A crowded LIRR train car heading from Bellmore into New...

A crowded LIRR train car heading from Bellmore into New York City on Monday morning, Mar. 8, 2021. Credit: David Shaw

The complaints from riders, and the disturbing photos of masked commuters in crowded train cars, came immediately after the Long Island Rail Road's reduced schedule started Monday morning. It was potentially harmful for customers and workers. And for those watching from the sidelines, the riders the LIRR must lure back on its trains in the coming weeks and months, it had to be unnerving.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority quickly went into damage control and reversed itself. The MTA promised to revert to the previous pandemic schedule on March 29, while immediately adding more trains or cars as necessary.

While it's understandable that the MTA can't make the full change overnight, given planned track work and workforce schedules, the authority must try to get back to its former schedule more quickly. A March 29 goal isn't as "aggressive" as LIRR president Phillip Eng suggested. Union head Anthony Simon promised he will "do whatever it takes" regarding staffing to restore service quickly. Management should do the same.

But the situation also highlights how the MTA is going to have to be nimble as riders start returning. Eng has instituted a new tracking system that allows LIRR officials and riders to know how crowded each train car is. That's a useful tool, but management also should ride the trains themselves, and listen to the workers who know ridership patterns. Then, the railroad must be able to make changes to meet the needs.

Such flexibility may be difficult for an enormous bureaucracy like the MTA, but it's critical to the region's comeback. MTA Chief Executive Pat Foye notes that early in the pandemic, the MTA was able to reduce service quickly and has "innovated throughout." Those efforts must continue, as ramping up likely is more difficult. Whenever possible, the region's largest employers should work with the MTA, so the authority knows when large swaths of employees are returning. And the LIRR will have to continue to partner with the unions, so workers can change shifts or staff newly-added trains. The approaching return of 24/7 subway service also is important, as many Long Island commuters use the subways, too.

Also crucial: the MTA's continued effort to vaccinate its workers both for their safety and that of its commuters. Nearly 15,000 MTA employees have received the vaccine, but that's out of a workforce of 70,000. Adding a site for LIRR workers at Jamaica station, which the MTA says is in the works, would help.

Perception here is key. So far, data indicate that traveling by public transit is safe, and Foye says mask compliance has been "north of 95%." But making sure trains remain uncrowded, and quickly dealing with any problems that emerge, will help to convince those who haven't returned to the rails that they can come back without fear.

The region's economy won't bounce back without a healthy, safe and robust public transit system. The MTA's management and workforce must be ready.

— The editorial board