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New head of Long Island Rail Road must win public’s trust

Phil Eng, seen in 2013, is the new

Phil Eng, seen in 2013, is the new president of the Long Island Rail Road. Credit: Steve Pfost

It’s about time.

After months of extensive trouble for commuters — and disappointingly inadequate responses from Long Island Rail Road President Pat Nowakowski — there will be new leadership at the LIRR.

Nowakowski is resigning Friday and will be replaced by Phil Eng, who has served as the MTA’s chief operating officer for a year.

While Nowakowski had technical and engineering expertise, and is credited with revising the railroad’s third-track plans to avoid taking residential properties, he lacked the public persona and urgency necessary to run the railroad, especially as its performance worsened. For LIRR riders, the delay in putting new leadership in place was just more evidence that the customer doesn’t come first, on top of a seemingly endless stream of troubles. Now, it’ll be up to Eng to directly engage the public and win its confidence that the nation’s busiest commuter railroad can get better. He must quickly address commuters’ concerns and, perhaps most significant, turn around the deep-seated culture of bureaucratic inaction that breeds unimaginative and snail-paced problem-solving.

And the MTA must give him free reign to speak and to change what needs changing.

It’s a tough job, but Eng, who served as interim chief of New York City Transit before Andy Byford took over, appears to have the right tools. He was chief engineer at the state Department of Transportation before leaving in early 2017. Now, as an MTA insider, he understands how the Byzantine bureaucracy strangles innovation and communication.

And he’s had experience with being a public voice and face of the MTA through his work on the subway action plan and, previously, at the DOT, where he was involved with the LIRR’s third-track proposal and often represented the state in meetings with communities and local officials. He also has said he recognizes the need for change within the authority and for more consumer-centric thinking. Speaking about NYC Transit in June, Eng said, “We need to do more than just repair things and be reactive.” He can, and should, say the same about the LIRR.

Eng can start with Nowakowski’s LIRR performance improvement plan. Eng must ensure that it’s a comprehensive response. He should give it a more aggressive timetable, and clearly communicate its rollout. Commuters need to see Eng on the trains and platforms and in public forums so they can hear from him, and he can hear from them.

Internally, Eng must prioritize staying on top of routine maintenance, making sure track repairs are done with worker safety in mind, and upgrading equipment, including the installation of safety technology called positive train control required to be in place by the end of 2018. While it might go without saying, we will say it: Communication is the key — within the railroad, from offices to towers to platforms, and beyond, to riders in stations and on trains. Eng also must set new timetables for major projects such as East Side Access and the third track — and meet them.

Eng is now in charge — so, lead. Long Islanders have a more extensive commuter rail system than any suburb in the nation. It is our lifeblood. For the region to thrive, it must reliably meet our needs.

— The editorial board