Port Washington LIRR commuters aren't happy with planned service changes

Alfonso A. Castillo

July 03, 2022

Originally published in Newsday on July 03, 2022.

Port Washington residents and elected officials are imploring the Long Island Rail Road to reconsider proposed East Side Access schedule changes they say will significantly worsen their daily commutes.

Several Port Washington commuters, following the LIRR’s release last month of draft timetables for service to and from the railroad's forthcoming Grand Central Madison station in Manhattan, have said the overhauled schedules will do little to improve service, and instead could limit their options and make trips longer by adding stops.

The new schedules would take effect upon the completion of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's $11.2 billion East Side Access project in December.

LIRR officials said most Port Washington commuters will benefit from the new schedules, which will provide 70% more service in the morning and 43% more in the evening; a new, direct link to Manhattan's East Side; and will only increase travel times, on average, by less than five minutes.

Commuter Ian Rasmussen said the added travel time will be as much as eight minutes on some trains. He noted that many people living in Port Washington and surrounding communities moved there because of the 35-minute LIRR commute to Manhattan and are concerned the changes could hurt property values.

“It’s sort of unfathomable to the residents of this town that, after 10 billion [dollars] in spending, 15 years of construction on East Side Access, the net result is — although you can now go to Grand Central — your trip takes another seven minutes," Rasmussen said.

The LIRR has said a need to add more service in Queens, and an inability to expand train storage capacity in Port Washington, are some of the reasons behind the proposed schedule changes. Still, the railroad noted it is increasing the total number of morning and rush-hour trains on the line.

While the total number of rush-hour trains on the branch will go up, they will be divided between the LIRR’s two Manhattan terminals. So, rather than the current 14 Port Washington branch trains departing Penn Station during the evening rush, the LIRR will have 10. Another 10 will leave out of Grand Central Madison.

LIRR officials have said they expect roughly half of their existing Penn Station commuters to choose to travel to Grand Central instead.

Port Washington commuter Matthew White said he'll have fewer options because he “can’t be at both” terminals. And because trains that previously operated expressly to and from Great Neck will add several stops in Queens, White’s commute will be several minutes longer and potentially more crowded, he said.

“Obviously, with such a big project, nobody assumed commutes would be getting worse,” he said. “The net result is basically a situation that makes most people [in Port Washington] … say, ‘Well, I’d rather just stick to the way we have it.' " 

At a June 23 meeting, LIRR chief service planning officer Charles McKiernan defended the decision to add stops on all Port Washington trains, noting that Queens riders are part of the railroad's "constituency," even though most riders travel from stations in Nassau. 

He said the added stops would increase average travel times by up to four minutes in the mornings and one minute in the evenings. 

Some LIRR commuters believe the Town of North Hempstead shares some of the blame for the changes. For years, town officials opposed efforts by the railroad to expand train storage capacity at Port Washington by building over some existing parking spaces in the village’s station lot.

“I don’t think new track space really is excessive development. It helps Port Washington, and opposing it just amounts to NIMBYism,” said village resident Eli Lefcowitz, using an acronym for “not in my backyard.”

McKiernan confirmed that the railroad was hamstrung on the Port Washington branch because it “did not get all the infrastructure that we hoped for and anticipated.”

North Hempstead Town Councilwoman Mariann Dalimonte, who represents Port Washington, said she has met with LIRR officials and plans to do so again to discuss potential solutions, including maybe having the railroad buy land in the village to create more parking spaces. The town’s opposition to the LIRR’s capacity expansion efforts predated her joining town government in 2020, she said.

“There’s always room for compromises. You have to work as a team,” said Dalimonte, who has encouraged Port Washington residents to participate in the LIRR’s forthcoming public meeting. “This is a draft … so there’s got to be room for changes. And hopefully the Long Island Rail Road will make changes.”

Also pushing LIRR officials to reconsider their plan are State Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-North Hills) and Assemb. Gina Sillitti (D-Manorhaven). Sillitti has been handing out literature at train stations informing commuters about the proposed changes.

“Our trains are so beloved. We’ve built our downtowns around them. The life of our communities are centered around the trains,” said Sillitti, who wants Port Washington commuters to let the LIRR know how they feel about the proposed changes. “Not everybody’s aware of what’s happening.”