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Lessons from LIRR ‘summer of hell’

LIRR riders tackle day two of the

LIRR riders tackle day two of the "summer of hell" at Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn on July 11, 2017. Credit: David Handschuh

The Long Island Rail Road and Amtrak returned to normally scheduled service Tuesday after the so-called “summer of hell.”

But by Wednesday, life really was back to normal, with some of the same old problems, including an Amtrak train stalled in the East River tunnel, and customer complaints about a lack of communication.

Isn’t it time to find a new normal — without blame games and finger-pointing, deferred maintenance and resulting aggravation? The region’s transportation system can be better. The summer of hell went relatively smoothly, though that might be in part because expectations were set very low (read: hell). Still, officials from the state, Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did what was necessary to provide service for the 96,000 commuters who ride the LIRR to New York City each day.

Amtrak workers repaired a network of Penn Station’s deteriorated tracks on schedule, and Amtrak provided detailed public progress updates throughout. The MTA’s elongated trains and revised schedules, as well as discounts to take subways to Manhattan from Hunters Point and Atlantic Terminal, carried commuters through July and August. For once, the authority communicated well with riders, using social media, a website and workers in the stations.

This wasn’t an inexpensive endeavor. The MTA estimated the cost of handling the disruption at Penn at $58 million; it hasn’t yet provided an actual price tag. MTA officials hoped Amtrak would pay, but Amtrak refused. It’s worth trying to get Amtrak to do its part, since Amtrak’s deferred maintenance got us into the mess.

Now officials should build on the summer’s success. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo can take the lead by finding money for emergency repairs, maintenance and upgrades and continuing to press the MTA to do better. MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota has made it clear that he is responsible. Then there’s the need to keep the dialogue going. Top managers of Amtrak and the MTA spoke regularly this summer. They have to continue to hold one another accountable. And that accountability has to extend to workers, so the unions know they have to get the work done.

Within the MTA, key players continue to hold daily war room-style calls, since the war to get the system on track isn’t over. Most important, Amtrak and the MTA can’t let up on improved communication with riders. That means updates on all public transit project work, and more timely news on train delays, track trouble and schedule changes. When service breaks down, communication needs to be its best.

The summer of hell also taught transit officials they can think bigger about fixing and upgrading the system. Sometimes, it might be smart to do big projects in big ways, even if it means temporarily closing tracks or cutting service. As long as contingency plans are in place, a more aggressive strategy could move us forward faster.

And those large-scale efforts are critical to the LIRR and MTA’s future. Focus on finishing projects, from repairs of East River tunnels to construction of East Side Access, a third track on the Main Line and the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway. But none of that can come at the expense of day-to-day maintenance, which must be a priority.

The message is simple: Don’t ever let things go to hell again.