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In commuter crises, LIRR isn't up to speed

Commuters wait at Jamaica station in Queens for

Commuters wait at Jamaica station in Queens for Long Island Rail Road trains that had been delayed on May 16, 2013 by a fallen power line in an East River tunnel. Credit: Mario Gonzalez

The Long Island Rail Road apologizes after seemingly every operational mishap, both for what went wrong and for how poorly it communicated about the situation. That hasn't changed even as technology available to send timely messages has improved dramatically.

LIRR president Patrick Nowakowski issued another apology this week for recent troubles: They included a Sept. 2 power outage that blocked morning service in and out of Penn Station at rush hour, and a freight derailment last week that caused significant delays.

Nowakowski said Monday the electrical feed to the signal that caused the Sept. 2 incident had no backup, but certainly should have. He also said a review is underway of safety operations of the New York & Atlantic Railway, owner of the freight train that derailed last week west of Hicksville. And he bemoaned the fact that the LIRR does not have, as Metro-North and other railroads do, an operations control center with the ability to track the location of every train and each train's effect on the system.

Worse, the digital signs and public address systems at stations have given preprogrammed and incorrect schedule information during crises, often alternating with updated, correct information. Nowakowski said the railroad is trying to address that, but it's very labor intensive.

But it's more than these problems. The LIRR sometimes hesitates to release any information. At other times, it is too optimistic in assessing situations, overpromising restoration of service and then failing to deliver on time. It should be more conservative in predicting service restorations, then outperform its predictions. Customers prefer it.

Social media and modern platform signs are useful only if they share the right information. The LIRR must be more realistic about the information it provides, and get better at transmitting it.