got to be able to provide them the best possible service. Phil gets that.”
William Henderson, executive director for the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a rider watchdog group, agreed that it was too early to pass judgment on Eng or his LIRR Forward initiative, but understood why many commuters already have done so.
“The riders are frustrated. On some level, you don’t care who is in charge. You just want someone to make it better. And whoever’s not making it better is the guy who’s got to go,” said Henderson, who believes it will take at least a year or more to be able to gauge the success of Eng’s various initiatives. “All the operating agencies at the MTA are huge organizations. And it takes a long time to turn the ship. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier.”
Christopher Jones, senior vice president for the Regional Planning Association, a nonprofit planning and policy group, agreed that given the size of the LIRR — the largest commuter railroad in the United States carrying nearly 90 million riders a year — and a long history of underfunding and management changes, “you can’t expect anybody to turn around that situation in a few months.”
“Certain things, like the derailments, those are the results of many years of disinvestment. It’s hard to say those are the sorts of things he could have prevented in his time there,” Jones said. “I think what you can start to expect seeing improvements on in the short run are things like customer communications. When problems happen, are customers getting accurate information?”
Eng has already made some changes in the LIRR’s communications strategy, including providing estimates on the potential length of a delay in customer alerts and having conductors provide more real-time service information at various stations so commuters are armed with meaningful information before a train. But he acknowledged he's got work to do in that area, and said he believes some recent organizational changes will allow the railroad to “better communicate internally, so that we can make sure the messaging goes out externally.”
And, Eng said, he believes his LIRR Forward plan, combined with several capacity improvement projects underway, will go a long way to preventing or mitigating many of the problems that have plagued the railroad this summer. Heightened track inspections and expedited replacement of aging track components could prevent switch and signal problems and derailments. A third track between Floral Park and Hicksville could help the railroad more quickly recover from accidents on the tracks. And efforts to harden LIRR infrastructure — including through increased lightning protection — could help the railroad better withstand severe weather, railroad officials have said.
Some of those improvements could come relatively soon. The railroad’s half-billion dollar effort to construct a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma is scheduled for completion later this month. Others will take many more years.
“It’s unfortunate that we live in an era where immediate success is the necessity, and anything less than that is a failure,” MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said of Eng’s critics. “I don’t think that's a fair standard to hold him and his team under.”
Summer of discontent
It’s been a hellish summer for Long Island Rail Road commuters, who in recent weeks have endured a series of major service meltdowns caused by everything from train derailments to lightning strikes to planned construction work. Here’s a sampling of those incidents:
July 1: Signal trouble at Babylon caused widespread delays on the Babylon and Montauk branches throughout the evening rush, with some trains running up to an hour late.
July 9: Signal trouble outside the East River Tunnels, and later at Babylon, caused multiple delays and cancellations during the morning and evening rush hours.
July 11: A disabled Amtrak train just west of Woodside station caused delays and cancellations throughout the evening rush.
July 13: The LIRR temporarily suspended service between Jamaica and Penn Station during the morning rush after a train struck and killed a person on the tracks near Woodside.
July 16: Amtrak’s late completion of scheduled work inside one of the East River tunnels resulted in delays and cancellations for the LIRR throughout the morning rush.
July 21: An LIRR train derailment just west of Penn Station caused cancellations and delays throughout the morning and evening rush on Monday, July 23. The LIRR did not notify the public about the derailment until more than 24 hours after it occurred.
July 28: Another train derailment at a storage yard in Jamaica resulted in one Montauk-bound train running with half as many cars as usual.
Aug. 1: A third LIRR train derailed near Woodside while carrying more than 400 passengers, snarling service on the Port Washington line for much of the day, including throughout the evening rush.
Aug. 6: Two fatal track accidents in Woodside and Hicksville — both investigated as suicides — caused cancellations and delays throughout the morning rush. Later, a Central Islip switch problem, a signal issue in Huntington, a weather-related track problem, an equipment shortage, and a broken crossing gate at New Hyde Park caused several more service problems throughout the evening rush.
Aug. 7: A lightning strike at an electrical substation in New Hyde Park sparked a fire that caused the LIRR to suspend service on the Oyster Bay, Huntington/Port Jefferson and Ronkonkoma branches for more than two hours.
Aug. 8: A power failure suspected to have been caused by another lightning strike in New Hyde Park resulted in delays of more than an hour and a half on the Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches, during the morning rush, with multiple trains canceled.
Aug. 10: Switch trouble near Mineola caused delays of 10 to 15 minutes on the Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches throughout the morning commute.
Other: Scheduled track work related to a number of LIRR infrastructure projects, including its installation of positive train control technology, its East Side Access project, and its construction of a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, resulted in several scheduled service outages throughout the summer, especially on weekends. The weekend changes include reduced Brooklyn and Port Washington service and buses replacing trains between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma.