Home Asides Gains in 2013 for LIRR, Metro-North ridership

Gains in 2013 for LIRR, Metro-North ridership

by Benjamin Kabak

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.”

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anon_coward January 28, 2014 - 2:04 pm

love the LIRR when i take it. you know when the train leaves and its literally 15-20 minutes from forest hills to Penn

wish all the local trains would stop at FH at least during the morning rush so i would take it almost every day instead of the subway

Kevin Walsh January 28, 2014 - 2:36 pm

Thank you for riding with us! Please bear with us when we raise your fares, delay capital projects for years, and the LIRR union prepares to strike.

Larry Littlefield January 28, 2014 - 3:19 pm

They’re lagging way behind job growth. A half decade or more back they were growing faster.

SEAN January 28, 2014 - 4:18 pm

I find this interesting… ridership on the LIRR has been increasing despite a static population for nearly a generation. News reports for what they are worth point to an exitus by the young.

MNR has more growth potential with job centers in White Plains, Stamford & to a smaller extent Bridgeport. However Westchester also faces the same challenge of population loss of the young since many of them cant aford to live in either area.

I do wonder at times if those reports are just a tad hyperbolic.

Nathanael January 28, 2014 - 4:28 pm

Metro-North continues to gain on LIRR. It used to be that LIRR was WAY ahead of Metro-North in ridership — now it’s less than 2% ahead.

Is this due to depopulation of Long Island, but continued population growth in the northern suburbs? That seems to be what matches with the news reports. If young people are leaving Long Island, this could also have the unpleasant effect of making Long Island skew older, and specifically of making it skew to the “automobile generation”.

Nathanael January 28, 2014 - 4:29 pm

Looking at the ridership trends, I’d say Penn Station Access for Metro-North is a lot more valuable than “East Side Access” for LIRR.

But someone decided to waste several billion on the LIRR.

g January 28, 2014 - 6:05 pm

Or that demand to get into east midtown and skip other connections is very high…in which case ESA will be really successful.

George January 28, 2014 - 7:25 pm

In the year 3000, when ESA is complete, it will be a hit I’m sure.

SEAN January 28, 2014 - 7:47 pm

IS It possible that at some future date the LIRR could move all Penn bound trains to GCT? If so, it would make the current ESA investment worthwhile.

SEAN January 28, 2014 - 7:53 pm

In adition space at Penn would open up for other MNR, Amtrak & NJT trains.

g January 28, 2014 - 8:00 pm

The hudson tunnels constrain Amtrak and NJT. They will not be able to add runs if LIRR gives up slots. There are only two tunnels under the Hudson but four under the East River so MNRR can use the Hell Gate line to get into Penn and utilize vacated LIRR slots.

g January 28, 2014 - 7:58 pm

No. As I recall LIRR sends 36 trains per hour into Penn. The ESA terminal can only handle 24 trains per hour.

Overall the end goal is to not only get the people over to the east side who want to go there but to grow capacity as well.

al January 29, 2014 - 1:16 pm

24tph, How the hell are you spending $10 billion on a terminal that can only handle 24tph?

Alon Levy January 29, 2014 - 6:43 pm

That’s what the tunnels can handle. 24 tph per track is normal capacity for urban rail. It’s possible to push 30 with state-of-the-art mainline signaling (and much easier to do the same or even higher on low-speed mainline-disconnected subways), but not everyone does this.

Larry Littlefield January 28, 2014 - 8:20 pm

Long Island absolutely needs East Side Access, based on where the jobs are. It needs it yesterday. Every year without it hurts. Or should I say decade.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:35 pm

But do we need Long Island?

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:36 pm

It’s mostly going to flood anyway due to sea level rise.

Nathanael January 30, 2014 - 2:37 pm

OK, I rechecked the flood maps; the situation isn’t as dire as I thought. The south shore is doomed, but the north shore and the middle will survive.

Douglas John Bowen January 28, 2014 - 9:13 pm

So,in other words, LIRR regained its top slot by being more than just a “commuter” railroad, following Metro-North’s example. Or do only “commuters” arrive at Barclays?

