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Ridership down, but LIRR making 'important trips', says president Phillip Eng

Long Island Rail Road president Phillip Eng spoke

Long Island Rail Road president Phillip Eng spoke with Newsday's Alfonso Castillo about the MTA's safety precautions amid COVID-19, as well as what it would take to return to normal. Credit: Newsday staff

On the second anniversary of becoming the 40th president of the Long Island Rail Road on Thursday, Phillip Eng found himself running a railroad that had lost more than 90% of its riders.

But although they may be largely empty, Eng says LIRR’s trains are “making some of the most important trips in our history,” as they carry the workers on the front lines of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those are the LIRR’s own employees — about 200 of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus, and 600 others who have been quarantined because of potential exposure.

The virus has taken its toll in other ways on the nation’s busiest commuter railroad, which has cut back service by about 30%, in part, to minimize the massive financial impact of the outbreak.

Eng, who continues to commute from his Smithtown home to his Jamaica, Queens, office by train each weekday, answered questions from Newsday about the state of the railroad, and its future.

Question: Is it fair to say this is the biggest challenge of your two years on the job?

Answer: I would say it has been, because not only are we dealing with delivering service and dealing with improving infrastructure and the customer service … but we’re dealing with a lot more mental stress, a lot of uncertainty. … When this pandemic is over, or when we get to, at least, the other side of this, we’ll all have been affected one way or another. There’s a lot of stories to be told. But there’s a lot of heroic efforts going on.

Q: Are you still taking the train?

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A: I am taking the train. There are times that I’m visiting a yard or a facility when I drive to that facility, because it’s not right next to a yard or a station. But I take the train every day. The trains are being sanitized every 72 hours, if not more frequently. … We’re running a fairly robust service that enables everyone to spread out in the cars. And that’s one of the important things: It’s easy to say that, if we’re seeing such a drop in ridership, why not run less trains? But the last thing I want to do is to have these folks who have so much work and responsibility in fighting this virus to feel like, if they need to take the railroad, they can’t social distance. And we’re blessed, right now, that our workforce has been able to report and willing to report. … So I feel very good about being on the trains.

Q: How about positive train control, the federally mandated crash prevention technology project?

A: We are on schedule right now. A lot of things that were typically done in the field offices, we’ve found ways to do them remotely. For instance, on the trains that we’ve instrumented with positive train control, before the virus, we would have a number of employees on that train, monitoring the front cabin as the trains were moving through the signals. Now we have a camera in the front and we’re allowing the employees to monitor remotely. And that’s working. So we’re finding new ways of doing things. We’re also adjusting some of our schedules to be more efficient in how we’re doing it.

Q: How much money is the Long Island Rail Road losing every day, and where are those losses? Is it just fare revenue? Is this whole operation costing the railroad a lot in overtime, both because of the shortage of employees and because of the enhanced disinfecting efforts?

A: The overtime has not been as great as one may think. There’s ways that we’ve found to reduce those costs. But otherwise, with regards to state of good repair and the cost of maintaining the fleet, all of those remain constant. We have found some savings with the reduced service. The things that are not being used, we don’t have to inspect now. We’re finding ways to be as efficient as we can, because the revenue is something we need to monitor. Obviously the majority of the revenue loss is from the reduction in ridership.

Q: What does is take to get the railroad service back up and running? When that time comes, do you flip a switch and go back to 100% regular service? Is it something that would be more gradual?

A: I think businesses will, one by one, as they determine which ones can open up, gradually reopen. So our plan is to ramp service up comparable to [that]. And when those fleets are needed, we’re going to do our inspections before, we’re going to do any necessary maintenance that’s needed and cleaning. And then, as we’re monitoring the availability of our workforce … we envision that we’ll be ready for that day. We look forward to that day.

Q: You mentioned some of the work that’s still going on — replacing track ties, Third Track, some of these different infrastructure projects. Some people will be surprised to hear that’s still going on, and wonder why do those have to happen right now? Why not take a pause on projects that could potentially expose workers more than they need to be exposed?

A: The work that we’re doing is essential to providing the service that we’re doing now. If we defer those tie replacements, if we defer those types of things, then we’re basically doing what we’ve done in the past for different reasons. God forbid something occurs, and now that train encounters an issue. Those are the things that we need to do to, not only run safe, reliable service right now during this essential service plan, but we’re going to need that in the long term. And then to defer it, and try to play catch-up — that’s what we’ve been doing over the last two years. We need to stay on top of that. And I need to just make sure that our workforce has the necessary PPE in order to stay safe themselves. Their job enables them the ability to be a little bit apart, so they feel comfortable in what they’re doing. They have masks, if they need. They have gloves, if they need. And they have sanitizer. And we’re reminding everybody to practice good habits, and that, if they’re not feeling well, to stay home. That’s the best thing they could do, not only for themselves, but for their colleagues.

Q: Can you give us a sense of how many railroad employees are staying home? How many are able to actually work from home? Are there folks who are just sitting at home doing nothing right now and getting paid?

A: The folks that can work from home are working from home. We’ve been following the lead of the state from day one. And we’re proud we’re doing that because it’s important, not only to help us continue running the railroad, but it’s helped us stop the spread. We have folks in our budget office, project managers — and they’re all doing things, just as you and I are, using Skype and webcasts to have meetings where typically they would have all come together. The other component of keeping some people at home is to make sure we have the availability in the event that we have some positives and we lose some employees. We need to make sure we have those reserves.

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