Home Transit LaborUTU Fare hikes, service increases and the LIRR situation

Fare hikes, service increases and the LIRR situation

by Benjamin Kabak

When the MTA adopted a proposal, nearly five years ago, to shore up their finances by, in part, raising fares every two years, the plan of attack involved biennial increases of around 7-8 percent. The rate of these fare hikes outpaced inflation but was designed to overcompensate for years of fare policies that didn’t align with inflation. After a fare hike last year, though, Tom Prendergast announced that the 2015 hike would be only four percent, and I wondered if the MTA had jumped the gun.

At the time, the MTA had still been pressing for a net-zero labor increase, and it wasn’t clear how strong the MTA’s finances would be, even in the face of an improving economy. Now, we’ve been led to believe that the MTA can afford something more than net zero without rigid work rule reform, at least for the TWU, and the Long Island labor dispute has become the center piece of the battle over MTA dollars. Last week, it seemed as though a summer strike would be more likely than not, and the question on everyone’s mind concerns the money. While the Presidential Emergency Board again failed to account for the MTA’s razor-thin margins and lack of financial flexibility, the PEB still awarded the LIRR union 18 percent raises. Where would this money come from?

In a piece last week in the Daily News, Pete Donohue attempted to answer. For starters, Prendergast said at least week’s MTA board meetings, the fare hikes won’t be increased, but what about everything else? Donohue summarized:

Prendergast said that if an agreement calling for 17% raises for LIRR workers were reached, there would be an impact on MTA budget models, but members of the authority’s board still want to limit next year’s fare hike to 4%, as previously planned. “Fares we’re pretty firm on,” Prendergast said after an MTA board meeting on Wednesday.

MTA officials will meet with LIRR union leaders and attempt to negotiate a less expensive contract, Prendergast said. LIRR workers have been without a contract for more than three years. Union leaders have said they will call a strike if they don’t have a deal by the July deadline. Federal law permits strikes by commuter railroad workers after a multi-stage process of independent mediation and cooling-off periods.

Prendergast said “we’ll have to see” if the MTA would be able to afford service improvements if its budget plans had to be adjusted to accommodate LIRR raises in line with the mediation panel’s non-binding recommendation. Top transit officials last week had begun discussing implementing a package of service increases and improvements that could total $20 million, the Daily News reported.

If the MTA has to dole out more dollars than it anticipated to the LIRR union, the riders wouldn’t see planned service increases, but more alarming are the unsaid sources of revenue. The MTA would possibly have to figure out a way to use pay-as-you-go capital funding to cover labor wages for a union in bad need of reform. Such a move would leave fewer dollars for emergency repairs, component upgrades and maintenance and upkeep efforts. Clearly, that’s not a positive.

I don’t know what will happen. No one wants a strike, but as I said last week, there are some long-term gains to be had from a strike. Still, it’s important to remember that the MTA’s finances are better but still on shaky grounds, and the most vulnerable monies are the ones the agency needs the most. Instead, those dollars could go to the UTU as the city’s transit system faces a potential capital crisis.

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Nathanael May 27, 2014 - 3:19 am

Diverting money from maintenance and essential capital improvements is not acceptable.

Either the LIRR unions agree to reasonable work rule changes and reasonable raises, or the MTA will just have to start shutting down the less-popular lines on the system.

Shutting down ALL the diesel service on the LIRR, and laying off all the workers needed to operate it, would probably close the gap.

The diesel services have the worst farebox recovery ratios. This would also immediately eliminate several of the abusive BLET work rules, and allow for equipment to be sold off for capital improvements on the remaining lines. This is essentially what SEPTA did a few decades back.

lop May 27, 2014 - 3:43 am

Current diesel engines are scheduled to be replaced around 2023, coaches another decade after, not sure how much you think selling existing equipment would bring in.


Sunny May 27, 2014 - 7:16 am

The diesel services are inefficient to operate primarily because of highly inefficient crew utilization. There are some crews that only operate one one-way trip in passenger service. Many others only operate one roundtrip in an 8 hour shift. Some have lots of overtime and long shifts so they can cover both an AM train and a PM one, etc.

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:46 pm Reply
Larry Littlefield May 27, 2014 - 7:51 am

“No one wants a strike, but as I said last week, there are some long-term gains to be had from a strike.”

Unions generally strike when they believe they have been treated unfairly.

But in this case if the public understood how it had been treated, it would strike. There would be a lockout, for months.

