The MTA’s Missed Opportunity

Long Islanders cheered Andrew Cuomo when he intervened in the recent dispute between the MTA and LIRR workers, who had threatened a strike over demands for wage increases. When negotiations stalled between the LIRR, which had demanded a 14% raise over six years, and the MTA, whose offer to spread the same raise over seven years the LIRR refused, Cuomo decided to force the MTA’s hand and mandate a 14% raise over 6.5 years.

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This solution will win Cuomo some election-year gratitude from Long Islanders, and it may seem to be an reasonable compromise. It is not. The LIRR, workers and management alike, has routinely demanded far more than it deserves from the public while delivering subpar service in return. An LIRR strike would have offered the first chance in possibly decades to fix the LIRR, unburden the MTA of supporting a corrupt department, and give Long Island the efficient, inexpensive rail service that it needs. The compromise is a bad deal for the MTA, for Long Island, and for the entire public.

Implicit in the LIRR’s demands about cost-of-living increases was a statement that an LIRR salary was insufficient to support a household. This statement does not withstand scrutiny. LIRR workers are already well compensated even in base salary. A New York Times report from 2010 reported that one train engineer earned $75,000 in base pay alone, already well above the US median.

This does not address the many ways—some of them illegal, some of them merely rent-seeking and unbecoming a public servant—in which LIRR can supplement their paychecks. The MTA is hampered by the LIRR’s archaic and often absurd work rules, of which this is only a sampling:

  • LIRR workers who operate both an electric and a diesel train in the same day – even if only to move it a few hundred feet – are entitled to an extra day’s “penalty pay.”  This produces operational nightmares: for instance, the MTA must often keep redundant engineers idle, often on overtime, just in case an electric train needs to be moved and the only other available crew members have already worked with diesel trains. If this was ever justified on the grounds that diesel and electric trains require different skills, it certainly is justified no more: the LIRR uses a certain GE locomotive in both diesel and dual-mode diesel/electric versions; the dual-mode locomotive counts as electric for this work rule, even though it and the pure diesel version have almost identical controls.
  • Engineers and conductors receive double their usual hourly pay for operating trains other than their regularly assigned one, even on the same line with the same equipment. This means, for example, that if the crew of a delayed inbound train is scheduled to take over an outbound train, LIRR dispatchers face an unappealing choice behind delaying the outbound train as well and paying a different crew double to take the train out on time.
  • Because of inefficiencies in crew scheduling, many LIRR workers are actually scheduled for time-and-a-half overtime every day; this (instead of unpaid overtime resulting from, say, service disruptions) comprises half of the LIRR’s overtime payments.
A DE30AC dual-mode diesel/electric locomotive, built for the LIRR by GE. An LIRR driver who operates one of these locomotives and the DE30MC diesel-only version, which has identical controls, is entitled to an extra day’s pay, a legacy of work rules negotiated decades ago for antiquated equipment. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

And needless to say, there is the recent scandal in which massive numbers of LIRR retirees collected fraudulent disability benefits, about which enough has already been said.

And for paying these premium prices to the LIRR, does the MTA get premium service? Not quite. Commuter rail in the United States is generally much less efficient than European commuter rail systems, which run better trains with fewer employees on board. But even by American standards, the LIRR is strikingly inefficient. The LIRR received an operating budget of $1.8 billion in 2013, compared to Metro-North’s $1.4 billion. Despite this, the LIRR carried slightly fewer passengers than Metro-North, 81.8 million compared to 83.0 million, and charges substantially higher fares—for example, a monthly ticket from Grand Central to Stamford costs $307, while a monthly ticket from Penn Station to Ronkonkoma, a station of similar importance and distance from Manhattan, costs $363.

