'Up-and-over' in a wheelchair: LIRR riders with disabilities struggle under new service
The yellow tape across the Jamaica station elevator punctuated an already challenging morning for Nadia Holubnyczyj.
Heading in her wheelchair toward the third elevator ride since beginning her rush hour journey at the Floral Park LIRR station on March 16, her commute was stopped cold when the elevator to take her down to the next train to Penn Station was out of service.
“What do I do now?” said Holubnyczyj, 54, who was soon surrounded by Long Island Rail Road personnel outlining her options: wait for a later Penn Station train arriving on a different track, or cut through a stopped train to get from one platform to the other.
“This is now not a smooth commute,” said Holubnyczyj, who was born with a genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta. “This is now stress.”
WHAT TO KNOW
- Long Island Rail Road riders with disabilities say the new service plan has been particularly challenging for them, including by requiring more transfers across different platforms at Jamaica Station.
- The MTA's chief accessibility officer said he believes customers with disabilities will adapt to the new schedules, which provide many more opportunities to catch a train at Jamaica.
- MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber said the transit agency is committed to addressing accessibility, and would look for opportunities to address concerns raised by passengers with disabilities.
It’s a sentiment that’s been widely shared by riders with disabilities since the LIRR last month pulled the trigger on its overhauled service plan for the opening of Grand Central Madison. The new operation entails far more frequent transfers at Jamaica — many of them requiring that passengers trek from one platform, up to the overhead pedestrian walkway, over to another platform, and back down again.
An inconvenience to most any rider, the new system has been particularly onerous for those with mobility issues, who already have to conquer multiple challenges to ride the LIRR. They include gaps between platforms and train doors, stations that are not accessible, maneuvering through crowds, and, as Holubnyczyj knows too well, malfunctioning elevators.
Although the chief of accessibility for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the LIRR’s parent organization — encouraged riders with disabilities to try to adapt to the new system, the MTA’s chairman, on Thursday, acknowledged to Newsday that the transit agency must “look for opportunities” to make the LIRR’s new operation more accessible.
“I am concerned about the impact on that community from the changes in Jamaica,” said MTA chairman and CEO Janno Lieber, who added that enhancements should be made so riders with disabilities “can use the system as well as everybody else.”
The railroad reconfigured its operation at Jamaica to accommodate added service to its new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison. The changes have included doing away with some across-the-platform transfers at Jamaica, including for most Brooklyn trains, which now arrive and depart from a dedicated platform on the far south side of the station. What’s more, the railroad has done away with timed transfers, meaning that trains no longer wait for connections.
Mad dash at Jamaica
The new operation has sent hurried commuters on a mad dash at Jamaica so as not to miss their train, and left potential riders with limited mobility like Kathleen Downs, choosing to avoid the LIRR altogether.
“I would really like to take the train, because I would be able to go to more places on my own,” said Downs, 30, of Floral Park, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.
At a public hearing about the new service in August, she implored the railroad to consider the needs of riders with disabilities. She said she feels like her input, and those of other customers with disabilities, were ignored.
“For people with disabilities or without disabilities, I don’t know what they were thinking,” Downs said. “The up-and-over is not going to work for me. It doesn’t work well for able-bodied people. So if they can’t move fast enough, how am I going to move fast enough?”
MTA chief accessibility officer Quemuel Arroyo, who also uses a wheelchair, said he sympathizes with the frustrations of transit riders with disabilities, but believes some of the issues will dissipate as they adapt to the new schedules, which include nearly 300 additional trains each weekday. That means rather than going through the trouble of navigating to a different platform at Jamaica for a transfer, some riders can stay put and wait for the next train arriving at the platform they’re already on.
“You have trains every three, four, five minutes. So that rush that people have in their minds is because they’re thinking of the old schedule, of how things used to be,” said Arroyo, a senior adviser to Lieber who rejected the notion that the MTA dismisses the concerns of people with disabilities. “We want a seamless experience for all our riders. And accessibility is now one of the two prisms by which everything at the MTA is looked at. It’s safety and accessibility that’s driving everything that we’re doing at the MTA today.”
Although westbound trains are frequent at Jamaica during the morning rush hour, trains to specific eastbound destinations can be much further apart, especially outside of the peak period.
Arroyo noted that the MTA’s current $55 billion Capital Plan includes $5.2 billion in accessibility upgrades throughout the transit system — the most ever spent by the agency. Seven LIRR stations are in line for accessibility enhancements, like new elevators, including Amityville, Copiague, Lindenhurst and Massapequa Park. The upgrades will bring the number of accessible LIRR stations to 116 out of 126.
The MTA, following a settlement last year in a pair of class action suits filed by disability advocates, have also vowed to make 95% of all subway stations accessible by 2055.
“It’s something that we’re pretty passionate about. I think the way we’ve handled things over the past couple of years demonstrates that,” said Lieber, who at a Smithtown event Friday also noted that the LIRR has already "figured out … how to manage track assignments so there's less and less of that up-and-over" transferring at Jamaica.
Arroyo also encouraged customers with disabilities to take advantage of the LIRR Care Program, created in 2018, that allows customers to arrange for assistance getting on and off a train before arriving to their station. According to the program’s website, customers should reach out “at least two hours before the scheduled departure time.”
The LIRR Care Program received 2,491 requests last year. Railroad officials said they do not have estimates on how many of their riders have physical disabilities.
But Bryanna Copeland of Franklin Square said, like other LIRR riders, she wants to be able to catch a train at a moment’s notice, and wishes the railroad wouldn’t put unnecessary obstacles in her way, including complicated transfers.
Despite the roadblocks, Copeland, who has had both legs amputated, said she still frequently uses the LIRR for medical appointments in Manhattan, or just to visit friends.
“There are a lot of people with disabilities that are, I guess, fearful to take public transportation, just because of all the issues. But me, I’m just like, ‘OK, I’m going to run into this issue. And I’m going to tell you what you can do to fix it,” Copeland, 30, said. “I’ve got somewhere to be, just like everybody else does.”