Crazy train: MTA, LIRR let $385M fly off the rails, beg Hochul bailout

Crazy train: MTA, LIRR let $385M fly off the rails, beg Hochul bailout

They’ve been taking New York commuters for a ride!

Wasteful labor deals and mismanagement at the MTA’s commuter lines — predominantly the Long Island Rail Road — are costing the vital suburban connectors nearly $400 million annually, an investigation by The Post reveals.

The seven-month examination comes as the MTA seeks a financial bailout from Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to fill budget gaps created by dramatic drops in ridership due to the coronavirus pandemic and the slow return of workers to their offices.

The extraordinary costs hurt metro area commuters and taxpayers in general in almost every conceivable way, for example:

  • It means commuters pay some of the highest fares in the nation as the MTA tries to cover the losses;
  • Results in longer waits and more crowded trains;
  • And the the railroads consume cash that could otherwise bolster New York City subway and bus service.

“The MTA is in financial crisis but this isn’t the first time they’ve been in financial crisis,” said Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-Rockland), the newly appointed chairman of the committee that oversees the MTA.

“And the answer cannot only be new revenue sources. It has to include efficiencies and it has to include the MTA looking in the mirror and figuring out why every several years it is in a financial crisis.”

He added: “The taxpayers of this state and the taxpayers of the MTA region are not a bottomless pit.”

The Post determined the MTA could save more than $200 million annually just by getting the LIRR’s labor costs and efficiencies in line with its other major commuter railroad, Metro-North, which is the second-most expensive in the country.

Commuters board a Metro-North train at Grand Central Terminal in Midtown in 2018. Metro-North costs hundreds of millions less to operate per year than the Long Island Rail Road due to more efficient labor contracts and better management practices, a Post investigation revealed.
Commuters board a Metro-North train at Grand Central Terminal in 2018. Metro-North costs hundreds of millions less to operate per year than the Long Island Rail Road due to more efficient labor contracts and better management practices, a Post investigation found.
Getty Images

The massive cost differences mean Metro-North requires less subsidy annually than the Long Island Rail Road, despite running more trains and charging slightly lower fares.

For example, a monthly commuter pass for the 23-mile journey between North White Plains and Grand Central Terminal costs $250.25 on Metro-North; while a nearly identical 24-mile commute between Hicksville and Penn Station on the LIRR costs $277.00.

Furthermore, The Post found that both railroads could additionally save a combined $73 million annually by rethinking the fare-collection practices at both railroads — all without violating union rules.

Additionally, there’s at least another $109 million to be found by opting for the lighter, quicker and more efficient trains commonly operated in Europe, which are approved by federal regulators to operate in the U.S with minor modifications.

A Paris commuter boards its commuter rail service, known as the RER, at the city's sprawling rail hub, Gare du Nord (North Station) in France.
A Paris commuter boards its local rail service, known as the RER, at the city’s sprawling rail hub, Gare du Nord (North Station). Trains on the RER come every few minutes.
REUTERS

All told, the MTA has left $385 million in potential annual savings from commuter railroad reforms on the table.

That’s a quarter of the $1.6 billion the agency says it needs to balance the books from divisions that carry fewer than 10 percent of its passengers, all without service cuts.

Hundreds of pages of documents, figures and interviews reveal an extraordinary catalogue of costs and dysfunction at the LIRR, including:

  • Generous contracts that allow engineers to draw quadruple pay for a standard shift, while conductors can easily score double pay just for working a Mets-game train — even if they clock no overtime;
  • Nighttime or weekend track work automatically qualifies for overtime or double time, even if it’s scheduled in advance — and daytime track gangs work an average of just five hours a day;
  • The LIRR has hundreds of unneeded conductors and assistant conductors on the payroll that alone cost $130 million annually.

A union deal negotiated in 2008 between the LIRR and its trainmen not only required the MTA to provide each conductor and assistant conductor with a cell phone — its provisions barred LIRR management from contacting employees on those phones without their prior approval until 2016.

The deal even explicitly allows them to use the devices for personal business, which is a stark departure from how most government agencies and private businesses operate.

“Going through the contract, there’s an unpleasant surprise on every page and it’s dramatically worse than the MetroNorth contract,” said one former MTA official.

Two separate reports by the MTA Inspector General determined the labor agreements at the LIRR are so restrictive and expensive that it makes it virtually impossible to run the railroad in a cost-effective manner.

Those reports, obtained by The Post under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, date back to 2006 and 2008 — but remain relevant to this day.

