Archive for LIRR

As a new year dawns, it’s become an annual tradition these days for commuter rail lines in New York City to announce record ridership numbers and continuing growth. Metro-North, the Long Island Rail Road and New Jersey Transit have seen numbers not matched since the age of the automobile dawned, and with congestion in the region worsening and gas prices rising, this is a trend with upward growth that shows no signs of slacking off.

Along with higher ridership comes more crowded trains. We’ve seen this in the subways, and commuter rail passengers who are on packed trains every day live through it as well. It is starting to become a problem and one, at that, with no easy solution. Jim O’Grady at WNYC has the story, railroad by railroad:

Riders like Wadler wonder why the railroads don’t simply add more trains. The answer is limited track space. Long Island Railroad has nine branches that converge on a three-track bottleneck beneath the East River that it shares with freight and Amtrak trains. Railroad president Helena Williams says most of those trips end at Penn Station, where track space is at a premium. “We only have so many opportunities to put trains through our system and into Penn Station,” she told WNYC during an interview at the MTA’s Midtown headquarters…

Metro-North has six fewer branch lines and more rail yard space than Long Island Railroad. But it, too, has short platforms and is bursting with passengers, especially on the New Haven Line. Metro-North would like to add double-decker trains, which carry more people and are used by commuter lines around the country, including the LIRR and New Jersey Transit. But spokesman Aaron Donovan says the issue is not enough headroom—for the trains…

New Jersey Transit has dozens of double-decker trains that fit through tunnels under the Hudson River. The problem is the number of tunnels: two. Spokeswoman Nancy Snyder says those two tunnels carry all of the Amtrak and commuter train traffic between Manhattan and points west.

O’Grady’s piece drills down on each railroad’s challenges, and we know that New York City is constrained in that Manhattan is an island. But while the situation is dire, there is some faint glimmer of hope for certain commuters. First, East Side Access may eventually open, bringing more riders on the LIRR and better distributing them throughout the city. The Penn Station Access plan could follow which would help Metro-North. New Jersey Transit, though, in the ARC-less present, is relying on Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel to remove some trains from the Hudson River bottleneck, and it’s not clear when, if ever, that tunnel will become a reality.

We can wring our hands over ARC and the missed opportunities, and we should be worried that few in Albany and Trenton are actively seeking a solution to this capacity problem. We should discuss through-running at Penn Station to bolster capacity as well. But because of geography, politics and economics, these capacity concerns represent a problem that won’t soon disappear.

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While news from the transit world has trickled to a crawl during the cold, snowy days of winter, all eyes have shifted to the east where a labor dispute is playing out that could have ramifications that echo from Montauk to Manhattan to Manitou. With the Long Island Rail Road’s largest union creeping toward a strike and MTA CEO Tom Prendergast’s warning of a huge fare hike if the MTA can’t fulfill its net-zero labor dreams, the next few months could be more important for the MTA’s future than most straphangers realize.

When we last saw this tale, Prendergast had just issued his warning. If the MTA has to grant wage increases to all of its unions without any hope of work rule reform, the fares will go up. It’s the only way the MTA can cover these increased costs, the MTA Chairman has stressed. It’s not a new line from the man who sits in that role, but it’s one inching ever closer to reality. Meanwhile, the MTA and the UTU are living in an era in which the first Presidential Emergency Board determined that the MTA could pay for raises with endless Pay-As-You-Go payments and the MTA’s never-ending ability to borrow more money. Welcome to fantasyland.

So this week, the politicking and maneuvering picked up a bit with a bunch of members of Congress urging the MTA to avoid a strike. Their argument relied on the same one put forward by the PEB without a nod to the MTA’s financial reality. Here’s the Daily News’ take:

Twelve members of New York’s Congressional delegation urged the MTA to soften its hard-line wage freeze stance as a March 21 strike date loomed for Long Island Rail Road workers. In a two-page letter Wednesday to Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Tom Prendergast, the lawmakers called for MTA officials to rethink their position despite what they called the agency’s “past financial stresses.” “We urge the MTA to reconsider its insistence on a wage freeze or concessions to fully pay for wage increases,” read the letter from the office of Rep. Steve Israel (D-L.I.)…

In the letter, Israel and his fellow lawmakers argued for the MTA to return to the bargaining table by pointing out that the presidential panel found the authority could afford to pay for a rise for LIRR workers. The letter, which was signed by all four Long Island Congress members and most of those from New York City, quoted the panel’s argument that “it simply cannot be concluded that the MTA’s current financial position is one in which it is unable to pay for wage adjustments.”

