Long Islanders have long had a love-hate relationship with the Long Island Rail Road. On one hand, they love the service, which, on good days, speeds them into New York City, saving them the challenge of negotiating the often insane traffic jams that plague the city. On the other hand, they hate the constant delays and cancellations.
Lately, the relationship has been more hate than love.
The LIRR is the largest commuter train network in the nation, ferrying some 600,000 passengers in and out of the city on 1,300 trains every day. When the system runs as it should, service is seamless. When it doesn’t, as has been the case too often lately, it can be downright nightmarish.
Much of Pennsylvania Station’s infrastructure was designed and built in the 1960s and ’70s, when half the number of trains ran in and out of the station, according to officials from Amtrak, which operates the station.
Two trains recently derailed within two weeks of each other — an Amtrak train leaving Penn on March 24, and a New Jersey Transit train pulling into the station during the morning rush on April 3. Those accidents crippled LIRR service for days. On April 25, the New York City Police Department, fearing for commuters’ safety, was forced to partially shut down Penn Station because it had become so packed with disgruntled passengers.
The derailments exposed the myriad infrastructure problems manifested by an antiquated and rapidly aging rail system. Wick Moorman, president and CEO of Amtrak, announced a series of station improvements last Friday, but many questions remain.
Amtrak officials confirmed that they planned to close several tracks at Penn Station this summer for major repairs. It’s clear that major track and switch renewal projects must begin immediately. Moorman said, though, that tracks would be shut down on weekdays, disrupting service during peak hours.
Beyond Amtrak’s declaration that track improvements would be undertaken sometime down the line, few details were provided. Commuters need and deserve to know how many tracks will be closed, and for how long. Moreover, how will the upcoming projects affect LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak schedules? When will changes be announced?
In short, Amtrak must be more transparent and accountable.
If it were, commuters could better plan for the travel headaches that likely await them in the coming months, perhaps even years. What are their transportation alternatives? Now is the time to plan.
Amtrak officials also said that Tom Prendergast, the former Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO and chairman, will review coordination and collaboration among the LIRR, NJ Transit and Amtrak, each of which has its own concourse at Penn Station. Clearly, better communication is needed among the three railroads to limit service disruptions — and confusion in times of emergency. We applaud the move as a first step in solving Penn Station’s perennial communications problems, but follow-up will be needed to ensure that real and lasting changes are made.
At the same time, there must be an expanded commuter network leading from Long Island into New York City. For a century, the LIRR has had but one station in New York City — Penn. The $10 billion-plus East Side Access project promises to connect the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022. We eagerly anticipate completion of this mega-project, but it has faced years of delays and budget overruns. Fingers crossed, it will meet current completion projections.
There’s also the Gateway Program, a $23 billion proposal to expand and renovate the Northeast Corridor rail line between Newark, N.J., and New York City. The project would include high-speed rail service, reducing the need for car and even air travel. For Long Islanders, the Gateway Program would mean better access to rail service throughout the Northeast. It appears, however, to be in jeopardy, because President Trump has proposed slashing funding for new transit projects. So much for infrastructure improvement.
We urge Long Islanders to call the White House and their congressional representatives to urge that they prioritize and fully fund the Gateway Program, which top officials in President Obama’s administration once called “the most important planned piece of rail infrastructure in the country.”
Public transportation is vital to the economies of Long Island, New York City and the Northeast. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people are affected when train service is delayed or grinds to a halt. In the end, allowing our rail lines to deteriorate to the point of no return would be far more costly to our region than upgrading and properly maintaining them now.