For the past few weeks, State Sen. Jim Gaughran has been spending quality time on the Long Island Rail Road, riding to and from local stations, talking to constituents on the platforms and trains and asking for their input on how the railroad’s service should be improved.
Since late April, Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, has visited stations on both the Oyster Bay and Port Jefferson branches of the LIRR — the two rail lines that run through his Senate district — to solicit comments from his commuting constituents by way of a written transit survey, which asks them how often they take the train, the length of their commute and their overall satisfaction with the LIRR.
The purpose of the survey, Gaughran said, is to hear from commuters firsthand what the railroad should do to improve service. The comments will be compiled and presented to LIRR President Phillip Eng later this year. Gaughran added that the information would provide the railroad with some guidance on how to spend new capital funding included in the state budget.
The 2019-20 budget, which was signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on April 1, includes legislation to overhaul the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The Senate-proposed MTA RAIL Act authorizes key reforms to increase transparency and transform operations at the MTA, including a comprehensive forensic audit of the agency, a requirement that MTA leadership present a 20-year capital investment plan every five years, and mandated public comment on MTA performance to enhance data collection and thus improve service.
“When the budget was adopted, it increased capital spending for improvement to the MTA system,” Gaughran said. “We insisted that 10 percent of that funding — or $1.5 billion — has to go to the LIRR, and that’s for new capital projects.” The “we” refers to the Democratic State Senate majority, which includes six Long Island senators.
Gaughran said he was pushing for the electrification of the Oyster Bay line, and adding more trains to what some consider a limited schedule. Only three of the LIRR’s 11 passenger branches run a majority of diesel trains, and Oyster Bay is one of them.
“If you look at the sign over there,” he said while waiting for a train at the Glen Street Station, “it [says] the first train left [here] in 1867. Part of the issue is this [branch] is one of the older parts of the railroad system. Once it’s electrified, that’s going to dramatically improve service.”
Since the double decker diesel trains are too tall to travel through tunnels, and riders on the Oyster Bay line typically have to transfer at either Jamaica or Mineola for another line, switching to the shorter, electric-powered trains would make overall service more efficient.
“But that entails a lot of capital funds,” he added. “Not just buying more cars, but changing this from a diesel system to electric tracks.”
Gaughran and his staff plan to meet with constituents on what he is calling an “LIRR Mobile Town Hall Tour” through June, during peak morning and evening hours, to talk to as many riders as possible. Last Friday, the Herald Gazette accompanied him on a ride-along from Glen Street to Greenvale, and talked to some commuters.
William Fernandez, of Glen Cove, takes the railroad from Glen Street to work five times a week. Service is good, for the most part, he said, but in bad weather it tends to slow. “A lot of times, if the bad weather comes, the train breaks down, and that’s usually two or three times a year,” he said. But when asked if he thought the railroad was in need of improvements, he said, “I don’t think it does. Mother Nature is something nobody can help.”
Sea Cliff resident Hannah Bradford was handed Gaughran’s transit survey when she boarded at Sea Cliff, and completed it moments later. Like Gaughran, she said she believed the Oyster Bay line needed more-frequent trains. The challenge, however, she added, would be providing riders who drive to their respective stations with adequate parking.
“I wish there were more direct trains, but [then] the station would be overrun [with cars],” Bradford said. “It’s a small trade-off for better service.”
The mayors of both Sea Cliff and Glen Cove have expressed concerns about a potential increase in the number of trains on the Oyster Bay line without first addressing the availability of parking at the Glen Cove, Glen Street and Sea Cliff stations.
“We would like the service modernized and [to] have the parking situation looked into,” said Sea Cliff Mayor Edward Lieberman. “Questions of service disruption are a constant concern, and it’s not just anecdotal. This is an ongoing situation that has historically affected the Oyster Bay line in particular.”
Glen Cove Mayor Tim Tenke said that his city was in the process of adding 30 parking spaces at the Glen Street station, where parking is already limited. If the MTA added trains “without any further upgrades, it’d be very difficult for residents to find parking at those stations,” Tenke said. “As much as we need additional train service, I’m not sure if that would be a feasible thing.”
He added that once the city’s ferry service is up and running, it could help alleviate some of the parking issues at the local railroad stations.
“For years the railroad has been neglecting this,” Gaughran said, referring to improvements, “and part of their argument is that there’s less ridership. There’s less ridership because you don’t have enough trains or better service.”
“We look forward to reviewing the results of the senator’s survey, and to continue on our mission to improve rail service for our customers,” Sarah Armaghan, a LIRR spokeswoman said in a statement. “This reinforces our efforts . . . to encourage and foster open dialogue between customers and staff, elected officials and community members. The feedback helps us give customers the service they want and deserve.”
Gaughran’s survey is available online, at www.nysenate.gov/LIRR.