But in speaking at an Albany hearing last month, Prendergast raised the possibility of a 12% fare hike for 2015 if all contract-less MTA workers received raises like those recommended for LIRR employees. Prendergast predicted “dire consequences” — including the possibility of a $2.75 subway ride, up 25 cents, and a $125 unlimited monthly MetroCard, up from the current $112.

To avoid a strike, the MTA will request a second PEB meditation, and the UTU will not be able to walk off the job until late June. There’s no indication that the MTA will accept anything other than a finding favorable to the agency, and it’s possible that they’ll push the issue until the end. The public wouldn’t be happy with a strike, but the LIRR is one railroad that should be pushing for labor reforms. Meanwhile, I’d dispute the stance that the MTA has a “hard-line wage freeze stance.” They’ll willing to grant a wage increase as long as work-rule reform comes with it.

Still, the larger issue here is the fact that of the MTA’s 60 unions, 59 of them are working without a contract. The TWU is agitating for raises too, and if the UTU earns its contract, the other labor unions will push for a similar resolution. At that point, the increased costs of labor — which do not factor into the MTA’s rather optimistic budgets — will fall on the shoulders of the riders. Should the MTA grant wages if everyone else has to pay more? Should work rule reform follow a bump in salary? The answers to these questions will set the tone for the MTA’s economic structure for the foreseeable future.

Categories : LIRR, UTU
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Year-end ridership numbers for the various MTA train lines are starting to trickle in. It’ll be a few more months before we have a snapshot of subway ridership for 2013, but we know that both the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North reported increases in train travel last year. For Metro-North, in fact, 2013 featured record ridership. Now imagine if trains weren’t derailing far more regularly than we’d like.

For east-of-Hudson service, Metro-North’s 81.8 million passengers topped the record set previously set in 2008. Not coincidentally, as the region’s economy and job outlook has improved, so too has commuter rail ridership. On a line-by-line basis, the Harlem Line saw ridership grow by 1.2 percent and carried nearly 27 million passengers while the New Haven line carried a record 38.975 million customers. The Hudson Line carried just under 16 million riders. West-of-Hudson ridership declined by a few percentage points as, per the MTA, the ridership “has been slow to recover since Hurricanes Sandy and Irene.”

Meanwhile, out on the Island, the LIRR’s total ridership topped 83.4 million, making it the busiest commuter rail system in the nation. It was the seventh highest ridership total since the end of World War II, and it too was driven by an improving economic outlook and the opening of the Barclays Center. “We are seeing an increase in both commuters going to work and occasional riders,” LIRR President Helena E. Williams said in a statement. “We had the opportunity to add back some service in 2013 and we are pleased that riders are responding by using the LIRR more often to get to work as well as for leisure and other travel during the off peak periods. We believe the increase in ridership also reflects an improving Long Island and NYC economy.”

Categories : Asides, LIRR, Metro-North
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It’s been a few weeks since Presidential Emergency Board recommended a series of wage increases for the Long Island Rail Road’s United Transportation Union workers, and the MTA has come back with a resounding response to the non-binding suggestions. Setting the stage for a summer of labor unrest, the MTA will not grant the raises to UTU Local 645.

For the MTA, this is a risky, if necessary, move to keep the budget and the dream of net-zeroes in tact. It should lead to a permissible strike, and the MTA is gambling that Long Islanders will allow their support of getting to work quickly and easily trump their support of labor unions. It could also foreshadow how the MTA plans to address the TWU’s ongoing contractual situation.

