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MTA leaders fire back at commuters, say there's plenty of room on trains

LIRR weekday ridership has climbed to more than

LIRR weekday ridership has climbed to more than 50% on most days, but service levels remain below what they were before the pandemic hit in 2020. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

There’s still plenty of room on most LIRR trains, but riders should accept the reality that they may have to sit right next to other passengers during the coronavirus pandemic, the agency’s top leaders said Wednesday.

Addressing concerns recently raised by Long Island Rail Road commuters about what they say are increasingly crowded conditions on trains as the railroad’s ridership continues its rebound, LIRR president Phillip Eng and Metropolitan Transportation Authority acting chairman and CEO Janno Lieber disputed the assertion that trains are running out of space.

Part of the problem, they suggested, is that passengers uneasy about being in proximity to others because of COVID-19 are taking up more than one seat.

"Nobody has the right to establish their own social distancing rules on the railroad. We’re all getting used to sharing space again, to being in groups again. That’s part of this process," said Lieber, speaking following a Manhattan meeting of the MTA Board. "We have to be respectful. But no one gets to say that, ‘No one can sit next to me.’ You can’t take the ‘mass’ out of ‘mass transit.’ "

After falling to just 3% of pre-pandemic levels last year, LIRR weekday ridership has climbed to more than 50% on most days. But service levels remain below what they were before the pandemic hit in early 2020, as the LIRR has curtailed its schedule because of reduced demand. Currently, the LIRR is running 85% of the trains it did in December 2019.

Although some LIRR riders have complained about crowding on those trains, Eng said statistics show the vast majority of trains have more than enough space to accommodate ridership levels.

Of the 638 trains operating each weekday, Eng said all but 50 are less than half full, according to the railroad’s real-time ridership monitoring tools. Of those 50, six are 70% or more full. Eng said the railroad is taking steps to address capacity issues on those trains, including by adding trains to the schedule and adding cars to some trains.

Eng noted that passengers also can maximize their opportunity to find a seat by using the railroad’s TrainTime mobile app, which gives real-time information on passenger loads on every train car, using a color-coded system. The app also gives historical information about train capacity, and can direct riders on where to stand on a platform to be near a less-crowded car.

"As new or past riders return, I want them to know that they can safely ride the trains, and that they have the power to control their trips in a manner that did not exist pre-pandemic," Eng said.

But some riders said the LIRR’s capacity standards don’t take into account the reality that many of them are uneasy about being in close quarters inside the confines of a train, especially given lax enforcement of the railroad’s mask requirement. Masking is mandated on mass transit.

"I don’t feel that comfortable sitting directly next to someone on the LIRR. But I will tolerate a three-seater with the middle seat empty," said Long Beach commuter Ali Fadil, 27. "But you don’t have much of a choice if you take an LIRR train on a weeknight past 6 p.m."

Great Neck rider Mark Bunim agreed that it’s a "rush-hour problem." He said that, in the mornings, trains get so crowded that conductors can’t even get through to collect tickets.

"Every week, it’s worse … All the cars are packed. They just don’t have enough trains," Bunim said. "I’m sure the trains at 12 noon are empty. That’s not the point. The point is rush hour."

The LIRR does plan to restore two trains on the Port Washington line next month — one in the morning, and one in the evening.

"That’s not going to do it," said Bunim, 70. "People are going back to work. You need to have rush-hour trains."

Eng said ridership levels fluctuate from day to day, in part because of the flexibility of "teleworking." He said more schedule changes are likely on the way, as post-COVID-19 travel patterns take shape.

"Looking ahead, service levels and schedules will be based on those new patterns," Eng said.

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