LIRR struggles amid coronavirus pandemic

By David Blicksilver

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of investigative stories by Hofstra University Advanced Reporting students on how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting Long Island.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Long Island Rail Road have been forced to adapt to substantially reduced ridership brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. With everyday commuters who used to ride the LIRR into New York City no longer taking the train to work, ticket sales have plummeted, while the MTA has had to allocate millions of dollars to sanitize trains and stations regularly.

The MTA is seeking a $12 billion federal bailout in 2021 to avoid “draconian cuts” to its various agencies across the greater New York metropolitan area, including the LIRR, according to Newsday.

The MTA and LIRR are not alone. Across the country, the use of public transportation has dropped precipitously. Still, while ridership might be down, the LIRR is operating according to a normal weekday schedule.

In 2020, the LIRR exceeded its own expectations, maintaining an on-time performance rate of 96.5 percent, 2.5 percent higher than its target goal of 94 percent. The 96.5 percent rate is the highest that the MTA has seen in years and an improvement of 4.1 percent over 2019. On time percentage reached 98.3 and 98.5 percent in April and May, respectively — during the height of the pandemic.

While the trains may be running, the platforms and parking lots at the stations remain ghost towns. Most of the trains that service the Country Life Press train station, the second stop on the Hempstead branch, in the Village of Garden City, go to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal. The station normally has a full parking lot, but these days you can count with your fingers the number of cars parked there.

The station’s parking strip, which stretches for three blocks, has just a handful of cars for the Monday morning commute to New York City.

One commuter, Josh Shafran, resumed riding the trains into Manhattan last June and is still getting used to the new normal.

The Long Island Rail Road’s Country Life Press station in Garden City is largely empty these days because of the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by David Blicksilver/Long Island Advocate

“The trains are very empty, and it’s very strange from the normal,” Shafran said. “They are the cleanest I’ve ever seen them, though.”

Shafran walks from his house to the platform daily dressed in a suit. He purchases a monthly train ticket, given his extensive use of the trains. He wears his mask and puts in his headphones on once aboard the train and enjoys the quieter-than-normal ride into Manhattan on one of the few express trains into Manhattan on the Hempstead branch, which typically runs to Brooklyn.

Mask wearing and social distancing are required at all times on the trains. Signs posted on the ticket machines at the north end of the platform reiterate the rules and remind riders purchasing tickets that all train fares are off-peak.

Having not been in New York City for at least 10 months, it was beyond strange for this reporter to even be near a train again on a recent outing to New York City from the Country Life press station. The conductors were friendly, and everyone kept to themselves on the train. Those who are still riding take their seats and have their own row to themselves. Commuters use the roughly 50-minute commute into Manhattan to read the newspaper, drink their morning coffee or relax and listen to music or a podcast with headphones.

The train horns sound ominous with no one on board, as do the announcements that stream through the cars. “This station is Garden City” feels different when you know there is virtually no one on board to hear it and it echoes through a mostly empty cabin.

The MTA recently held a virtual board meeting, which was also open to the public for comment.

At the hearing, Mark Young, vice president and chief financial officer for the MTA Long Island Rail Road, presented the latest data for LIRR ridership. Commutation ticket purchases, classified as weekly and monthly tickets, made up 56 percent of 2019 ticket purchases. That number dropped to 32 percent from April to August last year.

“I think the key takeaway here, similar to what we saw in transit, is if you look at the pie graphs,” Young said, “you’ll notice for both the Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, the blue is commutation tickets, and you can see how between 2019 and 2020, the share of the market that is utilizing commutation tickets has dropped dramatically as work patterns have changed.”

Monthly ticket prices could go up to 4.3 percent or more as a result of revenue losses.

Young also said single-trip and 10-trip ticket prices could be raised, while the weekly and monthly fares would remain the same.

And he proposed a “flat fares” plan. Currently, the LIRR operates according to eight different fare zones. Under this proposal, they would be reduced to just two, defined as city and non-city zones.

“We would only have three fares. We would have one fare for everyone traveling within the city, no matter what time of day; one fare for everybody traveling outside the city, no matter what time of day; and one fare for everybody traveling between the city and the non-city zone,” Young explained.

Living near to the Country Life Press train station, this reporter can hear trains heading to and from New York City at all hours of the day. The number of people who get on and off the trains these days could fill perhaps one car, even with distancing, yet the MTA runs hundreds of trains to and from New York City daily, requiring the authority to pay conductor and driver salaries, as well as operating costs.

In December, the MTA held a virtual public hearing to discuss possible fare hikes. Many speakers voiced their displeasure.

Shari Sanchez, a student from Queens, said she was unhappy about the cost of her commute rising amid these challenging times.

“How is that you are looking for a 4 percent to 8 percent fare hike when most of us commuters are still not traveling like we used to,” Sanchez asked angrily over Zoom.

The current cost of one round-trip peak ticket from Country Life Press to Penn Station is $25. An off-peak ticket will set you back $18.50. The fares have steadily risen in recent years and will only go up further, assuming the MTA goes forward with one of its fare hike proposals.

Twelve-year-old Kesav Gupta, a self-described native New Yorker, spoke before the MTA board about how she believed the MTA’s previous management of funds has resulted now in calls to raise fares.

“Mass transit is essential to all New Yorkers’ lives,” Gupta said, “and there’s many ways you can save money that’s not raising fares on the New Yorkers that rely on mass transit every day during this pandemic.”

Gupta cited the fact that the MTA directed billions of dollars in funds to build the Second Avenue subway route on Manhattan’s East Side. The route first started operating on Jan. 1, 2017.

“If you look in your budget, you can easily get rid of a billion dollars. It really shouldn’t be $13 billion to build a few miles of tunnel underneath Manhattan,” Gupta said.

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The Long Island Advocate is a multimedia news organization at Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication where students gain valuable real-world experience producing news and features for online platforms. We have partnered with Garden City-based LIHerald.com.

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