East Islip resident Phyllis Klecka, who has been riding the...

East Islip resident Phyllis Klecka, who has been riding the Long Island Rail Road for 60 years, holds a commemorative ticket Wednesday recogizing her years of ridership. Credit: Craig Ruttle

On its 190th birthday, the Long Island Rail Road celebrated.

No bar car raucousness for the oldest railroad in the country still operating under its original name, born April 24, 1834; just a gathering of 100 or so railroad enthusiasts Wednesday in the Grand Central Madison concourse.

The event featured the unveiling of an exhibit of railroad treasures collected over the centuries — tickets, replica engines, the railroad charter — and appearances by railway luminaries, including LIRR President Rob Free and Phyllis Klecka, an East Islip woman who has been commuting by LIRR since 1964 and is the current longest-tenured Mail & Ride Monthly ticket holder.

The railroad, Free said, helped in “building a region that has become a powerhouse.” In coming years, he said, “our main focus will be state of good repair, and as we progress, we’ll look to see what we can do to enhance our service.”

Though it is sometimes the butt of jokes — an LIRR Facebook post this week about the birthday was almost immediately hijacked by snarky comments about ticket prices and foggy windows — LIRR’s ridership numbers show that it is a critical regional connector.

It is the busiest commuter rail in North America, carrying approximately 200,000 customers each weekday, and its on-time performance in February, the last month for which data was available, was 96.3%. The railroad only considers a train late if it arrives at its final destination 6 minutes or more after its scheduled time.

The LIRR began as a way to connect passengers from New York City and points south to Boston, said Stephen Quigley, president of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, in his remarks at Wednesday's celebration. It replaced a 32-hour journey that included two ferries and a stage coach ride with one that took only 11 hours, carrying passengers by rail to Greenport, across Long Island Sound by ferry and then north by rail again.

Eventually evolving into a commuter railroad, the LIRR expanded service from a line that ran through the middle of Long Island to include lines that serve the North and South shores, said David Morrison, a railway historian and former branch line manager, in an interview. After Penn Station service started in 1910, “communities started to thrive” on Long Island, he said. “You could just get on a train and ride into Manhattan.”

The railroad pioneered the use of all-steel passenger cars and a version of multimodal transport, hauling wagons full of East End produce into the city on flat cars, Quigley said.

More recent innovations like electrification, second- and third-track sections, Penn Station renovation and the opening of Grand Central Madison helped streamline operations, Quigley said.

“Imagine if the LIRR didn’t exist, what would the Long Island Expressway look like during rush hour: 100,000 more cars, maybe,” he said.

Quigley, like some of the other guests, had strong personal memories about this public institution. He recalled the time when he and other regulars on the Babylon line threw a baby shower for a commuter who was becoming a mother.

Gary Farkash, a wine salesperson and trustee of the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, talked in an interview about how he’d been spending much of his free time rebuilding an old steam locomotive taken out of LIRR service in 1955, and about his pre-COVID-19 commute by train into the city four days per week. 

“I didn’t have to be behind the wheel, aggravated. I could read my notes, prepare for the day,” Farkash said. “I’m ready to go.”

Most of his accounts are now on Long Island and he drives to visit them, he said. 

Klecka, who began commuting as a college student and has continued for decades as assistant to the president of the New York Design Center in Midtown, said she took the 5:49 a.m. into Penn and a 5:15 p.m. back.

She has always used her commute as private time to read, she said. Klecka lived through the era of the bar car, a tradition she disliked because it came with so much cigarette smoke she called it the “coughing car.”

In the early days, the trains were “hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” she said. “Now it’s very comfortable.”

On its 190th birthday, the Long Island Rail Road celebrated.

No bar car raucousness for the oldest railroad in the country still operating under its original name, born April 24, 1834; just a gathering of 100 or so railroad enthusiasts Wednesday in the Grand Central Madison concourse.

The event featured the unveiling of an exhibit of railroad treasures collected over the centuries — tickets, replica engines, the railroad charter — and appearances by railway luminaries, including LIRR President Rob Free and Phyllis Klecka, an East Islip woman who has been commuting by LIRR since 1964 and is the current longest-tenured Mail & Ride Monthly ticket holder.

The railroad, Free said, helped in “building a region that has become a powerhouse.” In coming years, he said, “our main focus will be state of good repair, and as we progress, we’ll look to see what we can do to enhance our service.”

Though it is sometimes the butt of jokes — an LIRR Facebook post this week about the birthday was almost immediately hijacked by snarky comments about ticket prices and foggy windows — LIRR’s ridership numbers show that it is a critical regional connector.

It is the busiest commuter rail in North America, carrying approximately 200,000 customers each weekday, and its on-time performance in February, the last month for which data was available, was 96.3%. The railroad only considers a train late if it arrives at its final destination 6 minutes or more after its scheduled time.

The LIRR began as a way to connect passengers from New York City and points south to Boston, said Stephen Quigley, president of the Long Island Sunrise Trail Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, in his remarks at Wednesday's celebration. It replaced a 32-hour journey that included two ferries and a stage coach ride with one that took only 11 hours, carrying passengers by rail to Greenport, across Long Island Sound by ferry and then north by rail again.

Eventually evolving into a commuter railroad, the LIRR expanded service from a line that ran through the middle of Long Island to include lines that serve the North and South shores, said David Morrison, a railway historian and former branch line manager, in an interview. After Penn Station service started in 1910, “communities started to thrive” on Long Island, he said. “You could just get on a train and ride into Manhattan.”

The railroad pioneered the use of all-steel passenger cars and a version of multimodal transport, hauling wagons full of East End produce into the city on flat cars, Quigley said.

More recent innovations like electrification, second- and third-track sections, Penn Station renovation and the opening of Grand Central Madison helped streamline operations, Quigley said.

“Imagine if the LIRR didn’t exist, what would the Long Island Expressway look like during rush hour: 100,000 more cars, maybe,” he said.

Quigley, like some of the other guests, had strong personal memories about this public institution. He recalled the time when he and other regulars on the Babylon line threw a baby shower for a commuter who was becoming a mother.

Gary Farkash, a wine salesperson and trustee of the Oyster Bay Railroad Museum, talked in an interview about how he’d been spending much of his free time rebuilding an old steam locomotive taken out of LIRR service in 1955, and about his pre-COVID-19 commute by train into the city four days per week. 

“I didn’t have to be behind the wheel, aggravated. I could read my notes, prepare for the day,” Farkash said. “I’m ready to go.”

Most of his accounts are now on Long Island and he drives to visit them, he said. 

Klecka, who began commuting as a college student and has continued for decades as assistant to the president of the New York Design Center in Midtown, said she took the 5:49 a.m. into Penn and a 5:15 p.m. back.

She has always used her commute as private time to read, she said. Klecka lived through the era of the bar car, a tradition she disliked because it came with so much cigarette smoke she called it the “coughing car.”

In the early days, the trains were “hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” she said. “Now it’s very comfortable.”

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