Alon Levy January 29, 2014 - 6:45 pm

…except Metro-North is totally just a commuter railroad. It just serves reverse commuters to Stamford, Greenwich, and White Plains in addition to commuters to Manhattan. The off-peak frequency is still meh. It also functions as intercity rail from New York to New Haven, but that’s because hourly off-peak frequency works for intercity trains that take almost two hours to do the trip.

Douglas John Bowen January 30, 2014 - 12:04 pm

I couldn’t disagree more, so I’m not sure if we should pursue this. Comparing off-peak M-N frequency to, oh, say, New Jersey Transit is a non-starter. Weekends are worse (ask any rail rider from Montclair).

And I don’t consider patrons of night games at Yankee Stadium — able to access the park directly from all three lines — anything remotely resembling a “commuter” operation. I don’t think most rail advocates (myself included) thought that could be pulled off, especially for train departures after the game. (If Mr. Levy did, kudos to him.)

What seems to be being said here is Metro-North could do better. Sure, especially after the year it had. But don’t be shocked if (or when) M-N resumes its No. 1 regional rail ridership ranking in 2014. If/when it does, “commuters” will play only a part.

Pleased, though, to see Mr. Levy’s acknowledgement of “reverse” commuters, even if he chooses to lump them in with the more traditional “inbound by day, homebound by night” crowd. Does that make reverse riders a brand new subset of “those people,” to be equally spurned by our political leaders?

Ryan January 30, 2014 - 9:09 pm

The tragedy of the Metro-North Commuter Railroad is almost perfectly encapsulated in the existence of the six-month-old West Haven Saw Mill Park & Ride Station. Nearly everything that is wrong with the service is neatly wrapped up in that one little microcosm.

You would be right to ask, then, just what are the problems with the MNCR that are so neatly encapsulated within the fallacy of “West Haven?”

1. Attitudes and behaviors that run counter to the interests of passengers.

“West Haven” closes and locks its doors at 6 PM each evening, come rain or snow or biting winds. This isn’t nearly as much of a problem for those who drive and park at the station as it is for those who are dropped off and picked up there or for those who walk/bike/bus to the station, but it still means the loss of access to restrooms (bad) and shelter (worse) – the glorified bus shelters strategically placed upon the platforms offer no real protection from the elements and waiting in the heated overpass might cause you to miss any one of the 25(!) trains that stop in “West Haven” after 6 PM, as the MNCR very much enjoys shutting the doors immediately after the last person getting off has done so and everyone standing on the platform is on the train. You’re running down the stairs and the doors are closing? Better dive for it, because the conductors sure as hell won’t be opening them back up for you!

But lest you think that it is all sunshine and roses at the Saw Mill Park & Ride – even when the station house is not closed and locked, no actual employees of the railroad can be found here. The single office in the building lobby is occupied by the security guard (if it is occupied at all), who can offer you no assistance with anything you couldn’t have done or figured out between the pile of schedules haphazardly strewn across the office window and the ticket machines generously placed on either platform (to ensure that all can pay for their ride to anywhere even when the station is closed for business.) Service change? Late train? Any other kind of announcement that needs making? Well, all of that is done by automation only, screeched out through low-quality and low-fidelity speakers that omit the name of the station because the name of the station was never programmed into this system.

Sadly, both the insufficient stop length (exacerbated by a timetable which seemingly allots 0 seconds for each station stop and thereby causes trains to invariably end up 1-4 minutes ‘late’) and the failure to staff stations are recurring themes for the MNCR. And, indeed, both are easy fixes: adjust the schedule to account for 30 seconds at every station and include that 30 seconds per station in whatever degree of padding is applied, then hire additional personnel to staff every station lacking a presence.

2. Confusing and arbitrary stop prioritization.

Oh, where to even begin with this? Every single train stopping at New Haven also stops at “West Haven”, a decision which effectively assigns equal importance to this park-and-ride as New Haven Union Station, and elevates it above ‘lesser’ stops such as State St., Southport, East Norwalk, or Greenwich.