A Long Island Rail Road train sits at Jamaica Station in Queens, awaiting passengers transferring for the train to Brooklyn's Atlantic Terminal.
A Long Island Rail Road train sits at Jamaica Station in Queens, awaiting passengers transferring for the train to Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal.
UCG/Universal Images Group via G

They underpinned a 2019 examination into the LIRR’s operations and the MTA officials confirmed in response to questions from The Post that every major contract provision identified in those reports remains in effect to this day.

“The Authority is committed to identifying savings while preserving transit service essential to the New York region,” said MTA spokesman Sean Butler, in response to questions from The Post. “Many of the work rules cited by The Post were agreed to long ago and some may be worthy of reexamination.”

The LIRR’s biggest union — SMART Division 505 — and its chief, Anthony Simon, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Too many conductors

The LIRR’s labor agreements mandated in 2012 that every train with passengers be staffed by at least one conductor and one assistant. However, several more may be assigned to trains based on a formula that the MTA declined to provide.  

The LIRR had 1,392 conductors and assistant conductors on staff at the end of 2021, payroll data shows. But the LIRR needs only 716 to operate its peak pre-pandemic schedule 24/7, the Post found. The extra cost in wages, pensions and benefits amounts to a staggering $130 million annually.

Just bringing the LIRR’s staffing ratios in line with MetroNorth would cut the number of conductors and assistant conductors to 1,035, saving $69 million.

A conductor leans out window while another, feet away, looks out door of Long Island Rail Road train in Jamaica, New York in 2020.
A conductor leans out window while another, feet away, looks out door of Long Island Rail Road train in Jamaica, New York in 2020.
Newsday via Getty Images

In a statement, the MTA partially blamed the overstaffing on 170 conductors and assistant conductors being assigned to construction projects — including East Side Access, which will link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal and is more than a decade late and $7 billion over budget.

Officials also argued the differences in staffing level will shrink when the LIRR adds new trains to its schedule for Grand Central service, however that expansion has been repeatedly delayed in recent months.

Ticket takers take a toll

Combined, the LIRR and MetroNorth currently spend $455 million annually on wages, pensions and benefits for conductors and assistant conductors.

That means nearly half of the $1 billion the MTA hopes to generate through fares at both railroads in 2023 will be consumed employing individuals whose primary duty is collecting those tickets.

That’s also roughly the amount the MTA claims to lose annually to farebeating on the subways and buses combined — even though those systems move 14 times more passengers.

Transit advocates say those extraordinary costs create a major hurdle for running additional trains or lowering fares. They’ve called for the agency to install fare gates at major stations and switch the railroads over to electronic ticketing systems, like the ones used on the subway.

“Other cities around the world that have modern regional rail system also have modern fare collection practices”— like tap or swipe cards — “instead of having two, three, four or five people on the train,” said Steven Higashide, the director of research at Transit Center.

“A more efficient system would have more trains for employees to drive and fewer employees collecting tickets.”

That transformation has already taken place in many major European cities. Paris’ busiest commuter rail line — the RER A — runs as frequently as many subway lines.

Trains arrive at every station across its five branches every two to 10 minutes during the morning and evening commute; off-peak trains come every seven to 30 minutes.

A train on the RER A line arrives at Fontenay-sous-Bois railway station near Paris in 2019. The countdown clock shows trains still arriving roughly every 10 minutes despite the rail road running amid a strike.
A train on the RER A line arrives at Fontenay-sous-Bois railway station near Paris in 2019. The countdown clock shows trains still arriving roughly every 10 minutes despite the rail road running amid a strike.
REUTERS

Built-in overtime

An MTA inspector general report lays out in excruciating detail how generous work rules massively inflate costs at the LIRR compared to MetroNorth, both in train operations and maintenance.

One union deal requires that the LIRR fill every shift for every position covered by the carman’s union at the Richmond Hill Shop — allowing the staff to bill for up to 32 consecutive hours even if there is no work to do.

The auditors in 2008 used sarcastic air-quotes to describe the practice as “working” overtime.

But it continued: Probers from the State Comptroller obtained records from Richmond Hill that showed the LIRR paid 40 car repairmen for 9,449 hours of labor over the course of a month — even though the shop logs revealed just 1,244 hours of work were actually done.

The LIRR disputed the findings amounted to fraud, saying it was “confident that the employees in question were correctly compensated for time worked based on management authorization and in accordance with their respective Bargaining Agreement.”

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Nolan Hicks

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