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MTA head Lhota: LIRR ‘status quo absolutely cannot continue’

Delays, cancellations, uncomfortable conditions and inaccurate updates have marred rush hours over the last two weeks.

Commuters wait on both platforms for a westbound

Commuters wait on both platforms for a westbound Long Island Rail Road train at the Jamaica station in Queens during the morning rush on Jan. 8, 2018. Photo Credit: Corey Sipkin

MTA chairman Joe Lhota is promising to take corrective steps to address the recent spate of LIRR service meltdowns that have plagued the commutes of tens of thousands of Long Islanders — including, potentially, a shake-up in LIRR personnel.

Incensed LIRR riders have been sounding off on social media about what they say has been an abysmal beginning to 2018 — and to Amtrak’s latest infrastructure renewal project at Penn Station.

On Friday, Lhota said he, too, is “not happy” and plans to do something about it.

“The status quo absolutely cannot continue,” said Lhota, adding that he is “looking at the organization” as he considers ways to improve the LIRR’s recent poor performance.

“Evaluation and re-evaluation of staff is always high on my priority list, and I’m doing that now within the Long Island Rail Road,” Lhota added, while declining to speak in detail of what a staff reshuffling would look like.

Unplanned delays and cancellations, uncomfortable conditions on trains and at stations, and inaccurate service-information updates have marred nearly every rush hour over the last two weeks. During the time, the LIRR has suspended service on one or more branches at least 17 times — about as many suspensions as in November and December combined.

LIRR officials have blamed the problem largely on the unusually severe weather that has dominated the winter, including prolonged temperatures well below freezing and last week’s intense storm. The snow, wind and arctic conditions have preyed on the railroad’s vulnerabilities, resulting in malfunctioning signals and train doors, frozen switches, broken rails, downed power lines and vehicles getting stuck at grade crossings.

But riders and advocates say many of their frustrations have little to do with the recent weather, or with Amtrak’s repair project at Penn, which has forced the railroad to reduce rush-hour service there.

One frustration voiced by many riders — about some trains operating with fewer cars than usual — has lingered since early December, when the LIRR took scores of trains out of service to repair wheels damaged in skids caused by fallen leaves on the tracks. Damage sustained in the Jan. 4 snowstorm forced more trains onto the sidelines.

Another common gripe has to do with the railroad’s dissemination of real-time service information, which some commuters say does not accurately depict actual conditions.

Rider David Finz of Islip said a recent train he boarded in his hometown that was supposed to arrive at Penn at 7:02 a.m. did not get there until 9:22 a.m. — two hours and 20 minutes late.

“But throughout that entire time, it was showing on the website as running 15 minutes late. It was absurd,” said Finz, 49. “I don’t know how they’re able to present those figures with a straight face.”

The dramatic decline in service comes about six months after Lhota promised a “new normal” for the railroad that would include improved reliability and better communication with customers.

After posting its worst on-time numbers in 17 years from January until June, on-time performance sharply improved beginning in July, paradoxically at the time the agency was forced to reduce rush-hour service at Penn Station because of Amtrak’s “summer of hell” repairs there.

“It seems like something happened,” said Sayville commuter Mark Dazzo, 54, a 20-year LIRR rider who described the last couple weeks as among the most miserable ever. “I don’t know if they took their eye off the ball, or it’s truly the weather, or some combination of factors. But the last few weeks, things have really deteriorated. Maybe it’s a blip. I hope it is.”

Lhota rejected the notion that the LIRR has taken its “foot off the pedal” since the summer.

“The difference is the weather” he said, noting that the recent 14-day stretch of subfreezing temperatures was the longest since 1961.

But Lhota said while weather is a factor, it is not an excuse for the railroad’s recent performance.

He said he’ll look to the MTA’s comprehensive subway rescue plan that was recently adopted for lessons on how to improve LIRR service. Subway personnel have been providing more meaningful and accurate information to customers caught up in disruptions, he said.

And the MTA has pre-deployed workers to locations where they’ll have “the ability to respond quickly” to incidents.

“If everybody is positioned in and around Jamaica, it’s going to take a while to get to Ronkonkoma,” said Lhota, who would not provide a timeline for the changes to take effect.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky said urgency is required in addressing the LIRR’s service woes, which he said are “not acceptable.”

The Long Beach Democrat said the outrage he’s heard from commuters in recent weeks is at the highest volume since last spring, when service disruptions at Penn Station got so bad that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency and Amtrak took on its “summer of hell” repairs.

“This is even more concerning, because there you had a culprit. You knew exactly what had to be done to fix it,” said Kaminsky, who does not accept poor weather as a justification for the LIRR’s recent performance.

Rather, he worries that the recent service delays have a more pervasive, underlying cause.

“I think what this is telling us is that if you put just a little bit of weight on the system, it cracks and breaks and crumbles,” he said. “And I think that’s very, very scary.”

Lhota said the LIRR’s recent pressures have, to some degree, been compounded by the latest phase of Amtrak’s infrastructure renewal work at Penn Station, which began about a week ago.

The effort, which Amtrak says will conclude by May 28, includes the complete reconstruction of tracks 15 and 18, as well as a critical switching location at the eastern end of the station. The work is keeping one of Penn’s 21 tracks out of service at all times and has required the LIRR to reduce peak service at Penn by about 5 percent.

That’s meant rerouting some trains to Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, which has been beset by signal problems and other disruptions in recent days.

Lhota did not say, however, that the MTA intends to adjust the revisions that were made to the service schedule to accommodate the Amtrak work.

Amtrak Chief Engineer Gery Williams on Friday said the work being performed at Penn over the last week “has not contributed to any of the issues” faced by the LIRR.

He also defended the timing of the repairs — during the winter, when the region’s transportation network is prone to weather-related problems. He said the agency does not “want to wait any longer than necessary” to address aging and deteriorating track infrastructure in and around Penn.

“Although winter weather conditions pose the risk of service impacts, we still need to perform critical repairs,” Williams said. “We have a lot of work planned for Penn Station. We need to take advantage of every bit of time we can.”

Statistics on LIRR’s performance so far in January, as compiled by islirrontime.com—an independent organization that aggregates data provided by the MTA. The LIRR has not released official on-time performance figures for December or January.

January, as of Friday:

— 199 trains canceled or terminated early

— 1,002 trains late

All of December 2017:

— 229 trains canceled or terminated early

— 1,916 trains late

All of November 2017:

— 142 trains canceled or terminated early

— 1,544 trains late

Unplanned LIRR service suspensions on all or part of one or more branches

January, as of Friday:

— 17

December 2017

— 10

November 2017

— 8

Service suspensions in the last week:

— Jan. 12: Service temporarily suspended into and out of Penn Station because of an Amtrak signal problem.

— Jan. 12: Service temporarily suspended between Hicksville and Mineola because of a vehicle on the tracks near Westbury.

— Jan. 10: Service temporarily suspended into and out of Atlantic Terminal because of fire department activity in Brooklyn.

— Jan. 10: Service temporarily suspended between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma because of a vehicle on the tracks near Wyandanch.

— Jan. 9: Service temporarily suspended into and out of Atlantic Terminal because of signal trouble.

— Jan. 8: Service temporarily suspended on the Far Rockaway branch because of a vehicle on the tracks near Woodmere.

— Jan. 8: Service temporarily suspended on the Oyster Bay, Huntington, Port Jefferson and Ronkonkoma branches because a train struck and killed a person on the tracks at Mineola.

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