This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

This is a little off-topic for this blog, but every transportation writer loves to generalize from personal experience, and I’m no exception.

While King County Metro drivers may be earning a good deal of cheese, the workers of New York’s MTA, specifically the Long Island Rail Road, would seem to have them beat:

One of those workers, a Long Island Rail Road conductor who retired in April, made $239,148, about $4,000 more than the authority’s chief financial officer, according to payroll data released on Wednesday.

In fact, more than a quarter of the Long Island Rail Road’s 7,000 employees earned more than $100,000 last year, including the conductor, Thomas J. Redmond, and two locomotive engineers — who were among the top 25 earners in the entire transportation authority.

Now, that’s a bit misleading. Half that $239K was in cashed-out vacation and sick days. Still, the LIRR guys make a lot of money. Now, I for one don’t begrudge civil servants making good wages, and certainly it’s not cheap to live in New York.

The challenge, I think, is that these high operating costs are high at a time when the system needs to expand service and attract more riders. Ridership on the LIRR has increased a bit in recent years, but it still serves fewer riders than in 1949, a time when the regional population was much smaller than it is today. I noticed recently that the station near the house I grew up in had just 250 boardings per day in 2006.

However, Long Island does have all these interesting assets, including 700 miles of mostly grade-separated track and walkable downtown villages around many of the stations. What it lacks, however are:

  • a way to move people around Long Island, and not just into & out of New York City,
  • service to Long Island’s exurban office parks, where Nikon, Cannon, and Computer Associates all have large US headquarters, and
  • most importantly, residents who are willing to allow multi-family(!) housing around those downtown stations

Attempting to solve these problems is the noble goal of the Build a Better Burb project, which I wholly endorse.  Long Island has moved from being a bedroom community for New York City to being an employment center in its own right, and it will be interesting to see it rebuild itself around that idea.

5 Replies to “Long Island’s Train Challenge”

  1. Seeing the NYT article start with the eye-popping claim and no immediate explanation made me a little suspicious about the “Empire Center for New York State Policy, a research group run by the Manhattan Institute”. Sometimes a thinktank’s idea of “total compensation” can include things you wouldn’t think of.

    However, using the figures supplied, we learn that a conductor has a base salary of about $68k and an engineer has a base salary of about 76k- while I know from my own experience that a registered nurse in this area with 20 years of experience has a base pay of about 70k. So the article at least had some information, a cut above the normal NYT standard.

    As for how these pay rates relate to the operating costs of the railroad I do not know, nor does the article tell us. In my experience the most common cause of overtime is that the unit isn’t budgeted enough for FTEs, but there are tradeoffs there, too. When you’re overstaffed, some of your workers have to work for part-time wages, and maybe the good ones can’t afford to do that.

    As I recall, the MTA has several of these lines that go far into suburbia and are basically a headache they inherited and have to keep running- at least, until we hit that gusher and everyone can drive to work!

    Oops! Been there, done that. Better start looking at Plan B.

  2. I consider the wage issue too tangled a can of worms to be able to discuss intellegently. Yes, one quick way of cutting costs is to cut wages. In theory a trained monkey could drive a bus* (though not safely), and I can picture a system running reasonably well using minimum wage labor. That said, you’re trading off quality service and greatly increasing overhead in other ways (I think I read somewhere fast food typically has a 300% turnover each year – that’s a lot of hiring and training). Add to that wanting to give employees a living wage, the power of unions, and a dozen other issues, and I’m not terribly surprised bus drivers make as much as they do.

    * Man will I probably regret saying that. Let me point out a trained monkey can also design HVAC systems, though they’re usually hired as contractors.

  3. Ha ha, it turns out this is not the first time the NYT has beat this drum- according to Wikipedia, “As a result of a New York Times investigation into alleged abuses of pension and disability payments to retirees of the Long Island Rail Road, Railroad Retirement Agents from Chicago inspected the Long Island office of the Railroad Retirement Board on September 23, 2008….A report produced in September 2009 by the U. S. Government Accountability Office disclosed that five federal agencies which investigated and audited the disability awards found no evidence of fraud or wrongdoing by either the Railroad Retirement Board or the retirees who applied for those awards.”

    ‘Paper of record’ my a**.

    One explanation of high overtime costs may be found here- “The LIRR is the only commuter passenger railroad in the United States to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with significant off peak, weekend, and holiday service.”

    It’s a non-trivial job: “It is the busiest commuter railroad in North America, servicing around 81 million passengers each year…There are 124 stations on the LIRR, and more than 700 miles (1,100 km) of track on its two lines to the two forks of the island and eight major branches. Each weekday, the LIRR provides more than 303,000 rides to customers.”

  4. Yeah, good points. I don’t at all begrudge the conductors their salaries. I don’t see why a senior conductor who works a decent amount of overtime working in New York of all places shouldn’t make $100k or so.

    I’m more interested in the urban development issue. You’ve got this rail infrastructure that’s still hugely popular and carrying a ton of traffic, yet at the same time totally wrong for the new types of work and commute patterns that have cropped up in the last 30 years.

    Maybe the big employers out in the exurbs will wise up and move to the city, I don’t know.

  5. Well, my question would be, how can it be right for the next 30 years. It seems fairly obvious that the new patterns that cropped up in the last 30 years came from massive road building and the disappearance of local industries.

    In fact, it seems to me that transit is the one very large industry that will always be local. Development in the past was based on predicted stable payrolls of companies, but today only transit displays the stability to justify planning and investment.

    I’m inclined to think that with that established ridership, the prizes will go to communities that learn how to build on their existing station and population.

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