In a lockout unemployment must be paid. But not in a union strike. I’d like to see a strike followed by a shutdown.

rdl1972 May 27, 2014 - 8:19 am

Respectfully , there is no way to shut down the LIRR long term . Most of our Roads and bridges were built 50-75 years ago and are woefully inadequate for the increase in traffic they would see in an extended LIRR shutdown. Our antiquated road system isn’t up to the challenge of the extra 100,000 plus cars on the road daily. . Who knows my estimate might even be low . You know how people just love to carpool , I’m sure in our ruggedly individualistic society the commuters will rapidly embrace carpooling for the greater good.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2014 - 9:53 am

What you are saying is that the LIRR is a semi-monopoly that can abuse its power as much as it wants and people have no choice but to live with paying more and more for less and less.

Eventually, however, it reaches the point where it is better to live with the consequences for a while than to continue to be abused.

At this point I think you have to be open to anything, including incorporating the LIRR into the subway system west of Jamaica and paving over the railways to express busways to the east. Long Islanders would ride express buses to Jamaica, and then transfer to express subways.

Bolwerk May 27, 2014 - 10:12 am

Semi-monopoly? It’s a monopoly.

The problems with the LIRR are only tangentially related to anything that has to do with running a railroad. LIRR needs reasonable staffing with reasonable work rules. We have to deal with that, not screw the future by changing to a considerably more costly and less efficient mode for this kind of trip.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2014 - 12:00 pm

Semi-monopoly. People can drive. People can carpool. People can work at home. Buses can be run, and should be run, to the subway at Queensboro Plaza and Marcy Avenue on the J/Z/M, with service added there.

The subway is much more of a true monopoly, which makes it semi-reasonable that the LIRR can strike and NYCT cannot.

“We have to deal with that, not screw the future by changing to a considerably more costly and less efficient mode for this kind of trip.”

If basically the railroad is their property and doesn’t belong to the people, and they can basically act like an oligarchy and no other workers, then desperate measures need to be contemplated, at least for a couple of decades until the grafter culture disappears. It may be impossible to turn it around.

Bolwerk May 27, 2014 - 3:28 pm

Even going by that conceptualization of monopoly, I disagree. Transit buses are a semi-viable alternative to subways at short distances; the LIRR doesn’t deal in particularly short distances, with the Jamaica-NYP leg basically being too far for a bus (mostly on local streets) already. Peak loads at each station probably demand several buses each.

But really none of these modes substitute for each other. They’re all monopolized by different unions, controlling certain kinds of trips. But if you want an idea about how poorly an LIRR bus monopoly replacing the train monopoly might go, NYCTA bus operating expenses are somewhere between 2-3x as high as LIRR already.

Bolwerk May 27, 2014 - 3:28 pm

^ operating expenses per passenger-mile

SEAN May 27, 2014 - 4:16 pm

Larry, I must ask – what are you talking about! If you think that replacing trains with busses will be effective, shows you have zero understanding of the scope required to pull this off. If you think the LIE is bad now, wait until all those LIRR riders hit the road.

pete May 27, 2014 - 6:15 pm

If the LIE is jammed after LIRR is shutdown prepare to see Air Taxi choppers to Midtown Los Angelos style.

rdl1972 May 27, 2014 - 10:30 am

No I didn’t say that , you are saying that I implied that. I simply said you are a little rosy in your assessment of life on LI without the LIRR. Paving over the existing ROW and buying Buses to operate on the ROW , yeah that sounds real cost effective and realistic.

SEAN May 27, 2014 - 4:39 pm

That will never happen. However the longterm shutdown of the LIRR that Larry is avocating for will have a devestating impact on LI’s econemy including housing prices & property tax receipts amung other things.

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:37 pm

Well, Long Island should think about that, and start figuring out how to break the LIRR unions.

Currently the LIRR is funded by the state government and by the entire region, meaning that places other than Long Island are funding the featherbedding and absurd work rules on the LIRR.

Places other than Long Island do not want to pay several times the going rate, for substandard labor, in order to support Long Island. How does that benefit Westchester, or Manhattan?

If Long Island cares to pay for the LIRR itself, I guess this would be Long Island’s free choice, but in that case, I’m pretty sure Long Island would go ahead and support a strike — Nassau and Suffolk Counties have not been exactly pro-union, nor have they even been pro-mass-transit.

Michael K May 27, 2014 - 9:38 am

A strike appears inevitable, but the governor may step in with a deal in the ninth hour to look like a hero.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2014 - 9:54 am

Whether he is a hero depends on who has to pay for the deal. NYC riders are among those currently subsidizing what goes on further east.

