LIRR Continues To Improve Its Communication Skills

Steve Ritea has an interesting article which will appear in today’s edition of Newsday. The article highlights the Long Island Railroad’s (LIRR) continuing process of improving & upgrading its communication skills. Here is the article courtesy of Newsday:

The railroad born in the 19th century finally is on speaking terms with the 21st.

Here’s one example in a growing list: When the Long Island Rail Road mistakenly double-charged up to 22,800 customers for tickets earlier this month, officials offered angry riders an olive branch.

Every conductor working the night of June 2 got a text message on their cell phone with the same directive – tell riders the LIRR would honor May monthly passes for that evening’s commute.

Tellingly, it was a first of sorts for the 174-year-old railroad. Only a few months ago, such spur-of-the-moment communication could not have been accomplished with speed and uniformity for a simple reason: Train crews did not have LIRR-issued cell phones.

Before the LIRR spent $1 million to put 1,000 cell phones in the hands of train crews, conductors relied, as they had for decades, on a single radio in each train car to get word from headquarters. And those radios weren’t always tuned to the correct channel.

“There’s no question giving cell phones to crew members was a major step forward,” said Joe Calderone, the railroad’s communications chief. In the most recent instance, poor communication “could have compounded the mistake.”

Anticipating more riders

With high gas prices sending more commuters to the trains, LIRR president Helena Williams has made communications a priority, increasing spending from $400,000 last year to a projected $4 million this year.

“The technology that allows us to communicate with customers faster and more directly has grown up around us at the LIRR without the proper level of personnel to support it,” Williams said. “Like the rest of the world, our customers now expect information to be delivered to them as quickly as possible.”

Other changes include $631,000 for new monitors that display train information and $877,000 for a new public information office with staff in LIRR offices 24 hours a day.

The changes have not come without some pressure. An audit released in February noted poor communication during a lengthy delay on Feb. 2, 2007, left some riders so frustrated they threatened a conductor and jumped off trains stopped between stations near Valley Stream.

“When incomplete, inaccurate or inconsistent information is provided, customers are more likely to misperceive the severity of an emergency, and exacerbate or create dangers by taking matters into their own hands,” the report by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Inspector General Barry Kluger said.

Traditional lines of relay

Williams conceded one jaw-dropping moment 10 days after she started her job last June, when severe summer storms brought the evening rush to a halt, and she learned the staff who make announcements at Penn Station were largely reliant upon a fax machine to communicate with LIRR headquarters in Jamaica. Thankfully, the fax wasn’t out of paper. Since then, it’s been replaced with an e-mail system.

That was undeniable evidence, Williams said, that the LIRR was overdue for systemwide upgrades and additional staff. Calderone said his staff didn’t even have BlackBerrys when he started last year.

Until a few months ago, the LIRR even lacked a 24-hour public affairs office to get alerts of service interruptions out to riders or local media.

Instead, staffers like Sam Zambuto were called at home in the middle of the night or on weekends before alerts could be sent out.

Zambuto said being “on call” confined him to his West Hempstead home, because he had to be near a personal computer connected to the LIRR system, sometimes for entire weekends.

Those days are gone, thanks to a round-the-clock office at the LIRR’s Jamaica headquarters.

Looking to future

Improving and strengthening communication with customers has long been a key issue for Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter’s Council, who for years has complained of sitting on stopped trains or standing on crowded platforms with no information from crews.

He said he’s impressed by Williams’ efforts but cautioned that new technology has to be accompanied by training to be effective. “You can throw all the money in the world at things, but if people don’t have the training it doesn’t mean anything,” Bringmann said.

Regular riders know that train staff are notoriously inconsistent about providing information about delays to train passengers, with some crews providing regular updates and others leaving riders in the dark.

“You get different train crews, and some are very conscientious and other train crews are very lackadaisical,” he said.

Williams said she’s worked on internal policies, like moving the public affairs staff into a room adjacent to the Jamaica command center, which oversees train movements systemwide.

The two offices had been on different floors there, with employees running down a flight of stairs to get information if they were unable to get command staff by phone.

Problems persist elsewhere, however, particularly with the LIRR’s e-mail alert system, which failed during massive delays Feb. 12, leaving most of the 22,100 commuters who use it in the dark. The LIRR said its server froze up – not a first-time occurrence – but promised improvements are on the way. During the summer, the railroad will begin routing all e-mails through an outside company with much greater Internet capacity, MTA officials said.

Electronic signs that hang over station platforms, letting riders know if their train is on time, are in place at only 50 of the LIRR’s 122 stations, excluding Jamaica and Penn Station. The remaining 72 are slated for completion by 2011.

Keeping in touch with customers

Recent LIRR initiatives – $4 million projected this year – to improve customer communication:

1,000 cell phones with text messaging capability to train crews.

24-hour public information office adjacent to the LIRR’s Jamaica nerve center.

Improvements to customer e-mail alert system that would route e-mails through an outside company with greater Internet capacity.

Electronic signs over more station platforms that let riders know if their train is on time and – if not – how late it is.

xoxo Transit Blogger

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Sorry Eric, Try Again!

Earlier today, Benjamin Sarlin of the New York Sun had a report about an idea City Council Member Eric Gioia had for the MTA which would help them not raise fares next year. Here is his report courtesy of the New York Sun:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority should sell the roof over its head before raising fares on New Yorkers twice in one year, Council Member Eric Gioia said yesterday.