Putting aside the issue of the handful of exceptional special-snowflake express runs catering to peak-hour commuters at the expense of everyone else, trains operate as one of a few differing flavors of “local” out of New Haven (usually Union Station, sometimes State St. on a not-quite-regular basis), making either most or all of the stops along the way to Stamford and then running non-stop to Harlem with five afternoon exceptions that make one more stop at Greenwich and exactly one of those five also stopping at Rye. The train that stops at Rye runs fully local east of Stamford, as do two more of the Greenwich trains; the other two run ‘mostly’ local with five skipped stops.

Furthermore, the New Haven Line operates at least 2 off-peak TPH out of New Haven from 8:21 AM (the 8 AM departure gets into GCT with just 13 minutes left to go on Peak Time being enforced) until 11 AM and again between 2 PM and 6 PM. These are all clock-facing… until they aren’t, with the actual minute of departure changing rather arbitrarily and the schedule being chock full of ‘close enough’ exceptions. Consistency in the schedule is not the MNCR’s strong suit, and the decision to operate mostly-local-until-express trains instead of semi-express trains is incredibly arbitrary. Naturally, even the mostly-local trains are stopping at West Haven in spite of this not making very much sense in the context of other stops which are skipped by mostly-local trains.

Just looking at the mess of a New Haven Line schedule, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking that there were good reasons for all these exceptions and that normalizing at least the off-peak schedule would surely be an impossible endeavor. Alas, you’d be wrong. Normalization off-peak is absolutely possible and wouldn’t require that much to change! Even some degree of normalization during the peak can be accomplished! Instead of having wildly inconsistent degrees of stop skipping in your service and almost-but-not-quite-clock-facing schedules, introduce two service patterns off-peak and extend them to the peak trains which fit the off-peak patterns: one local-then-express train which makes every stop from New Haven to Stamford and none of the stops between Stamford and Harlem (and always leaves New Haven at :50 instead of always coming at :46 except for when it leaves at :36, :40, :48, :49, :50, :53, :54, or :56 instead), and one semi-express which skips “West Haven” along with about half (which half isn’t relevant to this particular point) of the other 24 stops between New Haven and New Rochelle (and always leaves at :20 instead of always leaving at :28 except for when it leaves at :10, :11, :18, :21, :30, :34 or :35 instead). Apply the same kind of normalization to the off-peak and matching peak trains out of Grand Central en route to New Haven. BOOM! Suddenly, the schedule’s much easier to understand and communicate to someone verbally! Peak time is still full of exceptions, but that’s a much harder problem to tackle! “West Haven” loses a whole bunch of service, but it isn’t a very good station anyway! Greenwich and New Rochelle and maybe some other stops in Westchester County gain a whole bunch of additional single-seat rides from east of Stamford! (Almost) everyone becomes a whole lot happier! What’s not to like?

3. “This is the train to” [an arbitrary end-point].

Nobody is (or should be) denying that “West Haven” is CDOT’s baby. MNCR’s share of the blame comes mostly from allowing it to come into being and (as per the previous point) for drastically over-serving a low-demand park and ride even as it under-serves higher priority (and likely higher ridership) stations on either side of Stamford. Naturally, then, no matter how the MNCR normalizes its schedule or otherwise cuts service to “West Haven,” it should be a given that every Shore Line East train running through to or from Stamford will still be stopping there…

All five of them, a massive 13.5% of the total number of daily Shore Line East trips. The Shore Line East is unique among the New Haven Line’s four branches in that it is the only one not controlled or operated by the MNCR. That at least explains the passive-aggressive refusal to appropriately time westbound transfers outside of peak hour (behavior also unique to this branch), but not the refusal to through-route any of the branches any farther than is strictly necessary.

While there’s certainly a capacity crunch farther down the line, turning trains in Stamford is non-problematic enough that we could easily go to 50% Shore Line East through operation (and 100% once CDOT’s own M8s go into service and some of the existing overlapping peak hour runs are merged into joint-operation extended Shore Line East runs through to Grand Central) alongside 100% of the extremely low-traffic Waterbury and Danbury Branches. All of the Waterbury trains should further be stopping at Stratford (see the previous point).

