LIRR grade crossings were among the topics discussed in Newsday's...

LIRR grade crossings were among the topics discussed in Newsday's first "Ask Me Anything" event on Feb. 28 on Reddit. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

On Feb. 28, Long Island Rail Road beat reporter Alfonso Castillo took part in Newsday’s first “Ask Me Anything” event on Reddit. Castillo fielded nearly two dozen questions over the one-hour session on topics ranging from the MTA’s latest fare increase, to grade crossing safety in the wake of last month’s fatal accident in Westbury, to the condition of Penn Station’s bathrooms. Here are some highlights of the conversation.

Question: Castillo on why motorists continue to drive around lowered gates at LIRR grade crossings:

A: “It's obviously super dangerous. One of the things to consider is that, at some of the busier crossings, drivers can be stuck in traffic behind a downed gate for a long time. I've heard at some busier crossings on the Main Line, the gates can be down for nearly a half-hour out of every hour during the rush. The MTA has cited that when talking about the benefits of the third track project, which will eliminate seven crossings in Nassau, including the one at School Street where the accident happened.”

Q: On potential engineering solutions for grade crossings, including longer safety gates:

A: “If you're talking about a device that would completely close off a crossing, the downside of that is that it could also, potentially, trap a person or vehicle inside a crossing. I have heard about other technology that's out there to secure crossings, including sensors that can detect an obstruction in the tracks and communicate it to a train before it arrives. The LIRR has said it's looked into all kinds of solutions. The one that seems to have the most support, and the most realistic chance of being implemented, is camera enforcement.”

Q: On why the LIRR’s overtime costs are so high:

A: “I guess it depends on who you ask. The unions say if the LIRR wants to reduce OT costs, they should hire more workers. The MTA has acknowledged that it spends quite a bit on OT, but the alternative is having to pay new employees benefits and pensions, which could cost more than just continuing to pay the OT.”

Q: On what can be done to extend the hours that certain LIRR station waiting rooms are open:

A: “Come to an MTA Board LIRR Committee meeting (usually the third or fourth Monday of the month at MTA's Manhattan HQs) and bring it up during the public speakers' portion. I certainly can't guarantee any results, but it would be heard by the people who make those decisions.”

Q: On whether the LIRR plans to reduce service to Penn Station once its new Manhattan station at Grand Central Terminal is complete as part of East Side Access:

A: “This has been a major point of debate in recent years. The LIRR predicts that roughly half of its Penn Station commuters will instead travel to/from Grand Central when ESA is complete — reducing demand on Penn and reducing the need to run as many trains there. But some have argued that, even with fewer people going to Penn, the LIRR can't afford to give up any capacity there. With the MTA, the state and Amtrak finalizing a deal to bring Metro-North into Penn once ESA is finished, I think it's clear that the LIRR plans to reduce service there eventually.”

Q: On whether there are plans to renovate Penn Station’s bathrooms, and whether charging a fee for using them would help keep homeless people out of them:

A: “The renovation plans I saw for Penn Station are pretty sweeping, so I imagine the bathrooms would be included, but I can't say for sure. I know too well the conditions there, but I can't imagine there would be support for yet another fee for commuters. The homeless situation at Penn is a sensitive one. The LIRR/Amtrak/police have to balance addressing problems with the fact that Penn is a public space. But I know that there are loads of commuters frustrated with the situation.”

Q: On whether the LIRR should consider a major overhaul of its schedule to address heavy crowding and changing commuting patterns:

A: “It's true that the regular LIRR schedule updates are usually only minor tweaks. I'd expect that to change with East Side Access, as they'd have a second Manhattan terminal to serve. East Side Access will also change the way they operate their Brooklyn service. The talk has been about replacing regular, scheduled Brooklyn service with a shuttle that runs every few minutes to and from Jamaica.”