Pete Donohue offers up this take in today’s Daily News:

MTA Labor Relations Director Anita Miller notified the National Mediation Board that the authority would not enact a contract settlement for the commuter railroad that was crafted by an independent panel. The move prompted an angry response from a top union leader representing LIRR workers, who have labored without a contract since 2010. “If a strike occurs, it’s the sole responsibility of the MTA for being unwilling to accept the results,” said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union. “It’s not a matter of them being unable to pay. It’s a matter of them not wanting to pay.”

Simon’s union is one of eight representing LIRR workers that are involved in the labor showdown with MTA brass. The MTA, meanwhile, all but accused the unions of being indifferent to the possibility that the raises sought would necessarily result in fares being increased to levels higher than that which the authority has already planned.

Federal law says commuter railroad workers can legally walk off the job if a contract deal is not reached after a lengthy process involving negotiations, mediation and mandatory “cooling off” periods. That process is expected to be played out by this summer.

As Donohue details, the MTA’s beef with the PEB decision is as much over what it doesn’t contain as it is over what it does contain. While it required higher union contributions to benefits, it did not include work rule reform which the MTA has repeatedly said is key to its net-zero plans and is also key to future improvements in its operating model.

Meanwhile, in rejecting the raises, the MTA also played to the fears of its riders. Miller told the feds that union officials have no issues with the LIRR passengers paying significantly more for service. One union rep reportedly told the PEB, “The passengers have had a good run at the MTA, and it is about time the fares went up.” Fares have not always tracked inflation.

The path to a strike is a slow one with mandatory cooling periods and enforced negotiations on tap first, but the MTA seems to recognize that a strike may be the only way for it to get what it wants. You can be sure, too, that the TWU is watching as well. They don’t have the right to strike under New York State law, but they’ll push for whatever favorable outcome the UTU can draw out from the MTA. That contract is worth far more in current dollars and future savings, and right now, the UTU fight is a proxy for the larger war with riders and fares serving as the battlegrounds.

Categories : LIRR, UTU
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The trouble with net zero

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The MTA’s budget is a curious thing. It’s a multi-billion-dollar behemoth with nearly no room for maneuvering. While a recent uptick in the economy has resulted in a slight surplus and a rosier outlook, recent developments from Long Island have cast a shadow over a key fundamental assumption. That assumption is the net-zero labor increase, and that development is a substantial award from a Presidential Emergency Board to the United Transportation Union.

The story is a familiar one: The UTU and MTA had been at odds over wage increases and a long-term contract. The MTA wanted to hold the line at a net-zero wage increase with raises in out-years and benefits contributions from retirees. The UTU didn’t want to embrace any of that. So under the Railway Labor Act, President Obama ordered a PEB to convene, and the award issue arrived last Saturday. It was bad news for the MTA though the award is non-binding.

As the UTU outlined in a release, the PEB decision went something like this. (You can read the full here in PDF form.)

The three board members recommended that the LIRR pay wage increase totaling 18.4 percent over six years (2.9 percent per year) and employees begin contributing to health insurance premium costs. After factoring in the recommended employee health insurance contributions, the board’s recommendations would still produce net wage increases of 2.5 percent per year…

The board’s wage recommendations are retroactive to the first year of the contract dispute, which has been ongoing for more than three years. The board rejected MTA’s demand that workers accept three years of net zero wage increases, followed by two, two-percent increases over five years. The board also rejected MTA’s demand for major concessions in pensions, including a permanent five percent employee contribution. The PEB also rejected MTA’s demand that retirees begin paying for health insurance and that railroad retirement disability pensions be offset by LIRR’s pension payments.

PEB recommendations include that employees begin contributing to health insurance premium costs, beginning at one percent of 40 hours straight-time pay, at the contract’s opening date of June 16, 2010, and increasing by .25 percent increments each year thereafter. MTA had proposed larger employee contributions, while the affected unions had proposed no contributions from current employees.

