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LIRR blames crowded conditions, delays on shortage of train cars

The Long Island Rail Road has 1,145 cars, but that number dropped after last month's accident at a crossing in Westbury. That accident, in which three people were killed, caused 20 cars to be pulled from service.

LIRR riders board the 5 p.m. train to

LIRR riders board the 5 p.m. train to Long Beach at Penn Station on Jan. 22. According to statistics, the LIRR's fleet last year operated with an average of five fewer cars weekday mornings than in 2017. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

The Long Island Rail Road often does not have enough train cars to adequately serve its booming ridership, resulting in dangerous crowding conditions and increased delays as commuters struggle to squeeze on and off short trains, LIRR officials said.

According to LIRR statistics, the railroad operated with an average weekday fleet availability shortage of five cars in 2018, as a host of issues — from flat spots in train wheels caused by wet leaves on tracks to issues with the installation of positive train control technology — have forced several cars onto the sidelines throughout the past year.

“Our fleet is fully utilized. We don’t have any spare trains. Every train that we run is in the system every day,” LIRR president Phillip Eng said at a Woodbury event hosted by the Advancement for Commerce Industry and Technology in January. “So you can imagine if we have issues and have to take them out of service. That’s not how you can provide reliable service.”

The railroad counts the total size of its "rolling stock" at 1,145, but that number dropped, at least temporarily, after last month’s fatal train accident in Westbury. A total of 20 cars, on two trains, had to be pulled from service after the crash for repairs and safety testing, causing railroad officials to cancel some scheduled trains in the days after the accident because they didn’t have enough cars to operate them. At least two of the damaged cars likely will not return to the fleet, officials said.

Eng said Friday morning's rush hour was the first since the accident that the railroad did not operate any short trains.

The situation has frustrated commuters, who said they repeatedly have experienced some rush-hour trains, which are typically 10 to 12 cars long, missing as many as four cars. The shortage has forced riders to cram into the short trains, and contributed to delays caused by extended passenger loading and unloading times.

Bellmore commuter Krista Loughnane said she regularly has experienced the anguish of seeing her train pull up at the platform at least two cars short.

“You get down to the platform and you say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” Loughnane said. “You see that the train is all the way in the other direction. And you know what you’re going to be in for when you see that.”

Loughnane said the short trains typically contain dangerous, standing-room crowds down every aisle and in every vestibule. “Everyone — they just look tortured,” she said.

The severity of the LIRR's train shortage is clear from the agency's regular "standee reports," which tally the number of passengers in excess of train seating capacity on the average weekday. For passengers traveling east of Jamaica, in December that figure reached a combined 686 in the morning and evening rush hours — more than double the amount from a year earlier, 329.  

LIRR officials have said the car shortage is symptomatic of the “razor-thin” inventory of spare trains available to slot into place when a train breaks down. To run its regular service daily, the railroad needs 900 electric cars, 140 bievel diesel coaches and 31 diesel locomotives, according to the LIRR, which noted industry standards dictate it keep a reserve of extra trains that equal about 15 percent of its fleet. But the LIRR has been operating with a reserve of just 5 percent, which can be eaten up with any technical problem that arises. And, statistics show, those problems are occurring a lot more frequently.

An important metric regularly reported by the railroad known as MDBF — or mean distance between failures — has fallen steadily in recent years. The measure marks how far the average LIRR train travels before it breaks down. In 2016, that figure was 216,772 miles. In 2017, it was 193,883. And last year, it was 185,217 miles.

Those figures have been dragged down by reliability problems with a relatively small portion of the railroad’s overall fleet. The railroad’s 142 “M3” electric cars, which rolled out in the early 1980s, travel about 74,600 miles on average between failures. And the railroad’s 179 diesel cars break down, on average, every 52,000 miles. In comparison, the LIRR’s M7 electric trains, which makes up nearly three-quarters of the fleet, run about 483,500 miles between breakdowns.

Anticipating another challenging year, the railroad has lowered its annual MDBF goal from 200,000 miles in 2018 to 185,000 miles this year.

In a report published last month, the LIRR acknowledged its declining reliability is “due to aging fleets, lower diesel fleet performance, and delays” in the delivery of its newest fleet of electric trains, known as the M9s.