Mr. Gioia, a likely candidate for public advocate in 2009, is calling on the MTA to sell off the 20-story building it owns at 44th Street and Madison Avenue to raise the money necessary to avert a fare increase.

“There’s no justification for the MTA to be on Madison Avenue,” Mr. Gioia, of Queens, said at a press conference in front of the building yesterday. “This is a glaring example of an asset being underutilized.”

He estimated that the property, which contains more than 230,000 square feet of prime office space, could fetch “at least” $200 million on the open market. Mr. Gioia suggested that after the sale, the MTA should move its offices to Queens.

A spokesman for the authority, Jeremy Soffin, said selling 347 Madison Ave. is not under consideration at present but that the MTA has sold large properties in the past.

“The MTA has assessed its real estate assets and sold a number of properties to support public transportation, including the billion-dollar sale of the West Side Yards. Just as importantly, we are cutting costs by 6 percent, consolidating back office functions and integrating our bus companies to save money,” Mr. Soffin said via e-mail. “We do not have plans to sell office buildings currently required for MTA use.”

Earlier this year, the MTA raised the price of an unlimited one-month MetroCard to $81 from $76 and of a one-week unlimited MetroCard to $25 from $24.

MTA officials said recently that another fare hike may be necessary to meet a growing deficit of as much as $700 million next year due to declining tax revenues and rising fuel prices.

Khadijah Rentas of the Daily News had a brief report about it as well:

The MTA should sell off or lease its Manhattan digs before boosting subway fares and tolls, a city councilman said Sunday.

Standing in front of MTA headquarters on Madison Ave., Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside) insisted the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could avoid the threatened fare hikes by hawking the building – which he said would go for at least $200 million. They could relocate the headquarters to – where else? – Queens, he said.

MTA officials who raised fares and tolls in March have said they may need to hike them again to plug a $500 million deficit.

An MTA spokesman said the agency already has sold properties, including the West Side rail yards.

I am trying not to laugh so hard as it is starting to hurt. I don’t know what Eric’s intentions were with this proposal, whether they were from the heart or just the typical game of trying to look good for your constituents. Either way, this idea is beyond ridiculous & would accomplish nothing but putting a small band aid on a huge cut. Lets look at the proposal deeper shall we….

First off, we are in a severely weak real estate market which favors buyers over sellers. The MTA would not get anywhere near what the property is actually worth due to today’s economy. Lets say the MTA could get the $200 million which Eric seems to think is plausible, what would that money really do for the MTA & its riding public?

They would have to turn right back around & rent a property for their headquarters. Considering the size of their current headquarters, do you know the kind of cash they will be paying for rent? A pretty penny would be the tip of the iceberg as far as a description goes. Now after spending the money on rent, we factor in the cost of moving to a new space which will not be cheap. After we are done with that, how much would be left over for the agency to put towards their budget issues? Whatever the amount is, it will be nowhere near enough to prevent a fare hike next year. Even if the MTA was to take the full mythical amount of $200 million,  it would not be enough to really accomplish anything in the long term.

The financial state of the MTA needs long term solutions, not a band aid or quick fix as in the long run those solutions will only add to the problem, not take away from it!

Eric, I just looked under a MTA bottle top & it had a message for you. Sorry, your idea was not a winner, please try again!

xoxo Transit Blogger

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Buses To Replace Trains On Port Jervis Line

Riders who plan on traveling to or from Middletown, Otisville and Port Jervis should take notice of the service change that will be in place for 44 hours this upcoming weekend. During this time period, buses will replace all train service at the three stops listed above due to the replacement of rails & ties in the Otisville Tunnel. Here is the full press release courtesy of the MTA:

Track improvement work on the Port Jervis line this weekend will mean bus substitution for MTA Metro-North Railroad customers at three stations, Middletown, Otisville and Port Jervis.

To allow Metro-North track workers to replace the rail and ties in the mile-long, single- track Otisville Tunnel, the track will be taken out of service beginning at 12:15 a.m. Saturday, June 21, 2008 after the 12:08 a.m. arrival at Otisville. That train, the 9:55 p.m. Friday departure from Hoboken, will continue to the end of the line at Port Jervis, arriving at 12:27 a.m.

The last train out of Hoboken Saturday night/Sunday morning, departing at 12:05 a.m. will be bused from Middletown to the end of the line.

Normal service will resume on Sunday, June 22nd beginning with the 6:15 p.m. from Hoboken, due Port Jervis at 8:25 p.m.

During the 44-hour track outage, all Port Jervis Line trains will originate or terminate at Middletown. Port Jervis and Otisville customers, about 80 people each weekend day, can take a bus to Middletown to board a train. For the return trip, they will get off the train at Middletown and take a bus back to Otisville or Port Jervis.

Metro-North regrets the inconvenience while this important work is done.

xoxo Transit Blogger

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C & E Train Service Alert

The MTA has posted a service alert regarding & train service. The service alert states:

Due to signal problems at the 50th Street Station:

168th Street-bound c trains are running express from the Canal Street Station to the 59th Street-Columbus Circle Station.

Selected Jamaica Center-bound e trains are running on the v line from the West 4th Street-Washington Square Station to the 5th Avenue-53rd Street Station

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6 Train Service Alert

The MTA has posted a service alert regarding train service. The service alert reads:

Due to signal problems at the Buhre Avenue Station, please expect delays in service on trains at this time.

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