Q: On why Metro-North Railroad provides better service than the LIRR:

A: “I bet some frustrated Metro-North riders would beg to differ, but there are some realities about how different the two systems are. For one thing, the MTA owns and controls all of the tracks at Grand Central, and usually has plenty of capacity there. Amtrak owns and controls Penn, which is also used by NJ Transit. Also, the two systems are laid out very differently. Metro-North has separate lines that go separate places. Except for Port Washington, all of the LIRR's lines bottleneck at Jamaica. What I've heard time and again is that, if the MTA was designing the LIRR from scratch today, it would look nothing like what we have now. But it's been around for 185 years.”

Q: On aspects of the Westbury crossing accident story that have not been discussed enough:

A: “I think the discussion about having camera enforcement at grade crossings is an important part of this story. It's been at the top of the MTA's wish list for years, but it requires legislation and cooperation from local municipalities, which would issue the summonses, so it hasn't gotten really far. Red light cameras have helped reduced violations, as have automatic enforcement at school zones. You'd think if you knew you were going to get hit with an expensive ticket, you'd think twice about driving across an active crossing.”

Q: On whether LIRR management appreciates how unacceptable service gotten, and whether there is hope for it to improve in 2019:

A: “I can't speak for anyone, but, from talking to LIRR President Phil Eng and other managers there, I think they appreciate how dissatisfied riders are. Remember, Eng is a daily LIRR commuter, so he often hears it directly from passengers, and also deals with many of the problems himself.

2017 and 2018 were historically bad years (both the worst since 1999). There are some reasons to be optimistic that this year will be better. It will be the first full year that the railroad's LIRR Forward plan is in place, and there's already evidence that it's making a difference. On-time performance was up in December and January, the railroad's best January in about six years. I know the mild weather has also helped. Double Track construction, which caused a lot of problems over last summer, is done. And Amtrak's infrastructure fixes in Penn have also made a big difference. LIRR delays caused by problems at Penn were way down last year as compared to 2017.”

Q: On whether the LIRR’s lack of competition removes any incentive to improve service:

A: “I'd say the LIRR President does have an incentive to improve performance — his job. When LIRR service tanked in 2017, a lot of the heat was put on the LIRR President at the time, and he was eventually forced out. But, you're right, the LIRR has a captive audience. Even as service has declined and fares have climbed in recent years, ridership has gone up. If you work in NYC and live on LI, your options are very limited.”

Q: On whether the MTA would target LIRR salaries, pensions and disability costs as a way to address its budget problems:

A: “The big MTA restructuring that (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo and (Mayor Bill) de Blasio announced earlier this week includes plans to cut costs quite a bit, including through a hiring freeze. MTA management says it will also look to reduce their use of consultants and also pay them less, but have no plans for layoffs. As for labor, remember their pay is a result of collective bargaining, so they can't unilaterally reduce wages, but they could better control overtime. As for the disability fraud, it's come down quite a bit from the peak ten years ago. That has a lot to do with the fact that the group of workers whose pensions incentivized taking advantage of the federal disability loophole have largely retired by now.”

Q: On why the MTA Board regularly approves fare increases without setting goals for service improvements:

A: “Some of what you bring up was the impetus for delaying the original fare vote, which was scheduled for January. At the time, there was a concern that if it was put up to a vote, it would fail. The board said it would take the time to consider alternatives, which included a plan to tie fare increases to performances. Ultimately, none of that happened. As with all political bodies, a lot of the decision making plays out behind the scenes. By the time it comes to a vote, surprises are rare. Remember that most board members are picked by elected officials as their representatives.”

Q: On whether riders ever raise concerns about the inconvenient time and location of public hearings involving the MTA:

A: “Yes, I hear this concern all the time, including about (the recent) Senate public hearing in Mineola about the LIRR. Ironically, some commuters complained that the timing of this Reddit AMA wasn't ideal for them, either. It's impossible to schedule something at a place and time that works for everyone, but some times and places do work better than others. For one thing, it always helps if a location is at/near an LIRR station. The LIRR has tried addressing through its new Meet the Managers events, which are held at stations. They've done a bunch already and eventually plan to get to all of their stations.”

Answers have been edited for style and length.

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