Tech Overhaul May Bring Long Island Rail Road Up to Speed

Recent data shows the railroad’s on-time performance was the worst in more than two decades, but officials believe modernization and new technology may be the cure.

by Alfonso A. Castillo, Newsday / February 21, 2018

(TNS) — The president of the beleaguered Long Island Rail Road on Tuesday outlined an extensive plan to reverse the agency’s recent service woes by investing in technology to better protect infrastructure from severe weather, more quickly responding to problems, enhancing customer communication — and installing subway-like countdown clocks at all LIRR stations.

Patrick Nowakowski outlined what he called a “performance improvement plan” days after new data was released showing that the LIRR’s on-time performance in January was the worst in 22 years.

“These are some of the things that I think we need to do at the Long Island Rail Road to provide the service that, I think, we need to provide our customers,” Nowakowski said. At a Manhattan meeting of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s railroad committee meeting, Nowakowski rejected the notion by a board member that he inherited some of the railroad’s problems. “I’ve been here for four years. This is not about my predecessor. This is about me.”

Nowakowski’s to-do list for the railroad included more than 50 items, ranging from increasing the frequency of rail inspections to find defects that can result in broken rails, to purchasing and installing equipment, including heaters to prevent icing on the third rail, covers to protect switches from freezing and more snow-removal equipment. The plan also calls for better positioning of crews and rescue locomotives to respond to incidents, and accelerating superstorm Sandy resiliency projects to protect critical LIRR facilities from flooding.

“We need to do a better job of preventing seasonal impacts,” Nowakowski said. “But it’s not just prevention. We also need to be able to provide quicker recovery of our system when seasonal factors do affect us.”

Nowakowski said the overall plan for improving service is about 75 percent done. However, some details still need to be worked out, he said, including time goals for various objectives and a cost estimate.

Nowakowski noted that some infrastructure upgrades, including modernizing some signals, were already planned as part of other projects, such as the ongoing renovation of Jamaica station. Despite those ongoing projects, Nowakowski said the railroad needs “to go in there and make intermediate improvements . . . I can’t wait for capital projects that are five or 10 years down the line.”

Nowakowski said another key part of the LIRR’s plan will be improving its communication efforts with customers and communities served by the railroad.

Although Nowakowski has said the LIRR’s communication efforts are hamstrung by the lack of a centralized control center, where representatives from various railroad departments could share information, he said there are measures the railroad could take right away to better share the information it has with customers. That includes providing on the internet for customers the same information LIRR dispatchers have in front of them so riders can “see the actual performance of our trains throughout our system.”

Nowakowski said the railroad will also look to add GPS “data points” throughout the railroad system in order to improve the “quantity and quality” of performance data available to the railroad and its customers.

The LIRR will also look to improve the information shared with customers at stations, including by relying less on automated messages and more on “direct input from humans.” That will include unique audio updates for specific stations and lines.

In addition, Nowakowski said the railroad will expedite a plan to replace the outdated electronic messages on station billboards with countdown clocks that will tell customers when their trains will arrive. “It’s time to get to the point that all stations have countdown clocks,” he said.

The LIRR will also improve training so train crews have better “key talking points,” including the estimated time a particular kind of delay typically lasts.

Nowakowski said the railroad will also bolster its social media team to communicate with riders virtually, and create a new management position at the railroad — answering directly to Nowakowski for someone “whose sole responsibility will be customer service.” Before Nowakowski came to the agency in 2014, the railroad employed a vice president of customer service.

The railroad also will mine its workforce, community groups and commuter advocates for more ideas on improving service. Nowakowski said the LIRR will even work to fill vacancies on the LIRR Commuter Council, the railroad’s official watchdog group, which has criticized the agency for not seeking its input.

MTA Board members praised the proposal, but also raised concerns about how the LIRR could realistically pay for it and carry it out. Some board members suggested the agency is already spread too thin with projects that are sucking up resources and diverting management’s attention on daily service, including megaprojects such as East Side Access and the recently approved plan to build a third track on the Main Line. Board member Charles Moerdler suggested putting off the $10.3 billion East Side Access plan, which would link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022, and use the funds to address the LIRR’s most pressing needs.

“You just cannot have it all,” board member Neal Zuckerman said. “Somebody has to pay eventually.”

Nowakowski noted that expanding the railroad’s extremely limited capacity — as planned through projects such as East Side Access and third track — is critical to addressing the recurring service problems at the LIRR, which carried 89 million people last year, tying a modern record.

©2018 Newsday Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.