Avi May 27, 2014 - 9:55 am

You’re right, the governor will probably step in at the 11th hours with a deal. The deal will give the union what it wants and claim the MTA has magically found the money to pay for it. We will realize immediately the money will come from capital maintenance or fare hikes, but the public and media won’t bother to report it.

Then when the future fare hikes are announced the governor will blame the MTA for mismanaging its books. The governor gets to score populist points on both sides, gets to keep the union happy so it supports his reelection campaign, and the only people who suffer will be transit riders who aren’t real Americans driving cars like our governor.

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:38 pm

The money will probably be taken from the NYC Subway.

Which is totally unacceptable. NYC shouldn’t be subsidizing bad practices on Long Island.

RichardB May 27, 2014 - 10:29 am

As a UK resident I have been following this blog with interest for some time. London has it own transport quirks as you may find if you follow the London Reconnections blog but I confess I am really baffled. Given the significance of public transport to New York’s prosperity I cannot fathom why the authorities have not invested in wholesale electrification of the LIRR. Given the proximity of Long Island to Manhattan, the population and the relatively small amount of trackage involved electrification should be a no brainer. I know we in the UK have had issues with new electrification but that seems to have changed for the better but irrespective of the motive power I would have thought that the LIRR could have usefully sought additional patronage and revenue by developing the off peak services. This has been the pattern in London where of off peak travel has been a major growth area. I live in the southwest of London close to the TfL boundary where you might expect services to diminish but the inner and outer suburban trains are heavily used in both directions in the off peak. As an example the minimum service at my local station is six trains per hour in both directions and the Crossrail2 proposal would double that frequency. Waterloo station which serves the south west has something like 18 inner suburban trains per hour in both directions throughout the day and that is without the addition of the many outer suburban and long distance services which also normally operate at a 30 minute frequency. There are also additional services during the peak periods. Liverpool Street station which serves the east of London has a similar provision.

Is there really no demand for such frequencies in Long Island or have I misunderstood the level of provision? If the off peak could be improved this could usefully generate additional revenue for the MTA.

anon_coward May 27, 2014 - 10:42 am

it’s only a small part of the LIRR that’s not electrified and i bet it’s A LOT cheaper to run a few diesel trains than pay for a hundred miles of third rail and the infrastructure to electrify it

Alon Levy May 28, 2014 - 6:37 am

On the contrary! The more of the network is already electrified, the more cost-effective it is to electrify more: for example, you’d need to electrify the Main Line from Ronkonkoma to Greenport, but then you’d be able to replace diesel trains going on the entire Main Line, even portions west of Ronkonkoma, with EMUs. Same is true of Babylon and Huntington.

Larry Littlefield May 27, 2014 - 12:02 pm

“I confess I am really baffled. Given the significance of public transport to New York’s prosperity I cannot fathom why the authorities have not invested in wholesale electrification of the LIRR.”

Local NIMBY’s (not in my back yard) killed it. It was part of plans to add a third track on the mainline and add a yard on the Port Jefferson line. A major outer line (Ronkonkoma) WAS electrified not too long ago, and ridership soared.

Michael K May 27, 2014 - 12:48 pm

People really, really hate transfers. Especially on 45+ mile commutes.

Alon Levy May 28, 2014 - 6:38 am

Okay, then don’t say “NIMBYs killed it.” Say, “NIMBYs killed a different capital project that electrification was bundled into.”

eo May 27, 2014 - 3:23 pm

The demand for reverse peak and off-peak hour on Long Island is nowhere what you have in London. Also the existing work rules tend to favor fewer and longer trains reducing the frequencies and the ability to create demand by frequent service. The MTA and NJTransit for that matter prefer to run commuter trains with 10-12 cars because to run two trains with 5-6 cars would be more expensive as they will have to pay more crew members. This is true to the point where on off-peak they run the long trainsets even if only 1 or 2 cars are open and in use because it is cheaper to just take the wear and tear on the closed and unused cars than to split the trains into smaller sets and run more often (I know that the issue is a bit more complex than that and that splitting a trainset is not performed daily because of FRA rules). Limited capacity of tracks is often cited as the reason for the long sets, but that is true only for peak travel. Off-peak the capacity exists on many (but probably not all) lines to split the sets and run more frequently, but it is too expensive to do so at current crew rules, pay scales and the mentality that employees should only do one thing and for the “other thing” you need a separate employee while the first one just passes time on the clock.

