The Long Island Rail Road, which faced dire predictions of a “summer of hell” from Amtrak’s repair-related track outages at Penn Station, performed better in July than it has any other month this year.
The strong showing by the LIRR, despite reduced capacity at the Manhattan rail hub, is attributable to the removal of some of Penn’s most problematic tracks from service, faster responses to incidents from Amtrak and the LIRR, and improved coordination among, and within, the various agencies involved in moving the LIRR’s 308,000 daily riders, experts said.
The LIRR reported that 93.1 percent of its trains ran on time in July — 3 percentage points better than the LIRR’s average for the first six months of this year. It was also the LIRR’s best on-time month since September 2016.
“The hard work this summer paid off for customers, and the LIRR and MTA should uphold these high standards of service year-round,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.
Mass transit advocates agree that they have seen a level of effort and attention to service quality absent in the months leading up to this summer, which were plagued by frequent, and major, service disruptions.
“The last few weeks I’ve gone to stations at 6 in the morning to talk to commuters . . . Almost everyone has the same thing to say to me, which is, ‘It’s never run better,’” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), a frequent critic of the LIRR. “When the responsible agencies are focused on it and know everyone is looking . . . things start to work.”
According to islirrontime.com, an independent website that compiles LIRR performance figures based on publicly reported data, the railroad averaged 3.16 cancellations per day in July — fewer than half of the 8.16 cancellations it averaged during the first six months of 2017 — and 43.87 delays per day, which is also below the 52.4 monthly average in the first half of the year.
In June alone, the LIRR averaged 5.5 cancellations and 71 delays per day. August is similarly on pace to outperform the first half of the year, according to the site.
Amtrak took on the summer infrastructure renewal work at Penn — the nation’s busiest train station — after a string of infrastructure failures there resulted in major service disruptions, including three train derailments in about four months.
The work, concentrated on a particularly problematic area just west of the station’s platforms, has required taking between three and five of Penn’s 21 tracks out of service throughout the summer, including during rush hours. The work is supposed to wrap up over Labor Day weekend, and Amtrak officials have said they are ahead of schedule.
Having endured crippling service disruptions on a near-weekly basis in the months leading up to the project, many commuters feared that the reduced capacity at Penn would only magnify the railroad’s problems. The opposite has occurred.
Major problems originating in Penn Station and its adjacent East River tunnels have been few and far between. Problems in recent weeks at the station, used by 600,000 people daily, have been addressed by bolstered Amtrak crews, which were pulled from planned efforts throughout the Northeast to be on standby near Penn throughout the summer.
Scot Naparstek, chief operating officer for Amtrak, said “a lot of work went on behind the scenes” to ensure summer train service to and from Penn went off smoothly. Those measures include ramped-up inspections and infrastructure upgrades over weekends throughout the station in the weeks leading up to the project.
“We needed to harden those areas and those items prior to the July outages for us to be successful in July,” Naparstek said. “And it’s proven to be helpful.”
The LIRR has also experienced significant issues throughout the rest of its system, including a Long Beach train derailment and Jamaica signal failure both on July 18 and assorted broken rails and crossing gates on its Main Line in recent weeks. However, their impact has been largely contained and quicker responses have prevented them from bleeding into multiple rush hours.
“What I make of it is when they focus on something, they can get it done,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate minority leader who has criticized the state and federal governments for underinvesting in Penn Station and the LIRR. “You put in the focus, you put in the resources, you can make this work. And that’s what this summer proves.”
Peter Haynes, a former LIRR systems project specialist who now leads the LIRR Commuters Campaign, an advocacy group, attributed the stepped-up efforts of the LIRR and other transportation agencies in the region to Cuomo “leaning on them to get things done.”
“There’s nothing like an order from the top to get people to move,” said Haynes, adding that the railroad’s performance this summer is evidence that “there’s no reason for it to be as bad as it is” the rest of the year.
