By Desmond Ryan, Executive Director of the Association for a Better Long Island (ABLI)
The Long Island Rail Road has lost its title to Metro North as the nation’s busiest railroad, and that leaves it vulnerable to those who would use that reversal to swipe the LIRR’s precious track space at Penn Station.
If there has been one constant in the region’s economic development it has been the Long Island Railroad. Originally built in 1834 to link New Yorkers with New England by running a train to a ferry, it quickly evolved into a strategic link that brought agricultural produce to Manhattan and commuters home to Long Island villages. By World War II it was bringing troops out to Long Island military bases and aircraft parts to Republic Aviation and Grumman. In 1949, the Long Island Rail Road was moving some 91.8 million commuters a year, a number never equaled.
Not only are those days long gone, but the economy, politics and technology have just dethroned the LIRR as the busiest commuter line in the nation. The latest MTA statistics report that Westchester based Metro North is now handling a larger passenger load, but there is much more to this statistic than a simple function of counting heads and awarding honors.
Metro North has been eying space at Penn Station since 2009, convinced that west side access would improve its position with commuters who have been arriving for generations at that glorious masterpiece of urban train architecture, Grand Central Terminal. Until now they have been rebuffed because anyone who actually uses Penn knows just how difficult it is for the LIRR to move more than 500 trains a day in that space while competing for track space with New Jersey Transit and Amtrak.
On the distant horizon is the completion of the East Side Access tunnel which will permit the LIRR to bring trains into Grand Central. It is one more opportunity for Metro North advocates to lobby for track positions at Penn Station, but they miss several crucial points.
East Side Access will not significantly alter the LIRR train and passenger congestion at Penn Station. With its rail yards just to the west of Penn it still needs to move its commuter trains through the station in order to prevent them from making “dead end” runs to storage yards far out on Long Island. While a spectacular engineering project beneath the East River, there are no Grand Central storage facilities for the LIRR. What comes into that complex must depart or risk clogging the rails. The simple reality is East Side Access will not strategically alter the role of Penn Station as the key New York terminus for the LIRR.
The transfer of bragging rights as “busiest” railroad from LIRR to Metro North is a reflection of an economic cycle that has seen the heavy construction industry lag in Manhattan and many middle level Wall Street employees lose their jobs; many of these men and women have been LIRR commuters. Coupled with Internet commuting for those in media and marketing, it is no surprise the Long Island Railroad has been experiencing a downward cycle in passenger loads. But it is a cycle, and given its far larger population base, it is only a matter of time before the LIRR retakes its place as the Number One commuter line in the nation.
It is during this time of political vulnerability that Metro North advocates on the MTA Board will look to make the case that they deserve a larger share of scarce capital funds, that billions should be spent to build them rail access to Penn Station and that LIRR trains should be eliminated to make it all happen. Those actions would irreparably harm the ability of the Long Island Rail Road to do its job of getting commuters to the jobs that help power New York City’s economy.