The Long Island Rail Road has lost customers in six out of seven months through September, according to agency statistics, a trend some commuters and experts blame in part on high prices and substandard service.
But Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials have attributed the recent declines to several factors beyond their control, including the impact of Amtrak’s summerlong repair project in Penn Station, which they say cost them about 400,000 LIRR customers.
In March, May, June, July, August and September, the LIRR carried fewer riders than it did during the same months last year — reversing a two-year trend of steadily growing its customer base month after month. Some of those months coincide with the Penn Station repair work that began in early July and lasted eight weeks.
LIRR officials note that, through September, the railroad still carried 0.2 percent more riders than it did during the first nine months of 2016 — a year in which the railroad moved 89.3 million people, the most since 1949, when the railroad carried 91.8 million customers. But this year’s totals have been bolstered by January and February, when the railroad benefited from better winter weather than last year.
A variety of factors can contribute to fluctuations in ridership from month to month, the LIRR said, including weather events, service levels, fares, roadway congestion, population of the service region and demographic characteristics.
MTA chairman Joe Lhota said last month that he believes the decline in LIRR ridership is also “an early warning of an economy that is not as robust as it used to be.” The drop coincides with a steady increase in unemployment in New York State since March, according to state Department of Labor statistics.
“We are seeing a reduction in real estate revenues and other revenues that are coming in,” Lhota said. “I’m always worried about ridership . . . because everything I want to do is to be able to serve customers.”
However, others say the LIRR has only itself to blame for losing riders in a year when fares went up and service went down. After seeing her monthly LIRR ticket from Ronkonkoma to Atlantic Terminal climb to $391 while “service reliability really started to go downhill,” Emily Knox traded in commuting by train for driving in the Long Island Expressway’s HOV lane in her hybrid car.
“Overall my commute into Brooklyn has been the same amount of time, if not shorter than when the LIRR is running on time, and I have more control over where I drive,” said Knox, 27, who expects to return to the LIRR during the winter months to avoid driving in the snow.
Peter Haynes, a former LIRR systems project specialist who now leads the LIRR Commuters Campaign, an advocacy group, said he has heard other stories of fed-up LIRR customers abandoning the rails in recent months.
“I know people who have said, ‘I took a job that paid less just so I wouldn’t have to travel three hours a day and put up with the railroad,’ ” Haynes said. “I think that’s part of . . . [the ridership decline]. It’s certainly not all of it. But people are focusing on quality of life and, quite frankly, the railroad doesn’t play into a good quality of life for a lot of people.”
Despite accounts like those, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein said the LIRR remains “the most heavily used commuter railroad in the nation for a reason — it is the most efficient and best way to get to and from Long Island.”
“That’s what attracts 300,000 commuters a day and will continue to attract them well into the future,” Weinstein said, adding that recent improvements in on-time performance and several projects underway to increase LIRR capacity “will ensure the railroad’s long-term success in attracting riders.”
But also in the LIRR’s plans are more fare increases — the next round is scheduled for 2019. With the cost of a monthly ticket already averaging $335, some experts have questioned how much more the railroad can raise fares before more riders are turned off.
“Frankly, I think looking ahead you’re going to have a hard time asking people to spend more than they already are,” said John Molloy, the MTA board’s Nassau representative. “Let this thing chill a little bit.”
Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research for the American Public Transportation Association, a Washington-based nonprofit, said that despite the recent drops in ridership, the LIRR is still “performing better than the national picture,” partly because of the lack of viable, cheaper transportation alternatives.
Grisby also said that although infrastructure projects, such as the summer repairs in Penn Station or the LIRR’s planned East Side Access link to Grand Central Terminal, may cost the LIRR some riders in the short term, they can pay off in the long run.
“You’ll see over time that those amenities will actually attract new riders — and not just get you back the old ones,” Grisby said.