Cuomo, who initially predicted a “summer of hell” for commuters, has said the railroad’s smooth performance over the last six weeks has been the result of “extraordinary actions that we have taken at great cost and great effort.”
The governor has suggested those actions, which are costing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent agency — $58 million this summer, are not sustainable year-round. They have included supplementing trains with buses and ferries and offering fare discounts to Brooklyn and Queens to encourage commuters to avoid Penn.
“The reason it’s not turned into a summer of hell is because we moved heaven and earth,” Cuomo said in an interview. “We went to extraordinary lengths to avoid inconvenience to the rider.”
MTA board member Mitchell Pally of Stony Brook said that while it may be unrealistic for the MTA to duplicate measures taken during the Penn project year-round, the LIRR should consider ways to keep aspects of its summer plan intact. They included stationing extra personnel and equipment at key locations to more quickly respond to incidents, providing fare incentives to ease congestion during certain times and at certain locations, and generally improving communications and response times within the agency.
“Those are obviously expenditures that are short term now. Should they be long term? Should we budget for them for a longer period of time? That’s another thing that we’re going to have to take a look at,” Pally said. “The summer, which was supposed to be the abnormal, may end up becoming the normal.”
MTA chairman Joe Lhota has said the agency is already taking lessons learned during the summer and applying them to its regular operations. For instance, the agency is regularly staffing what he has dubbed the “war room” — an emergency operations center where representatives from the authority’s various agencies communicate with each other “whenever we have a problem anywhere in the system,” he said.
“One of the things that we’ve found during this LIRR situation this summer is that we’ve been able to determine that the silo-based decision-making that’s been world-renowned at the MTA needs to come to an end,” Lhota said. “We need to stop it. We need to have faster, quicker decision-making.”
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, said that while he congratulated the MTA and Amtrak for their successful efforts this summer, one of the key reasons trains have been running better is because there have been fewer of them.
“If there’s less service on the system, the system is going to work better,” Epstein said. “That’s the problem. The system is not really in the position to handle the amount of trains that are going in.”
Although Penn Station has operated with fewer hiccups than usual this summer, Epstein said he has been as “inundated” as ever by complaints of problems throughout the rest of the LIRR system.
“It’s there. It’s still happening,” Epstein said. “It’s just not as big as a derailment at Penn Station.”
LIRR 2017 On-Time Performance:
January: 92.4 %
Five reasons why the LIRR has run better than usual this summer:
1. Increased responsiveness by Amtrak and the MTA to unexpected problems. Both the MTA and Amtrak have positioned crews and equipment in key locations to quickly respond to problems when they arise.
2. Better communication within the MTA and between the MTA and Amtrak. The MTA has set up a round-the-clock “war room” with representatives from key departments and agencies to closely monitor and respond to situations. The MTA is also closely coordinating with Amtrak, which doesn’t happen all the time.
3. Fewer commuters at Penn. In addition to the usual dip in rush hour ridership that comes in the summer months, commuters have avoided Penn in big numbers, including by using alternative New York City terminals, like Atlantic Terminal and Hunterspoint Avenue. The LIRR’s fare discounts for those stations have helped. The reduced ridership has been essential in service running smoothly with fewer rush hour trains into and out of Penn.
4. Fewer tracks at Penn means fewer opportunities for something to go wrong. The “A interlocking” just west of Penn’s platforms had been a particularly problematic area. It’s where all three derailments between March and July occurred. Taking that interlocking and the nearby tracks out of service meant that they could not cause any problems over the summer.
5. Lots of planning. Both Amtrak and the MTA say a lot of planning went into this summer running as well as it has. For Amtrak, it meant ramping up inspections and making fixes on other tracks at Penn to ensure they did not encounter problems while the tracks being repaired were out of service. For the LIRR it meant designing a schedule that accounted for the reduced rush hour capacity at Penn, including by adding trains just outside of the rush hours.