This, in fact, leads straight into the next point:

4. One-size fits all, except when it doesn’t

MNCR is very clear about its priority: commuters to New York. Regional commuters are the priority, and intercity commuters are a strong secondary – but coming in a distant third place beneath MNCR’s notice are regional commuters outside of the all-encompassing gravitational pull of New York City. In fact, the regional commuting needs of New Haven County and Eastern Fairfield County are rather unsatisfyingly stapled onto the New York-oriented trains. This is not ideal for a four-track railroad spanning two states and nearly 75 miles, but it’s “good enough” for those who depend on it and it’s “good enough” for the MNCR.

…until it isn’t, and the MNCR runs a ridiculous number of special-snowflake trains (see point 2) so that every community can have a sufficiently “express” ride to New York.

This is fixed in the exact same way point 3 is solved (more through-running), and also by running additional local trains between New Haven and Stamford – doing both would be ideal but even doing just one or the other is a huge help to the eastern half of the route. Going back to point 2 for a moment, dedicating a certain amount of the capacity and some of the rolling stock to intra-CT runs makes it that much easier to further adjust the NY-bound trains to better service NY-bound travelers and not have those trains be overly slowed down by or bogged down with intra-CT travelers.

5. Terrible, awful, no good, very bad station placement.

Did you think I forgot? Oh no, I saved the biggest glaring flaw for last. Admittedly, this one is less relevant to the MNCR as all of the others combined because the MNCR isn’t going out and building new stations with any real degree of regularity – but let’s go ahead and take a trip back in time! to the last few major extensions and expansions to the MNCR network:

– Obviously, our first and most recent station, the very subject of this post, the “West Haven” Station. Got the green-light ahead of Orange because of how it would revitalize downtown West Haven according to certain key players – which is why it made perfect sense to choose the location that offered the best highway access and build out a massive 660-space park and ride to support that highway access.

Actually, they didn’t pick the location with the best highway access. That was in Orange, off of Marsh Hill Road, a station whose chances of seeing actual construction are now effectively zero because of “West Haven.” Another station with effectively zero chance of seeing actual construction is … West Haven. Even were operations to be improved and adjusted so as to allow for dedicated intra-CT service not coming at the expense of NY-bound traffic, the ideal location for West Haven (off Campbell Avenue) is too close to “West Haven” and the closest possible location (off of 1st Avenue, which would have ironically also been a better location in terms of direct freeway access at the low low cost of reconfiguring Exit 43) requires extensive property acquisition.

– Moving on back to 2011, we have Fairfield Metro! Also on the New Haven Line, also designed-built-opened as a park-and-ride! Sigh. Well, at least this station didn’t close off any potential stations in better nearby locations, and at least the 1500 parking spaces came with a new commercial development attached. TOD, they call it. Hey!

– Next up, da Yankees! East 153rd Street, opened 2009, and the first expansion of MNCR service not directly tied to a park-and-ride. A good station, all and all… well, except for the fact that the Yankees paid and pay for exactly no part of it even though they’re drowning in blood money and their freaking name is all over the station. That part’s no good.

– Last, but probably not least, the Harlem Line extension from Dover Plains to Wassaic, circa 2000. Of course, these were two far-flung stations in the middle of one of several extremely rural parts of New York. Further extensions are inadvisable (frankly, extending it past Dover Plains was probably inadvisable) precisely because of this rural character, forcing park-and-rides as the default state of being for every new station. I can’t really hold it against these stations for that reason (and, of course, Tenmile River isn’t helping my case by having a very small parking lot) – but the fact remains, they’re park-and-rides, through-and-through.

So, there we have it. The last five stations MNCR has built – four of them are park-and-rides and the fifth was a giveaway to the last people in NYC who needed any kind of hand out. Not exactly the best track record, or the best pattern to be emerging in “new station construction” even as transit enjoys something of a resurgence in the Northeast and nation-wide.


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