The first few days of the new LIRR service to and from Grand Central Madison have gone less than smoothly, with constantly changing track times and overcrowded trains infuriating commuters.
“This first week, we’ve seen overcrowded trains–at a time when ridership is at about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels and service increased 41 percent; mad dashes to make missed connections over jam-packed escalators and staircases at Jamaica; and commutes made longer, rather than shorter, by the new service,” said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council and an MTA board member.
“To be sure, signal issues on the first two days added flame to the fire, but it’s clear regardless that improvements must be made,” Bringmann said. “We’re trying to get riders back on trains, not give them reasons to get into cars or stay home.”
Governor Kathy Hochul, trying to stem the growing outrage, said she directed the MTA to make changes starting with morning rush hour March 6 by adding trains to Brooklyn and lengthening trains to Penn Station, and adding cars to all trains that were reporting serious overcrowding problems last week.
She also directed the MTA to increase Jamaica-Brooklyn Service to cut the lengthy wait times that some commuters complained were added 40 minutes or more to their commute time.
The MTA released statistics showing that on Wednesday, March 1, the third day of the new schedules, 29 percent of those traveling to Manhattan via LIRR chose to disembark at the newly opened Grand Central Madison station and the number of commuters to the new terminal topped 60,000 riders in the morning rush hour. The other 71 percent went to Penn Station.
LIRR interim president Catherine Rinaldi told reporters that when the schedule was originally conceived, it was expected that about 40 percent of passengers would use GCM and only 60 percent would go Penn Station.
The trains heading to Penn Station were therefore uncomfortably overcrowded, while many traveling to the new station were nearly empty. To add to problems in some instances on Feb. 28, the LIRR had to skip the new terminal and drag the unhappy commuters who wanted to disembark at GCM to Penn Station due to switch problems. In Jamaica, commuters were also forced to rush through the aging and cold station up and down stairs without escalators to find their transfers under the new schedule. The MTA said it will add more customer service reps to Jamaica to help commuters who were used to going direct to Penn exactly which track that must use now that they have to change at Jamaica.
As complaints mounted, MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber and LIRR Interim President Rinaldi visited the LIRR’s center of operation in Jamaica to observe the third day of the new schedules’ operations.
“We’re closely monitoring train operations and ridership data every day,” said Rinaldi. “These new schedules are the largest overhaul of timetables in the LIRR’s history.”
However, the MTA admitted that the rollout had been bumpy. Rinaldi stated, “While we are thrilled many people are saving time on their commute with the opening of Grand Central Madison, we understand that the new service plan is a big change for our Brooklyn and Penn Station customers.”
“We had said we were looking at every train and every line to assess where customers were not getting the level of service they and we expect,” said Rinaldi after changes were unveiled on March 5 for the coming week. “These changes are steps toward ensuring a better experience going forward, while continuing to run more overall service to more NYC terminals than the LIRR ever has before. We will continue to monitor ridership trends and loading conditions and make adjustments as necessary.”
Former Federal Transit Administration Senior Region 2 NY Official Larry Penner points out numerous other problems are in store for commuters.
The brand new terminal seems to lack a lot of amenities. There are no newsstands, only two restrooms for men, with 13 urinals each and 26 stalls in each of the two ladies rooms.
The station, despite being hailed as state of the art, uses fluorescent lighting in much of the station rather than the more efficient energy saving LED lights, he said.
“Options for recycling newspapers or beverage containers, disposal of garbage or other waste appear non existent except for a handful of garbage cans at the platform level,” Penner added.
“There is no way to dispose of waste at either the mezzanine or Madison concourse levels. This conflicts with MTA’s claim to be environmentally friendly. No newsstands. These services are readily available in Metro North Grand Central Terminal, Penn and Jamaica Stations.”
Penner also opined that many commute times will not be shortened even when traveling to the East side. “Promised travel time savings up to 40 minutes daily for those with Manhattan Midtown East Side destinations doesn’t apply to most riders who would switch from Penn Station to GCM. This new LIRR facility is fifteen stories below ground. Riding escalators alone require up to two minutes each...Validation of any time savings depends upon how close your final destination is to GCM.”
“We’re trying to get riders back on trains, not give them reasons to get into cars or stay home.” Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council.