The new cars — the first major addition to the railroad’s fleet in nearly two decades — will feature several upgrades, including multimedia screens with information for passengers, slightly wider seats and four to six additional seats per pair. The LIRR is paying about $734 million for the first 202 cars.

But the arrival of the M9s already has been delayed by nearly a year, having first been scheduled to roll out in June 2018, then in December, and now in May. The latest setback occurred when eight new cars were damaged in a yard derailment last year before they could be delivered to the LIRR.

The trains’ manufacturer, Kawasaki Rail Car Inc., of Yonkers, did not respond to a request for comment.

Peter Haynes, a former LIRR systems project specialist who now leads the LIRR Commuters Campaign, an advocacy group, said the depleted state of the railroad's inventory of cars is due to the agency waiting too long to replenish it. 

“The railroad has historically purchased a new fleet as a whole, rather than supplementing with cars periodically. So this kind of thing happens as their fleets age, and before they get whatever their next car is,” said Haynes, who suggested the railroad could have made more frequent, smaller purchases of cars. “Waiting until the whole thing falls apart and then buying a new batch has been done over and over, and it’s not working.” 

Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, which represents most LIRR workers, said his organization is “always sensitive to customers that are forced to stand” because of train car shortages, which also make it difficult for crews to collect fares and move through a train.

“Union workers will always prioritize the safety and comfort of our riders, but are unable to control the administrative or procurement issues that cause a shortage of cars,” Simon said.

With its newest fleet delayed and the overall size of its fleet shrinking by at least 10 cars in recent years because some trains have been deemed “unserviceable,” the railroad has struggled to keep up with demand. Its annual ridership of 89.1 million last year was the highest since 1949. The railroad's ridership, and the number of trains it runs, is expected to increase upon the completion of its East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal in 2022.

The LIRR has gone as far as to borrow coaches from the Maryland Area Regional Commuter Train Service in recent years to bolster its diesel fleet in the summer months. And Eng has said at least some of the railroad’s nearly 40-year-old M3 cars, which were supposed to be retired upon the arrival of the M9 cars, will be kept around for the foreseeable future.

Eng, who joined the railroad last April, in a January interview acknowledged the railroad should have “invested sooner” in addressing its aging M3 fleet.

Railroad officials have said they’ll pursue other ways to address their train shortage in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s next five-year Capital Program, expected later this year, which will fund major infrastructure investments through 2024. That could include plans to further electrify some portions of the LIRR system, thereby reducing the railroad’s reliance on diesel trains. It also could include funding for the next generation of LIRR train cars, already dubbed the M9-As.

Rather than selecting the lowest bid for the next car contract, the railroad will consider who can deliver the next fleet the fastest, Eng said Friday. The railroad plans to purchase at least 100 M-9As, and potentially as many as 315. Eng said he'll also add 30 diesel coaches in the next car order.

Eng credited the “Herculean efforts” of LIRR workers with containing the impact of the car shortage, including by working through the night to address technical issues and pre-position trains in time for the morning rush.

"LIRR employees work extraordinarily hard every day to overcome the limitations of our fleet, repairing cars quickly and safely and reducing the impact of short trains by distributing our cars as evenly as possible," Eng said Sunday. 

Mitch Simon, who has been riding the LIRR since 1981, said the recent spate of short trains is his single biggest commuting frustration. He said his morning train — the 6:52 out of Merrick — regularly operates two cars short, and the next train out of the station doesn’t come for another hour.

“Every day, it’s standing room only on that train. And it’s been going on for months,” said Simon, 60, whose $297 monthly LIRR ticket will climb to $308 in May. “We’re paying a lot of money, it’s going up, and it gets really frustrating that you have to start the day off like that — standing. It shouldn’t be like that.”

By the numbers

  • Average weekday ridership: 360,000
  • Fleet size: 1,145 cars
  • Shortage of available train cars on an average weekday: 5
  • Distance traveled by an average LIRR train between breakdowns in 2018: 185,217 miles, down from 193,883 in 2017
  • Number of passengers in excess of the LIRR’s seating capacity on an average weekday in December: 686, up from 329 in December 2017
  • Last major addition to the LIRR’s fleet: 2002

Source: LIRR, Federal Transit Administration

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