Procedurally, the MTA and UTU now have 30 days — or until January 20 — to work out a deal, and then either party can request a second PEB hearing. Following that hearing, absent an agreement, the unions could legally strike. This clearly differs from the situation with the TWU, as the Taylor Law prevents such a strike, but Local 100 leaders are supporting the UTU in any action it may take.

From a substantive point, the key line in the PEB report it this: “It simply cannot be concluded that the MTA’s current financial position is one in which it is unable to pay for wage adjustments that are otherwise warranted.” In deciding as much, the Board pointed to Pay-As-You-Go resources and the MTA’s ability to borrow more money for wage increases. This is analysis that seems to exist in a short-term vacuum with no nod to context, but it’s also an argument we’ve heard before in the labor context.

For the MTA, this is a tough one. The Board has already announced that planned fare hikes in 2015 and 2017 will be lower than expected, but again, that decision rested on an net-zero wage increase. As the LIRR and UTU head toward a compromise, the MTA’s options will narrow, and staffing reductions may become necessary. Worker morale across the board is low, and strife between the unionized workers and management would be tremendously costly to riders.

We’ve seen this movie end before. The MTA’s budget outlook improves; labor demands increase; riders pay more. Until there is a fundamental change in work rules, pension contributions or labor practices, it always ends the same.

Categories : LIRR, UTU
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As part of a plan to improve reliability and frequency along the Long Island Rail Road’s single-tracked Ronkonkoma Branch, the MTA is going to spend a few hundred million dollars to double track the segment. It’s a long overdue project as ridership along the line has doubled in the 25 years since the line was electrified, and it still won’t be finished until around 2018. The project includes a better connection to MacArthur Airport, transit-oriented development along the 18-mile segment of track, and NIMBYs concerned about their cars.

The double-track project enjoys nearly unanimous support from New York’s politicians. Sen. Chuck Schumer has been instrumental in lining up federal funding; Gov. Cuomo has thrown his voice behind it; and even State Senator Lee Zeldin, the man with a crusade against the MTA payroll tax, has expressed desire to see it through. “The announcement of $138 million in accelerated funding to build the second track project is a huge win for Long Islanders,” Zeldin said in a statement recently. “The impact of this important return on our investment will boost our region’s strength, and specifically our economy. This will create jobs, improve our tax base, and make Long Island a better place to work and raise a family.”

So what’s the problem? For an area that exists and prospers because of its railroad connection to New York City, Long Island has a thriving car culture as well. Some of that is out of necessity; some of that is out of choice. And when drivers hear about increased at-grade railroad service, they think about how it will impact traffic. That was the gist of a recent Newsday article out of Suffolk County as drivers are worried that 20 crossings may see more frequent train service.

Alfonso Castillo had the story:

Some residents and elected officials fear that those extra trains mean more waiting time for motorists. But, the LIRR concluded in its recently published environmental assessment that vehicle backups at affected crossings won’t worsen. The overall impact will be minimal after adjustments to traffic lights and increased waits at three crossings would not be excessive, the study concluded.

“Their assertion that there’s not going to be an impact is totally ludicrous,” said Suffolk Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who has pushed for further study of the Double Track project’s impact on traffic. “No one in the community is saying, ‘Stop this project.’ But we’re all saying, ‘Tread cautiously here and let’s work together to address the concerns that exist.'”

..LIRR officials said adjusting the timing of some traffic lights to move more cars through intersections should eliminate any major delays from crossing gates being down more often. The railroad also wants to add a turning lane at one crossing in Deer Park to help move cars along. “We have acknowledged that there will be some impact,” LIRR Customer Service vice president Joseph Calderone said. “But we’re not walking away. We’re saying that we’re more than willing, and intend to work with local and state governments, to do what we can to try to mitigate any traffic issues.”

To combat the LIRR, some Long Island civic associations are asserting that crossings could see delays of 10-15 minutes and others have proposed spending at least $100 million of state money to construct above-grade crossings for cars. I give them points for creativity at least.