As a matter of curiosity, what are the typical train lengths for what is the equivalent of the NY commuter railroads in London? 4-5 cars? Do they ever get to even 7-8 during off-peak?

SEAN May 27, 2014 - 4:54 pm

Most Off-Peek MNR trains are six to eight cars & are usually all open as non-rush demand has been growing rapidly . When I take NJT or the LIRR out of Penn Station, trains tend to be full & seats come at a premium. They seme to create there own demand.

RichardB May 27, 2014 - 7:51 pm

In London the train length varies according to the patronage but also because of historical quirks. The old Great Western line into Paddington for example did not put much of a premium on commuter trains and six 20 metre coaches would be the norm although this will chage radically once the Crossrail project is complete in 2018. Currently the trains would consist of two 3 coach units so in the off peak they could choose to run a 3 coach train. On the south western line however the units are normally 4 coaches long and throughout the day most trains consist of 8 coaches (consisting of two units of four coaches) on the inner and outer suburban lines but this is changing to 10 coaches on the inner suburban trains but we also have a lot of 12 coach trains as well. On the busy South Eastern lines the trains are normally 10 coaches long but that will shortly change to 12 coaches to reflect increase in patronage. The Southern trains operating out of Victoria are usually 8 coaches or 10 coach long. The eastern services are usually nine coaches long on the inner suburban trains. The new Crossrail trains which have just been ordered will consist of 9 coaches but the coach length will be 23 metres and the order envisages an add on order to increase total train length to 11 coaches. The new Thameslink order for over 1100 coaches will have trains if 12 and 8 coach lengths with the majority of 12 coach length. The point to understand is that the growing patronage means even trains of 10 or 12 coach lengths will be required even in the off peak. Interestingly enough there has been speculation that the south western line might need to run 15 or 16 coach trains on the outer suburban services. If growth continues I think this will have to considered as the alternative, double decker trains, would pose a real problem as our loading gauge would mean every tunnel and bridge would have to raised or lowered at exorbitant cost. Also coaches with two levels pose a real problem in terms of speed of egress at the London termini which would impose real constraints on the timetable.

BruceNY May 27, 2014 - 9:48 pm

“. . . because of FRA rules”. Everytime I hear this I have to wonder who are these bureaucrats writing these rules? Can’t split train sets? Really? Someone posted last week that due to FRA rules you can’t have third rail and overhead catenary on the same route (Penn Station vicinity is grandfathered in) thus eliminating any possibility of different lines using the same track for through-services in the future.
Can anyone shed some light on the origins of these arcane rules?

Spendmor Wastemor May 27, 2014 - 10:03 pm

In response to L. Littlefield above: ( at 7:51 am )

“But in this case if the public understood how it had been treated, it would strike. There would be a lockout, for months.”

Thank you, that stated my feelings about LIRR more succinctly than I could.

Alon Levy May 28, 2014 - 6:45 am

Well, the demand for off- and reverse-peak service in London is greater because the service is better. National Rail trains in Greater London accept Oyster, and have mode-neutral fares: the fare on a commuter train is the same as the fare in the same zone for the Underground, unless you’re riding a special premium train like the Heathrow Express. The frequency is higher. The trains may be less expensive to operate because no FRA, although some of them are actually heavier per unit of length*width than M7s.

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:40 pm

Richard: you have nothing in London resembling the crazy work rules on the LIRR.

For reference, neither does any other railroad in the US.



Your railroad unions in London appear to be run by halfway-reasonable people. As, indeed, do most railroad unions in the US these days. But not on the LIRR!

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:42 pm

The LIRR management has also, historically, been awful. Treats it like a fiefdom. Proposals for cooperation with Metro-North were rejected.

Imagine if you had a little fiefdom fighting to prevent through service from crossing London (fighting against allowing Thameslink to be established, because it crossed a concession boundary, for instance) and you begin to see the problems.

Nathanael May 28, 2014 - 10:45 pm

To put it another way: you don’t have fighting divisions in Transport for London.

The LIRR is a division which fights with the other divisions of the MTA. It also fights with Amtrak, who is spending a great deal just to get the LIRR out of its hair.

David Alexander May 29, 2014 - 3:43 am

Your railroad unions in London appear to be run by halfway-reasonable people.

I get the strange feeling that the reason Europeans seem to get more out of their governments period is because their civil servants simply make less than ours, despite some living in high cost of living locales. From what I remember seeing in the French media some time ago, SNCF’s employees were making less than their Amtrak and MNRR counterparts…


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