Robert Free, speaking to the Long Island Association in November,...

Robert Free, speaking to the Long Island Association in November, had served as acting LIRR president since October. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Robert Free, who started as a Long Island Rail Road station cleaner, was named the railroad's 42nd president, MTA officials said Thursday.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and CEO Janno Lieber announced his decision to appoint Free, 54, to the position of permanent president, after serving in the role of acting president since October.

In a statement, Free, of Port Jefferson Station, said when he joined the railroad at the age of 22 he “never imagined that one day I would be running this incredible organization.”

“It’s been an amazing journey so far and I am excited to continue to build on our successes and make the riding experience even better for Long Islanders,” Free said.

Free joined the LIRR in 1992 and climbed through the ranks until achieving the position of senior vice president of operations. He was instrumental in carrying out the railroad's Third Track project in Nassau County and the opening of Grand Central Madison in February of last year, MTA officials said.

The MTA did not immediately provide a salary figure for Free.

After former interim LIRR president Catherine Rinaldi stepped down to focus on her other job as Metro-North president, Lieber tapped Free to head up the LIRR temporarily, while the MTA conducted a search for a permanent leader. Lieber signaled at the time that Free was in the running for the role.

“Rob Free was the natural choice for the job — a native Long Islander who’s committed his working life to the LIRR, rising through the ranks from cleaner to running operations to now leading North America’s busiest commuter railroad,” Lieber said in a statement Thursday. “Rob intrinsically understands the level of service customers expect, and I know he will continue to deliver in this now permanent role.”

Lieber said that MTA Police has increased its presence on the LIRR, and that the railroad saw its best February on-time performance in a dozen years, at 96.3%.

Free has also dealt with some frustrations among commuters, including those still unsatisfied with service levels following the launch of Grand Central Madison. Some riders and union officials have also rankled at a pilot program launched by Free to address fare evasion that requires train tickets to be checked before riders board some trains at Penn Station.

Still, Free is “the perfect choice to be the permanent president” of the railroad, said LIRR Commuter Council chairman Gerard Bringmann, who called the father of four a “solid railroad man.”

“He literally worked his way from the bottom up in the organization and knows the ins and outs … better than anybody,” Bringmann said.

Anthony Simon, who heads the LIRR's largest union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, called Free's institutional experience at the LIRR “a breath of fresh air.”

“There will always be differences, because of the positions we're both in, but we both know what it takes to get the job done,” said Simon, who once worked as a station cleaner alongside Free. “He takes the trains. He rides with the commuters. He has their ear.”

Marc Herbst, the newly appointed Suffolk County representative on the MTA Board and executive director of the Long Island Contractors Association, said Free has “demonstrated outstanding leadership” and that his appointment is “truly well deserved.”

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