Thursday, January 30, 2014

LIRR is No. 1 again. For now.

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Congratulations to the Long Island Rail Road, once again in 2013 the unquestioned largest regional passenger railroad by ridership in the nation. Let's see if it can hold that prize. I'm doubtful.

LIRR, to be sure, held that title for decades at a time until very recently, when upstart sister Metro-North Railroad usurped LIRR's comfortable catbird seat through initiative and daring and creativity. Metro-North got its supposedly deserved comeuppance this year (it's astonishing to this writer how gleeful, how figuratively bloodthirsty, some rail observers were over this) as it suffered derailments and fatalities and power outages and other "outrages." Well, hey, no wonder LIRR is back in the No. 1 slot!

Not exactly. In fact, LIRR, for now, resumes its customary position in part because it's finally acting more like Metro-North, and just a little less than a (push the jargon button now!) "commuter railroad."

Railway Age sister publication Railway Track & Structures dutifully picked up on a Jan. 27, 2014 MTA press release heralding LIRR's triumph (click here). In that release, we find the real nut graph (boldface is this Blogger's emphasis):

"We are seeing an increase in both commuters going to work and occasional riders," said LIRR President Helena Williams. "We had the opportunity to add back some service in 2013 and we are pleased that riders are responding by using the LIRR more often to get to work, as well as for leisure and other travel during the off peak periods. We believe the increase in ridership also reflects an improving Long Island and New York City economy."

The release specifically mentions LIRR ridership boosted by the opening of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, and that's to be both expected and commended. President Williams' own words imply that the "improving" economies of suburb and city may not be the driving factor.

I'd put it in this light: Don't sit around just waiting for the customers to return with the good times. Go out and woo them. I'd add: the way Metro-North has done for decades. The way LIRR – finally! – appears willing to do now, mimicking its younger sister railroad.

It may be tough to praise and defend Metro-North Railroad as I write this; the railroad had a miserable 2013, worse than that of baseball's New York Yankees, a team to which Metro-North by the way delivers customers in stellar and creative style. Tough—but I'll still do it. Metro-North is not a "commuter" railroad; it is a railroad that appeals to customers of varying stripes, at varying times of the day, night, or weekend. And, quite frankly, it's one reason why this observer predicts that No. 1 ranking, whatever it might be worth, may change once more in a year's time.

Indeed, MTA's companion press release issued Jan. 27 for Metro-North acknowledges the railroad's total 2013 ridership slipped from its record (and therefore lower than LIRR's total). But sharp-eyed rail veteran Philip G. Craig quickly pointed out to me that the margin of "defeat" at the hands of the LIRR was "only 5,475 riders"—puny stuff in New York metro territory.

M-N M8 EMULocal New York TV and radio media quickly hypothesized that riders "perhaps" were being scared off by accidents and incidents and federal investigations and political gamesmanship. But given that most of those incidents took place east of the Hudson River, the speculation appears very flawed. "Metro-North's annual east of Hudson ridership last year was the highest in the railroad's history, at 81.8 million, surpassing the previous east of Hudson record of 81.5 million rides that was set in 2008," the MTA press release states. That's even with the power outages, with the sideswipes, with the freight derailment, with the passenger derailment and resultant fatalities.

Where did Metro-North ridership decline? West of the Hudson and north of New Jersey, in the railroad's territory that (ironically?) is most like LIRR's own dominant pattern of suburban sprawl, desperately in need of rejeuvenation. "Metro-North rail ridership in the West of Hudson territory including the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines was down, falling 2.3% to 1,576,227 rides in 2013. Individually, ridership on the Port Jervis Line fell 3.6% and ridership on the Pascack Valley Line was essentially unchanged from the previous year."

MTA attributes Metro-North's continued decline West-of Hudson to a weather hangover inflicted by storms Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012). I don't buy that, either, because MTA notes, "West of Hudson ridership peaked in 2008 at almost 2.1 million" three years before any destructive storm paid a visit to West-of-Hudson services.

No matter; Metro-North may be changing its CEO, but I'm hopeful it will remain focused on its mission to serve "passengers" and not just "those people," the all-purpose euphemism used by so many to belittle, degrade, and otherwise marginalize "commuters" and, therefore, all rail riders. Metro-North may be down, but it's not out. It's got plans to increase service to its secondary-market cities; it in fact has a plan for a whole new line, generating that many more origin/destination market pairs (LIRR political partisans notwithstanding). It's even a candidate – a long shot, true, but still a candidate – to assume operations for Connecticut when service on Amtrak's New Haven-Springfield route is bolstered later this decade.

And LIRR? Yes, one sees signs of transit-oriented development slowly taking hold at this or that station, converting or rearranging parking lots that are a monument to Master Builder (particularly of Long Island itself) Robert Moses. But new lines? New city-pair services? I don't myself see much of that yet. Indeed, LIRR seems overjoyed to discover it can actually run trains to its eastern edges beyond traditional summertime boundaries – zounds, verily past Columbus Day! – and generate ridership beyond "those people."

I'll watch 2014 ridership trends for both MTA entities with great interest, and if LIRR remains on top, I'll find a way to eat crow here on these pages. But I don't think that's likely. I think 2013 was a bad year for Metro-North, exacerbated by the very expectations everyone seems to hold that it should do better. Because (unspoken and unacknowledged by so many) for years it has been doing better than almost anyone else in North America that's involved in regional passenger railroading.

Not "commuter." Real regional passenger rail travel, part of the rising expectations for this railroad and, I hope, for many more in the near future.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.