And this does not even begin to discuss the intransigent and obstreperous management, who are proud of their status as the world’s oldest railroad still operating under its original name, and thus notoriously loath to change their ways and cooperate with anyone. An MTA plan to run more Metro-North trains to Penn Station along a segment of tracks currently monopolized by the LIRR encountered fierce criticism by Long Island residents, and the LIRR’s former president Helena Williams, who insisted that the LIRR “owns” the tracks into Penn Station—never mind that they were paid for and maintained by public money from the whole metropolitan area. The ongoing East Side Access project, building a connection from the LIRR tracks to Grand Central, is estimated at more than $6 billion per mile: twice as expensive as Second Avenue Subway, and ten or more times average construction costs for the first world. Most of the expense in the project comes from the excavation of a new sub-basement terminal underneath Grand Central for the LIRR’s exclusive use. Grand Central has the most tracks of any train station in the world, yet is far from the busiest; certainly there would be space for LIRR trains in the existing station, but this would have required cooperation between Metro-North and the LIRR. The result: a piece of useless infrastructure that costs New Yorkers billions.

Construction of the new Grand Central sub-basement station for LIRR; the amount of deep-level excavation required makes East Side Access the most expensive rail project per mile in the world. With better cooperation between the LIRR and Metro-North, several billion dollars could have been saved by making better use of the existing Grand Central tracks instead. (Image: MTA)

The LIRR needs to be fixed. Its overpriced workers and overbuilt infrastructure have cost the city dearly, and the strike settlement will only worsen this. Some of the money for the LIRR’s raises will come from additional taxes and debt, to be paid by New York’s clerks, electricians, chefs, and workers in thousands of other professions that do not make top-quintile salaries for subpar work and have not defrauded public agencies of millions in disability benefits. Some of it will come from worsening service for people elsewhere—the MTA has already announced cuts to its capital plan, which funds badly needed projects such as the Second Avenue Subway, to pay for the settlement. And some of it will probably come from raising ticket prices even higher, squeezing Long Island commuters and strangling the economy of the whole region.

Looking even further ahead, any serious planning of new rail transportation needs to consider the needs of the region as a whole. Following best practices in Europe, this should include cutting LIRR fares within the boroughs to subway levels and bringing the LIRR and subway under the same payment system. It is also common outside the US to run commuter trains through downtown stations instead of having them stop and reverse direction. (This is how the NYC subway works, as well: no one would propose splitting the 2 into a line from the Bronx to Penn Station and a separate line from Penn Station to Queens, requiring anyone traveling from one side of 34th Street to the other to transfer.) Through-running improves operational efficiency, lets people take jobs on the opposite side of Midtown from their houses without a transfer, and the most expensive piece of required infrastructure—tunnels through Penn Station from New Jersey to Long Island—already exists and is used by Amtrak every day. Through-running would be possible for the small cost of re-electrifying some of the LIRR lines with the overhead wires used in New Jersey, feasible for $3 million per mile and a year or two of construction work. But it is hard to see how any of this could work without the LIRR changing its current get-off-my-lawn approach to cooperation. Even today, the Penn Station ticket machines cannot vend both NJ Transit and LIRR tickets, even though they could with a small amount of reprogramming.

The strike could have provided an avenue to fix a few of these problems. At minimum, the MTA could have required a complete modernization of the LIRR’s work rules—scrapping co-mingling and the other penalty fees, for example—as the price for LIRR employees to be let back on the job. If they had refused, the MTA could have hired replacements from more competent commuter railroads, used to working under reasonable rules. A strike would certainly have been painful to Long Island, but not for long: with the fares that the LIRR charges, most of its riders are affluent enough to find other forms of transportation for a few weeks. And the end result would be a more efficient and more modern LIRR that consumed less of the city’s resources and delivered better service on top of that.

Unfortunately, Cuomo’s actions stopped any chance of that. This is a victory for the LIRR, who will get a good-sized raise and keep their comfortably archaic work rules; it is a loss for the MTA, for Long Island, and for everyone who lives or works in NYC.

Connor Harris is a Junior at Harvard University studying math and physics. He is also interested in transportation planning, and serves as President of the Transportation and Urban Planning Society. He can be reached at