Statement of Mark Epstein, Chair of the
Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council (LIRRCC)
before the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission
July 16, 2014
Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak today. The Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council (LIRRCC) was established in 1982 by the State Legislature to represent LIRR riders and make recommendations to improve the performance of the Long Island Rail Road. Our volunteer members are recommended by local elected officials, appointed by the Governor, and serve without compensation.
The LIRRCC believes that it is time to have a serious discussion about the future of the LIRR and the MTA system. Among the most immediate concerns is improving the resiliency of the system in the face of climate change and the increasing frequency and power of severe storms, which Long Islanders experienced with Sandy. There are clearly issues that must be addressed to protect the LIRR assets from future severe weather, and vulnerable areas such as the LIRR’s South Shore branches must be improved to withstand an expected increase in damaging coastal storms.
Another vulnerable asset that must be addressed is the East River tunnels, which are owned by Amtrak. Even when the East Side Access project is completed in the early 2020’s these tunnels will remain a critical transportation link for LIRR riders. Unfortunately, even aside from their susceptibility to storm damage, these facilities have suffered as the result of years of deferred maintenance and disinvestment. In the best of conditions, they are a weak point in the LIRR system. It is crucial for the MTA and Amtrak to work together with our federal elected officials and transportation administrators to improve these vital assets and make them more resilient.
Aside from the East River tunnels, the LIRR system has a number of critical needs for modernization. The Rail Road has been playing catch up to bring its signal systems to the level required to efficiently operate the busiest passenger railroad in the United States, and this effort must continue. The LIRR does not have the luxury of additional tracks or capacity to allow it to work around equipment or signal problems. An isolated problem in the system can all too quickly lead to a series of cancelled trains, crowded facilities and remaining trains operating far above their normal capacity.
Modernization of the LIRR and its facilities is all the more important because the demands on the system are changing. In the 180 years of the LIRR’s history, Long Island has moved from a largely rural environment where the Rail Road’s primary importance was centered around the movement of agricultural produce and supplies to its present state as a passenger railroad primarily serving those living on Long Island and working in Manhattan. We are now at the forefront of another change on Long Island, as we are beginning to see more demand for travel to points other than the LIRR’s Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens terminals. More riders and potential riders are now interested in intra-Island trips and commuting in the reverse direction from the Rail Road’s principal ridership patterns. High tech employers are looking to draw specialized talent from throughout Long Island and New York City. Long Islanders are looking to the LIRR to be a part of trips that include north-south travel, as well as the traditional east-west direction on the Rail Road. The question is whether the LIRR will be prepared to be a part of this future.
As it currently stands, there are major gaps in the LIRR system that prevent it from being a part of a vibrant future for Long Island. The Rail Road has major capacity issues that must be addressed through projects such as the Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma second track project, which is currently in its first phase. Even with this project, however, operating substantial reverse peak service on the Long Island Rail Road is impossible. For the rider, this means gaps of several hours between trains to some stations and service that is unrealistic to rely upon as a means of travel to work.
The Main Line third track project, proposed to let the LIRR to take advantage of additional capacity between Long Island and Manhattan created by the East Side Access project and to allow for an acceptable schedule of reverse peak trains is not currently included in the MTA’s improvement plans. This project is, however, critical to the future of the LIRR. In addition, our stations are not suited as nodes that allow riders to access transportation across north-south corridors to reach their final destinations. As difficult as the ride on the LIRR can sometimes be, it is often more difficult to travel the last or first mile to business, employment, education, and other activity centers. We need projects like a reconstructed Republic Airport station, which would be designed to include linkages to a robust transit system serving the Route 110 corridor.
Another area of improvements that must be a part of the LIRR’s future is communication. If there is one enduring issue that our Council struggles with it is ensuring that riders have the information that they need to complete their travels. This information is critical during service disruptions, but is essential to riders at all times. Despite the LIRR’s improvements in disseminating information through the internet and via personal electronics, much more remains to be done. Part of the issue here is that the LIRR largely relies on less nimble legacy systems at a time when technology is facilitating the spread of real time information through a range of channels.
The LIRR must continue to upgrade the volume and quality of information available to the rider. Rather than a separate effort, customer information must be a consideration in all of the plans and procedures that the Rail Road develops, including the design of rolling stock and stations, staffing decisions, and the training, procedures, and equipment provided to front line personnel. The Rail Road must recognize that riders gain information about travel through a range of sources and include in its plans the means to distribute information through all of these channels.
Finally, a view of the future of the LIRR must address the financial impact of the system on its riders. In many ways, the current fare structure does not make sense. For many commuters in these difficult economic times, affordability of travel on the LIRR is a major issue. Although many Long Islanders find that they can improve their job prospects and incomes by traveling to New York City for employment, many LIRR riders are shouldering monthly ticket costs in excess of $350. Add to that a monthly MetroCard at $112 to reach their final destinations and the cost of getting to and from their home station, and the cost of travel represents a heavy burden on many Long Islanders. Adding insult to injury is a system of fare increases imposed every two years that since the beginning have greatly outpaced the growth of workers’ incomes. With our riders already struggling economically, this system is not sustainable.
At the same time that monthly fares burden commuters, the LIRR fare structure does not encourage potential riders to use the system. The cost for a family to travel on the LIRR for a weekend outing can be steep and leads many potential customers to drive rather than use the Rail Road. Also, the LIRR once had a robust ridership within New York City, but the current fare structure has caused riders to reject a direct LIRR route in favor of a time consuming and circuitous route using NYC Transit and private transportation provides such as “dollar van” operators because of the LIRR’s high cost. The CityTicket program, still officially a pilot despite being in existence for ten years, is not promoted and unnecessarily restrictive. For example, there is no reason that CityTicket should not be available in all off-peak hours, rather than only on weekends, as this would increase off-peak utilization of the LIRR and make travel much more convenient for its users.
I appreciate the opportunity to address the Commission on behalf of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council. The Council stands ready to assist the Commission’s work in any way that we can.