Now, I’m not saying we should ignore the needs of these drivers of the concerns they raise. Some are indeed valid, but it’s an overblown problem with a proportionality issue. The trains will be carrying far more people than the cars on the roads, and if that means some drivers may have to wait for a train to pass, so be it. Long Island works because of its railroad (even though the railroad works in spite of the agency running it), and the double track will be a significant improvement for the Ronkonkoma branch.

Categories : LIRR
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Remnants of the old LIRR Elmhurst station remain. Queens politicians want to revive the stop.

Once upon a time, New York City didn’t know what to do with its transit infrastructure. Investment was nil, and stations that were commuter rail in name were shut down throughout Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Now, nearly 30 years later, with the city’s population booming thanks, in part, to an increased investment in transit, these shuttered stations are under the microscope. Can we reopen them? Should we?

Lately, attention has focused around Elmhurst. For a few years now, local politicians have been angling to reopen an LIRR station lost to declining ridership in what was a declining neighborhood in 1985. Last year, we learned that the MTA isn’t opposed to the idea if the money can materialize. Recently, a similar group of politicians announced the next step in the process: a ridership survey.

A few weeks ago, shortly before I went on vacation, Reps. Joe Crowley, Grace Meng and NYC Council Member Daniel Dromm along with LIRR President Helena Williams announced a survey aimed at collecting data from Elmhurst residents about their travel patterns. It’s another step toward reactivating the station. “As we continue to work with the LIRR to explore the possibility of restoring service to Elmhurst, I want to encourage as many members of our community to participate in the study and make sure their voices are heard,” Crowley said in a statement. “Reopening the Elmhurst Station will increase residents’ access to Midtown Manhattan and help the area reach its economic potential. It will also open the door for all New Yorkers to experience the rich diversity and culture Elmhurst has to offer.”

Meng echoed Crowley. “Reopening this LIRR station would be a huge boon for Elmhurst,” she said. “It would greatly benefit local residents with increased access to public transportation and service to Manhattan, and it would provide a major economic boost for local businesses.”

The survey itself begin at the end of June with two parts. The first involves a written component mailed to households within a half-mile radius of the station site at Broadway and Whitney Ave. An in-person survey will be conducted at nearby subway stations and near the Elmhurst Hospital Center. According to Crowley’s office, reactivating the station could help Elmhurst see improved transit connections. Right now, it hosts local stops along the Queens Boulevard line and a few 7 stations near the neighborhood’s northern border. The politicians don’t consider these stations to be part of an “efficient” network providing direct access to Manhattan’s job centers.

According to a few unpublished studies I’ve seen, the Elmhurst reactivation could be a rather reasonable project at a time when spending on transit improvements and expansions has reached absurd levels. Some estimates peg restoring service at as little as $30-$35 million, and Crowley noted that East Side Access could ease congestion concerns that could occur were service to resume at Elmhurst. If the ridership survey bears out the proponents’ hopes, it seems like a no-brainer.

Even as this effort moves forward, I’m still left with the same thoughts I had last year: Until the fare to go from Elmhurst to Manhattan is more in line with the cost of a Metrocard swipe, very few people will use the service. Elmhurst is a solidly middle class neighborhood in mid-Queens with relatively good subway service, and individual peak rides within the city can cost upwards of $7 on LIRR. Harmonize fares; bring the price. Then, if you build it, they will come.

Categories : LIRR, Queens
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When the MTA wraps up the East Side Access project sometime ever, the Long Island Rail Road will be able to offer more train service into Manhattan, and more train service into Manhattan via the tracks that have fueled decades of growth on Long Island is never a bad thin — unless, of course, you are afraid. “Afraid of what?” you may ask. Afraid, the answer is, of unsightly train cars displacing scenic and landscape-enhancing parking spaces.

The story goes like this: When ESA is finished, the MTA will expand service offerings along the LIRR’s Port Washington branch. More service, however, means more train cars, and more train cars requires more storage space. The current plan is to extend the tracks at Port Washington to allow for storage for 18 additional train cars, but some folks in North Hempstead don’t like this plan, Newsday’s Jennifer Barrios reports today.

