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The Long Island Rail Road must clean up its act

Trash is strewn about the floor and seats

Trash is strewn about the floor and seats of an eastbound LIRR train on the Babylon Branch after the evening rush on Jan. 9. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

There’s no question the Long Island Rail Road has a mess to clean up — in more ways than one.

But as the LIRR works to improve service, fix signals and complete big projects, keeping the train cars free of trash and filth seems as if it should be a fairly straightforward task.

Certainly, riders — the LIRR serves nearly 300,000 of them on an average weekday — must do their part by taking their garbage with them and finding a trash bin once they’re off the train.

That should be the easy part.

Trouble is, beyond that, it’s not so simple.

The trains have quick turnarounds at terminals, whether at Penn Station or Atlantic Avenue, or at the ends of the lines on Long Island, and those stops often are the only places where cleaning crews come in to mop up and pick up trash. Although the trains are cleaned when they’re in the yards, it’s clearly not sufficient — and more has to be done.

While it would be nice to add to the number of “car appearance maintainers,” as the car cleaners are known, that’s not where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should spend its funds now. Certainly, there’s no need to hire as many as 60 more “car appearance maintainers,” as union chief Anthony Simon suggests. The 415 workers should be able to get the job done.

Instead, the lack of car cleanliness underscores a troubling pattern that plagues the nation’s busiest commuter railroad, and the MTA more broadly: the inability to think differently and change the way things have always been done.

Part of that is due to union work rules, such as those that prevent station cleaners from cleaning cars. Simon says that’s because cleaning cars is not a station cleaner’s “craft.” But that’s just silly.

Beyond those work rules, there’s also a disturbing unwillingness by some, from managers to union leaders, to try something new. Is there a way to clean the cars, or at least collect trash, while trains are en route, either during off-peak periods or when there are no passengers on board? Is there a way to do a better job removing grime while trains are in the yard? Are there more effective and efficient cleaning methods?

In other words: Can the railroad do more with the personnel it’s got?

The answer is yes — if only the old thinking would get out of the way of new thinking. LIRR president Phillip Eng says he’s working with union leaders, and ready to find solutions. Simon says he’s “always thinking outside the box.” Let’s see whether they can turn all that good will into real change.

But none of this takes riders who treat trains as trash bins off the hook. Of course, they’re part of the problem, too. It’s a clear example of the broken-windows philosophy that often applies to crime; the more riders disdain the old, worn and oft-delayed trains, the less likely they are to take care of their own crumbs, cups and garbage.

And the more riders and the railroad continue their ways, the bigger the problem will become.