LIRR surpasses March goal with 94.6 percent of trains running on time

Alfonso A. Castillo for Newsday

Originally published in Newsday

The Long Island Rail Road’s streak of improved on-time performance continued in March — the railroad's best month in nearly three years.

The LIRR reported Monday that 94.6 percent of its trains ran on time in March. The figure was above the agency’s monthly goal of 94 percent, and the best of any month since ‎May 2016, when 94.7 percent of trains were on time.

And the railroad’s performance would have been even better, officials said, were it not for a March 25 incident in which overhead power lines fell onto the railroad’s tracks in Hicksville, delaying 119 trains as the LIRR waited for PSEG crews to make repairs. The incident brought down the LIRR’s on-time performance for the month by 0.6 percent.

The railroad has improved on-time performance in three of the past four months — only dipping in February because of the effects of the fatal train accident at a Westbury grade crossing that disrupted service through the area for days. Through the first three months of 2019, 93.2 percent of LIRR trains have operated on time, as compared to 88.3 percent in the first three months of 2018 — a year that went on to become the railroad’s worst in nearly two decades.

The March numbers came as the railroad carried 7.5 million people that month — 270,000 more than during the same month in 2018. The railroad went on to set a modern ridership record last year.

LIRR president Phillip Eng, who marked one year in that job Friday, said the improvement is evidence of his LIRR Forward service improvement initiative. The initiative seeks to address the root cause of some of the railroad’s most persistent service problems. By raising some rail bridges that were prone to being struck by trucks, installing safety devices at grade crossings to prevent motorists from accidentally driving onto tracks, and working with PSEG to replace vulnerable utility poles near tracks, the LIRR said it has seen the  "complete elimination” of several common types of delays.

“We’re moving more and more people every day, as we tackle, one-by-one, the issues that affected their daily travels in the past,” Eng said.

All of the railroad’s branches, except for Hempstead and Port Jefferson, met or exceeded their on-time performance goals last month. The Far Rockaway branch fared best, with 97.6 percent of trains running on time, while the Port Jefferson branch did the worst, with 89.9 percent of trains being punctual.

The LIRR, relying on what it called “the national commuter rail industry standard,” only considers a train late if it arrived at its final destination 6 minutes or more after its scheduled time. The State Legislature late last month changed its Public Authorities law to require the railroad to consider late any train that arrives 2 minutes or more after its scheduled time. The LIRR has not made the change yet.

“I’m obviously heartened that the news isn’t worse, or [the LIRR’s on-time performance] isn’t slipping backward. But, I think, until we have accurate metrics about what it means to be on time, it’s not really capturing the reality of how commuters are experiencing the railroad,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said. “The hope is, certainly, that this is the beginning of the turning of a corner.”

Christine Gietschier, who has commuted on the LIRR for more than 30 years, said that despite the railroad’s statistics, her morning train hasn’t picked her up on time at her home station of Westbury in months.

“If you’re late to my station, that means something to me — especially if I’m making a connection,” said Gietschier, who nevertheless praised Eng for bringing “more of a sense of urgency” to the railroad.

“I think him reaching out to the commuters and being willing to hear whatever someone has to say — that’s definitely a positive step,” she said.

Responding to a request from new Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Patrick Foye, the LIRR this week began reporting some new performance metrics, including statistics on short trains and track circuit failures that result in delays.

In the first three months of 2019, the LIRR operated 919 trains with fewer cars than usual — a reduction of 17 percent from the same period in 2019. Short trains can cause delays because of overcrowding. And, through March of this year, the LIRR experienced 21 track circuit failures that resulted in at least one delay — a 62 percent increase over the same period in 2018.