09/01/13 8:00am
09/01/2013 8:00 AM
LIRR

STEVE ROSSIN PHOTO | LIRR riders board an eastbound train out of Riverhead earlier this summer.

It’s a summer Friday afternoon and you’re stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway, headed from the city to the North Fork. If you’re traveling by bus for Orient, where I live, delays on the LIE could make the trip take as long as four hours.

Think this is bad? It could be a lot worse.

Suppose there were no Long Island Rail Road. Last year, the LIRR ran a great ad on its trains that imagined just such a disastrous turn of events. “Up to nine Long Island Expressway Lanes would be needed to handle the additional traffic,” declared the ad, which ended with the word “cough.”

In fact, more than 260,000 people ride the LIRR on the average weekday.

Statistics like that make me a strong supporter of the nation’s second-busiest commuter railroad, Long Island’s best hope for increasing personal mobility while decreasing congestion, consumption of fossil fuels and air pollution.

I know, I know. Frequency of service on the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma-Greenport line — the service that matters most to us — is woefully inadequate. But that could change.

As previously reported in these pages, funding is now available for the purchase of “scoot” trains on this route. While the railroad has yet to select the equipment it will buy, it’s shopping for trains that would be smaller and cheaper to operate than the current equipment on the Greenport line — a locomotive and two double-deck coaches.

A railroad spokesman recently told Times/Review reporter Tim Gannon, “As envisioned by the LIRR, scoot trains would allow for more frequent train service than currently provided.”

Hey, maybe that widely reviled payroll tax for public transit isn’t so bad after all.

Even without such improvements, there are ways right now to take advantage of the LIRR that many North Forkers may not realize.

For instance, savvy summertime travelers who’ve had it with the LIE can catch the Friday-only 3:55 p.m. train out of Penn Station, fairly confident that they’ll reach their North Fork destination on time. Arrival at Greenport is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Moreover, on the Ronkonkoma-Greenport leg of the trip, passengers can unwind with a glass of one of the local wines sold aboard the Friday-only train.

Unfortunately, that train operates only between the Memorial Day and Columbus Day weekends. But Saturday and Sunday service, once offered year-around but scaled back in 2010 to the same operating period as the Friday-only train, has been extended and will run between April and November.

Did I mention the Ronkonkoma solution to getting to Kennedy Airport?

If you hire someone to drive you from Orient to JFK, it can cost as much as $150 each way.

I’ve got a cheaper way: Drive to the Ronkonkoma station (LIE exit 60), park your car free (for an unlimited time) in the LIRR’s huge outdoor parking lot and board one of the trains operating nearly hourly to Jamaica. Upon arriving there, take the escalator to the station’s mezzanine and walk a few hundred feet to the platform where the Port Authority’s AirTrain departs every seven to 20 minutes for JFK’s terminals.

Train fare from Ronkonkoma to Jamaica is $13.50 at peak hours and $9.75 off-peak. Add $5 for the AirTrain, and you’ve saved well over $100. I know; I’ve done it.

Some folks who’ve used the Ronkonkoma station tell me they’re worried about missing the train because of the time consumed finding a parking spot in the often crowded free lot. That worried me, too, until I began using THE TIMETABLE.

By consulting the Ronkonkoma Branch timetable, you can determine when the next train from the city is supposed to reach the station. I schedule my arrival at the station around that time so that I can pull into one of the parking spaces just vacated by disembarking passengers. (On weekdays, there’s usually a 15- to 30-minute window between trains arriving from the city and leaving for it.)

Some people also worry that their cars could be vandalized in the parking lot. Never in the 16 years we’ve left our car there (once for as long as seven weeks) has it been damaged. Our luck did run out last year, however, when two exterior accessories — a rooftop kayak rack and a rear-end bike rack — were stolen. Foolishly, neither had been locked to the car.

It seemed like a small price to pay for a service that has worked so well.

Orient resident John Henry has been commuting to Manhattan for 16 years, usually using the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma-New York City service.

03/29/13 11:00am
03/29/2013 11:00 AM

TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Don Fisher, president of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, with what’s left of the historic Engine 39 in Riverhead.

After sitting in Riverhead for 33 years, waiting to be restored, Engine 39, a steam engine built in 1929 and operated by the Long Island Rail Road through 1955, may be headed for Pennsylvania.

The Railroad Museum of Long Island has signed a contract with the Strasburg Rail Road Company in Ronks, Pa., to essentially split the cost of restoring the steam engine. Strasburg would do the work within three years of receiving the money and the restored train would remain with Strasburg, where it would operate on the company’s property for 44 years.

The deal was bittersweet, according to museum president Don Fisher of Southold.

Train enthusiasts brought Engine 39 to Railroad Avenue in Riverhead on a flatbed truck in 1980, with the goal of restoring it to operating condition and then running tourist trips between the railroad museum’s two locations in Riverhead and Greenport.

But the group and its predecessors never had enough money to finish the job, even after getting an $800,000 grant in 1996. The engine’s boiler and firebox are already in Strasburg, where they were being repaired until the money ran out. Only the bottom part of Engine 39, the wheel assembly, is currently in Riverhead.

“It is a bittersweet thing, because they were people who were hoping to see it running here, but the challenges on Long Island were great,” Mr. Fisher said. “We don’t have a place to get water here, there’s coaling facilities, the museum doesn’t own a service facility, we’re more than 100 miles from the nearest class-one railroad [Amtrak] and there are no more steam-qualified skilled mechanics to keep it running. The challenges against us running it here on the North Fork as a regular service have grown to the point of being monumental.”

The contract with Strasburg, which was signed March 14 after more than five months of negotiation, call for the museum to raise $900,000 in 2013 and transport the locomotive to the Strasburg property. Strasburg, in turn, will contribute about $1.1 million toward the project, Mr. Fisher said.

Once the $900,000 from the railroad museum is raised, Strasburg will complete restoration of the engine in three years and will then operate the locomotive on its property for a period of 44 years, according to the agreement.

While the Railroad Museum of Long Island has 15 years to come up with the $900,000, the contract calls for that amount to increase by 3.5 percent per year, so it’s imperative to raise the money quickly, said Mr. Fisher.

Museum officials originally planned to initiate a fundraising campaign for the entire $2 million. The new deal cuts that number in half, Mr. Fisher said.

The group plans to begin a $1 million fundraising campaign targeting foundations, railroad preservationists and individuals, he said.

“If we can get a million people to give a dollar, that’s a million dollars,” Mr. Fisher said.

Strasburg operates a steam locomotive repair and restoration facility on its property and runs a four-mile “heritage” railroad with five locomotives even older than Engine 39.

The oldest was built in 1906 and the newest in 1926, according to Linn Moedinger, president of Strasburg Railroad.

The Strasburg Railroad is the oldest railroad in the country that’s still operating under its original charter, although it operates mostly within its own property and not on public railroad tracks like Amtrak, Mr. Moedinger said. The trains run throughout the Pennsylvania Dutch Country in Lancaster County, southwest of Philadelphia, he said.

“It’s a shame that it’s been sitting for so long, it’s a nice engine and it will fit in nice right here,” Mr. Moedinger said. “Strasburg presents the best shot for the most number of people seeing it on a regular basis.”

It is very difficult to get permission to run a steam locomotive on tracks used by public railroads, he added.

The last time Strasburg ran on public rails was in 1998 — and that was for the purposes of filming, he said.

Mr. Fisher said the local railroad museum never had a guarantee that the LIRR would allow Engine 39 to run on its tracks.

tgannon@timesreview.com