The LIRR is considering two options for extending two tracks at the station, [LIRR chief planning officer Elisa] Picca said. Its preferred option requires it to purchase an 18-by-439-foot parcel in a parking lot owned by North Hempstead off South Bayles Avenue. That plan would remove 40 parking spaces from the lot, she said, adding that re-striping the existing lot could replace the 40 spaces. The alternate plan involves putting the track extensions in part of a parking lot the LIRR already owns along Haven Avenue. That would result in the loss of 140 parking spaces, but could be completed without the cooperation of the town…

Last month, LIRR officials met with town officials, including Supervisor Jon Kaiman and Councilwoman Dina De Giorgio. De Giorgio, a Republican who announced her bid for supervisor last month, said the proposals amount to creating an unsightly storage yard in Port Washington. “The idea of storing these massive trains, adding two storage tracks to Port Washington, will completely ruin the character of the town,” she said. “This is creating a train depot in Port Washington.”

…Mitch Schwartz, co-president of the Port Washington Chamber of Commerce, said his primary concern is parking in an area where parking is already notoriously tight. “If we’re going to give up even 40, there’s got to be a compelling reason, something on the other side that is going to get us better service,” Schwartz said. “I’m not convinced at this point.”

So the head of the Chamber of Commerce can’t see the obvious benefit of added train service, and a candidate for town supervisor thinks that storing two trains will ruin the character more than storing a bunch of inert cars already does. These are NIMBY arguments community leaders and elected representatives make to the media with a straight face. Aren’t you tempted to say, “If North Hempstead doesn’t want train service, let’s not give it to them”? Because I am.

Categories : LIRR
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A 94-minute, non-stop ride to the East End is in the offering for the looming summer beach season as the LIRR has announced plans to run its Cannonball train non-stop from Penn Station every Friday from May 24 through Labor Day. The one-seat ride will skip Jamaica and head straight to Westhampton with subsequent stops at Southampton East Hampton, Bridgehampton and Montauk. The Friday train will depart Penn Station at 4:07 p.m. with westbound service — including a stop at Jamaica — departing Montauk at 6:37 p.m. on Sunday nights.

“There’s no better way to get from Manhattan to the Hamptons,” LIRR President Helena E. Williams said in a statement. “Our customers have long asked for a one-seat ride from Penn Station to the Hamptons and we are listening to them. This move eliminates the need to change trains with baggage at Jamaica.”

With a 34 percent increase in summer ridership last year, the LIRR is hoping to boost service along the Montauk Branch. The speedy ride east will cost passengers $27, and passengers have the option to reserve a seat for an additional fee. Previously, such Cannonball service had originated at the Hunterspoint Avenue Terminal in Long Island City with many riders picking up the train at Jamaica, and the new service does away with the transfer. For Hamptons-bound travelers, the Cannonball train has been a mainstay since the 1890s, and it remains both the longest route and the only one with a name operated by the MTA.

Categories : Asides, LIRR
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A non-passenger train sits derailed in Rego Park, Queens, on Monday night. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

A non-passenger LIRR train derailed on Monday night near Rego Park, Queens, and although crews worked through the snow and sleet two nights ago to rerail the train, the incident is still impacting commutes. According to the LIRR, their crews have been working non-stop to repair nearly three quarters of a mile of track damaged when the train jumped the rail, and cancellations during peak hours are expected through Friday.

One of Second Ave. Sagas’ Twitter followers who was a few blocks away from the derailment described it as an earthquake, and the impact has aftershocks, so to speak. The LIRR had to cancel 11 peak hour trains in the morning and seven in the evening. A few have been diverted from Penn Station to Atlantic Ave. while others run only to Jamaica. The full list of changes is available here.

According to the MTA, the derailment knocked one of the four tracks between Jamaica and Penn Station out of commission. Crews have to replace concrete ties, the running rail and the electrified third rail as well. As yet, there has been no determination of the cause of the derailment, but an investigation is ongoing.

After the jump, scenes from the derailment courtesy of Patrick Cashin and the MTA.

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Categories : LIRR, Service Advisories
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