Long Island Rail Road president Phil Eng’s new plan to improve the railroad’s performance, reliability and communication is ambitious and aggressive, qualities that previous attempts at railroad reform lacked.
To match the plan’s big goals and extensive agenda, Eng brings a quiet but determined leadership style, one that should help him in executing the many promises he now has made.
But he has a lot of work ahead.
After all, Eng is attempting to change the very culture of the LIRR — the excuse that “it’s always been done this way” that people use when they’re asked to do something differently. That won’t be easy, especially in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s byzantine bureaucracy that stifles change. But in conversations with commuters, and with the MTA board, and then again in a meeting with the Newsday editorial board Tuesday, Eng consistently looks forward, choosing to dismiss notions that change isn’t possible, and outlining high expectations for his employees, and hopes of increased efficiency and productivity.
That’s exactly what it’ll take to meet the goals of Eng’s new LIRR Forward agenda, including upgrading 10 of the railroad’s most problematic switches over a six-month period, clearing 180 miles of overgrown vegetation this year, increasing the frequency of station and train car cleaning, and making weather-related improvements, such as adding third rail heaters and snow switch covers, before next winter.
The big plans and short time frame will mean some disruption for LIRR commuters. So Eng and his LIRR team will have to make their case, explaining to riders what they plan to do and why, and how it’ll impact them. Beyond adding rider forums and improving social media use, Eng has to continuously get his message across. He’ll need to get everyone on board, and keep them there, from commuters to the workers fixing the switches and cleaning the cars and stations. And he’ll have to show how the money’s being spent and that the work is getting done and has results.
But Eng’s to-do list goes beyond immediate fixes. The LIRR has to plan for its role in the East Side Access project to bring the railroad to Grand Central Terminal. It has to continue ongoing communication with those who will neighbor the Main Line’s third track. And it will play a critically important role in the future development at Belmont Park. Eng told the editorial board that the railroad shouldn’t “limit ourselves in terms of our imagination” at Belmont. He’s right.
Then there’s his wider view, of the key role the LIRR should play in the region going forward, of how the railroad should be a “good neighbor” to local communities, of transit-oriented development and the need to get more people out of their cars and onto the trains — even if it’s just for a fun day out.
A modern, upgraded LIRR is integral to Long Island’s future, but it’ll only work if Eng is willing to stick to his plan — and if everyone else is willing to go along for the ride.