It won’t please the Port Washington branch riders to know that the MTA is very proud it is taking a holistic, systemwide view in the most significant overhaul of its service schedule in 30 years, so the agency seems less than sympathetic to the outpouring of complaints over cuts to express service and rush hour commutes lengthened by 8 minutes.
In a nutshell, the MTA seems to be prioritizing boosting Queens ridership at the expense of improving service for North Hempstead. So what if “express” trains take 8 minutes longer? But outraged electeds from Port Washington, Plandome, Manhasset and Great Neck are making it sound like those extra minutes (never mind the added curb appeal of the new East Side access to Grand Central) will cause home values to plummet along the North Shore.
State Sen. Anna Kaplan and state Assemblymember Gina Sillitti were right to inform and engage riders who had largely been ignored by the LIRR when it produced its 2023 schedules, and their efforts – literally standing at the train stations and handing out brochures — have resulted in the MTA scheduling a virtual public hearing on July 13 and two additional virtual public hearings on Aug. 4 and Aug. 11.
Frankly, I have a quarrel with both sides – the hysteria from the North Shore (which seems largely political opportunism), Nassau County Bruce Blakeman irate over the LIRR using 1980s cars until new ones arrive and the MTA’s “nothing to see here, move on” attitude. The MTA seems, frankly, surprised by the rancor over its new schedules – after all, 45 percent of LIRR riders said they wanted East Side Access – and is taking pride in basically remaking the entire system virtually from scratch. But at least the MTA added two public hearings.
“We urged MTA CEO Janno Lieber to come back to the table and work with the Town of North Hempstead on potential long-term infrastructure investments that will bring more service to stations on the Port Washington branch down the road, and he agreed to do so,” Kaplan and Sillitti write. “It’s important that we all realize this isn’t a done deal, and our work isn’t over. We’re fighting hard to get the MTA to restore these proposed cuts, but it’s critical that every impacted resident speak out and make their voices heard directly to the MTA before these service changes are decided upon.”
As I see it, the core of the problem is MTA’s focus on increasing Queens ridership. This likely emerges out of a business model – Long Island commuters are a captive audience but Queens riders represent a growth opportunity. Indeed, MTA is so often bashed for losing money, you might forgive the agency for looking for new riders to boost revenues.
But the flaw in this strategy is whether adding Queens stops on the express service (which adds the 8 extra minutes) will really generate more Queens riders. Queens commuters already have ample opportunity to ride LIRR, with 11 peak a.m. trains from Bayside, 10 from Little Neck and Douglaston vs. 11 express trains from Port Washington. But they also have a host of mass transit alternatives (subway, bus, express bus) at a fraction of the cost ($5.50 roundtrip) compared to $27 roundtrip to ride the LIRR and the difference isn’t much better for a commuter monthly, or what they charitably call a “city ticket,” which is an off-peak fare (so not relevant to the commuter service).
In addition, many Queens commuters still have to take a subway up or downtown, so they would be paying double fares. Unless the MTA is also figuring out some different pricing for city-goers, they are unlikely to get many more riders. (I asked if the MTA did a Queens ridership survey and received no answer.)
But there is evidence: There are LIRR trains from Jamaica to Penn Station every three minutes in rush hour but it is the subway trains that are standing room only, noted Ian Rasmussen, a zoning attorney, urban planner and commuter activist who once worked for the LIRR.
Another concern raised by Thomaston Mayor and GNVOA President Steve Weinberg is that the express trains that pick up at Great Neck before flying straight into Penn Station (in 24 or 25 minutes!) are already crowded. It’s not like they can accommodate three more stations worth of passengers.
The bigger problem is not the commute into Manhattan – for many, it isn’t a big deal to wind up at Grand Central rather than Penn Central – but the return. Let’s say you rush to Penn Station but miss the 5:55 p.m. train by two minutes, you would have to wait until 6:25 p.m. for the next train from Penn to Great Neck. But aha! Clever commuters might realize that they could take the 6:02 to Babylon and switch at Woodside. (There’s a Train Time app for that, where you would put in your destination rather than the line to see the best route).
Interestingly, the MTA points to the improved reverse commute service, which supports the North Shore’s economic development with skilled workers – perhaps at Northwell Health and the like – commuting from Manhattan and Queens. (Blakeman made no remark about that opportunity in his presser decrying the service cuts.)
The MTA is proud and excited about this landmark opportunity to remake the system “from scratch” with new infrastructure, trains, and a new terminal to bring a “fresh holistic view of how to optimally create a balanced schedule that will benefit customers across the entire LIRR system – balancing the complexity, infrastructure” and shifts in commuting patterns, involving 11 branches, 124 stations, and 700 miles of track.
But in this day and age, with the kind of computerized switching systems and control systems that are available, coupled with actual passenger use data, I would think that more efficient scheduling would be possible. And the MTA should not actually be starting from scratch because they have actual passenger use data and should also have had surveys gauging potential ridership from Queens.
But especially if MTA is in fact starting from scratch, getting away from set-in-stone concepts, here’s my suggestion to resolve the Port Washington line issue:
Add only Bayside (or Douglaston) and Woodside to the express trains from Port Washington, have all of them go into Penn Station, but all stop at Woodside where a “scoot” (shuttle-style) train would be waiting across the platform to go to Grand Central. Service would be dramatically improved for all users, including Queens riders.
When I posed this as a possibility, I was told that Woodside was not set up to be a transfer station. My response? If you’ve rebuilt the infrastructure over the past 15 years at a cost of $11 billion, why not?
They keep bringing up this decision 10 years ago to prevent LIRR from staging trains at Port Washington (because of Councilwoman Dina M. De Giorgio’s objection), but with my scheme, they could stage trains at the Long Island City yards.
You can review the proposed schedule changes here: https://new.mta.info/agency/long-island-rail-road/lirr-to-grand-central/schedules
At the MTA’s site (https://new.mta.info/grandcentralmadison) you can get information on the new Grand Central access, register for the virtual public meetings August 4 and 11 (6-8 pm), and submit comments.