» Service changes on Long Island would reduce the number of one-stop rides into Manhattan but lower operations and capital costs.
Though the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is the busiest commuter rail operation in the United States, with more than 300,000 daily boardings, its 700 miles of track make frequent services to all parts of the island too expensive to be economically viable. The stations at the end of the system’s two longest branches — to Greenport and Montauk, at the eastern tips of the island — are out of convenient commuting distance to Manhattan, so the LIRR provides only a few trains a day. From Montauk, a more than three-hour commute, there are only five trains daily to Penn Station; from Greenport, there are only three.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the LIRR as well as the New York City Subway and other regional services, is planning to buy new diesel multiple unit trains (DMUs) to serve these and other lightly used routes, with the aim of reducing operations costs.
The very limited service to the system’s far extents results in suffering ridership; Greenport, for instance, had on average only five daily passengers in 2006. Yet as a result of the trains the LIRR currently has in its fleet, the system uses very heavy, diesel-guzzling vehicles for these routes. There is little room for more services to these far-off locales because of the high operating costs of these trains and the limited capacity along the LIRR’s routes approaching Manhattan.
Though much of the LIRR system is electrified and use electric multiple unit trains, several major sections of the system remain reliant on diesel-powered vehicles, though all trains with direct service to Manhattan must be able to switch to third rail electric propulsion as they enter the city. With 45 diesel dual-mode locomotives and 134 bilevel railcars, the LIRR serves the less-populated portions of the island, including unelectrified tracks east of Ronkonkoma and Babylon along the Ronkonkoma and Montauk branches, as well as along much of the Port Jefferson and Oyster Bay branches. Those latter routes have more service than do Montauk or Greenport, but their offerings are still constrained to about one train per hour.
The dual-mode locomotives and C3 railcars that are attached to them are relatively new, having been bought in the late 1990s. Yet they’ve been prone to maintenance problems because of the complications resulting from their dual-mode power systems.
Suffering from limited funds to maintain service levels as a result of the recession, the MTA is looking for ways to cut operating costs. It may have an answer in its decision to consider replacing the locomotive-hauled trains with DMUs along its least-used routes. If the organization determines that the new trains would save substantial operating funds, an $81 million order of about a dozen trains could come online in 2014 at the earliest. The plans are included in the MTA’s recently released proposed capital program for 2010 to 2014.
Unlike the existing locomotives, which are very gas-consuming since they’re designed to pull ten or more railcars at a time — certainly not necessary along the LIRR’s longest routes — DMUs, with only one or two cars, are much lighter and designed for lines with fewer riders. By providing “scoot” services along unelectrified routes to the terminals of tracks with electric operations, DMUs could allow the LIRR to both increase services and reduce operations costs.
The most obvious route candidates for these new trains are the Ronkonkoma branch from Ronkonkoma to Greenport and the Montauk branch from Babylon to Montauk. Though these sections of the line would have their direct services into Manhattan eliminated and riders would be forced to transfer to get to the rest of the island, DMUs would make possible all-day operations since the trains would not have to be competing with the more heavily used vehicles from other branches trying to get into the city.
The savings the MTA would accrue from using less fuel per passenger would likely pay for the cost of more daily services, increasing ridership. If transfers were timed, the connection between the diesel-operated lines and those that are electrified could be simple enough to keep all of the system’s current riders.
For the LIRR, the use of DMUs along these far-off branch lines seems appropriate, since the diesel locomotives the system currently uses are designed for far busier routes and fundamentally inappropriate for places like Greenport or Montauk. Indeed, the decision to consider a conversion to these new technologies should inspire other commuter rail operators to switch to more efficient DMUs; Nashville’s infrequently used Music City Star line comes to mind as an obvious candidate. Lighter, more efficient trains could play an important role in reducing the operations costs of transit agencies across the country, all of which need to find savings to survive.
Image above: Bombardier’s VLocity 160 DMU, used in Australia, from Bombardier