With crowds, delays and inconsiderate passengers, riding the Long Island Rail Road often can be a drag. But savvy commuters have learned some tricks over the years to make traveling on the railroad a little more tolerable.
From hidden electrical outlets to knowing which train cars have bathrooms, here are some useful “insider tips” before you board your next LIRR train — or decide to wait for the next one.
The LIRR’s least reliable trains: LIRR service can seem unpredictable, but history shows there are some trains that are far more likely to be canceled or delayed than others. According to a 2018 state comptroller’s report, for four years straight, the 6:05 p.m. train from Penn Station to Wantagh was the most frequently canceled train. It was canceled 18% percent of the time in 2017. The same report said the 5:59 p.m. train from Penn Station to Babylon had the worst on-time average of any train during the evening peak — running late 27% of the time.
The best place to wait for your train at Penn Station: While the tourists, and their luggage, huddle under the “big board” near the LIRR ticket windows — causing bottlenecks when a track is announced — experienced commuters know there are several, less-crowded track access points farther west in Penn — each with its own departure boards. The West End Concourse, located under the Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue, opened in 2017 and provides a spacious, modern waiting area with access to all tracks regularly used by the LIRR.
The secret to bathroom cars: Want to be sure you board a car with a bathroom? Want to be sure you don’t? You can know by looking at the car’s designated four-digit number displayed on its exterior. Odd-numbered cars have bathrooms. Even-numbered cars do not.
Hidden electrical outlets: Most riders know about the electrical outlets located behind the seats nearest the doors to enter and exit a train, but M7 electrical train cars, which make up the vast majority of the LIRR’s fleet of about 1,200 cars, have another outlet behind one of the rows on the far end, nearest the doors between train cars.
Alternatives to Penn Station: Many riders traveling to or from anywhere in Manhattan automatically head to Penn Station, which handles the greatest number of trains, but there are other options that may make your trip a little simpler, and even shorter. Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn is three subway stops from lower Manhattan. And Hunterspoint Avenue, in Queens, is just two stops from Grand Central Terminal on the 7 train.
Brooklyn benefits: There are other reasons to consider commuting out of Atlantic Terminal, if you can. Unlike at Penn, where it shares space with NJ Transit and Amtrak, the LIRR has Atlantic’s tracks to itself. That means train track announcements tend to be made much earlier, giving riders more time to find a seat before the last call. Trains that typically originate at Atlantic also tend to be on time more often, including those on the Far Rockaway and Hempstead lines.
Fun with tickets: If you’re traveling with children, here are a couple tips to help them pass the time. Although they haven’t been printed for years, some LIRR ticket offices still have children’s souvenir tickets in stock. The tickets, which are free upon request, come in different colors, and a friendly conductor may even punch a happy face into them. If you can’t find one, you can still amuse your kid by scratching off the back of your one-way paper ticket with a coin to reveal a hidden MTA logo.
Seats for loners: The LIRR’s 1980s-era M3 electric trains may look a little rough around the edges, but they come with one advantage for riders who would rather be left alone: single-seat rows. They’re not the most comfortable seats, but they guarantee nobody will sit next to you.
Other ways in and out of Penn Station: Just as Penn’s major departure board tends to attract crowds, so, too, do some of its most visible entry and exit points, including underneath Madison Square Garden’s Seventh Avenue marquee and the LIRR’s 34th Street entrance. To avoid some of the bustle, commuters enter and exit the station at lesser-used locations, including the stairwell just outside the MSG lobby, Amtrak’s ticketing area on the far west side of the station, or even from the Farley Post Office building across the street.
Bottoms up: Yes, you can drink alcohol on the LIRR. As a holdover of the days of bar cars, alcohol consumption is allowed on board trains, except during overnight hours on weekends, and during some designated days, including St. Patrick’s Day and New Year’s Eve. So before buying that $16 beer at Madison Square Garden, know you can BYOB on the trip there.
Quiet cars: During the morning and evening rush hours, the LIRR designates certain cars on trains traveling to and from Penn Station or Atlantic Terminal as “quiet cars,” where customers are urged not to use cellphones, disable sounds on all electronic devices, and “speak in a subdued voice.” The quiet car is the first car of westbound morning trains, and the last car on eastbound evening trains.
Luggage racks and coat hooks: On a crowded train, making use of the overhead racks and coat hooks can make for a more comfortable ride for you and your fellow passengers. What’s more, a hung-up coat can double as a pillow if you sit near the window.
Bring your bike: For $5, LIRR customers can purchase a bicycle permit that allows them to travel on trains with their bikes, as long as they follow the railroad’s rules and regulations.
When parking, timing is everything: It’s nearly impossible to find a spot at some LIRR station parking lots during certain times of the day. To maximize their chances, some commuters time their arrival to a station lot to coincide with the arrival of an eastbound train, which may contain some riders returning home from work and getting into their cars.
Late notes: If you want to prove to your boss that it really wasn’t your fault you missed that meeting, the LIRR offers “late letters” verifying that a specified train arrived more than five minutes after its scheduled time. The letters are available upon request by email or at the LIRR Customer Service Office in Penn Station.
Snow schedules: Although the LIRR’s service levels during major snowstorms may seem random, they actually follow predetermined “modified schedules” that are posted on the LIRR’s website. The schedules detail, in advance, which trains are likely to be canceled or combined during a snow emergency. The schedules are available at web.mta.info/supplemental/lirr/winterweather.htm.
Head to Jamaica: To avoid crippling delays that tend to originate in Penn Station or in the East River tunnels, some commuters opt to take the first train they can out of Penn that stops at Jamaica, whether it’s on their line or not. Once at Jamaica, they can find the earliest connection to their home station — unless it happens to be on the Port Washington Branch, which does not stop at Jamaica.
When late isn’t really late: Some commuters wonder how the LIRR can regularly report an on-time performance of more than 90% when their train perpetually arrives late at its home station. The reason: The LIRR only considers a train late if it arrives more than 5 minutes and 59 seconds after its scheduled time at its final destination. That means a train can run late at every stop along the way, but still be considered on time if it gets to its final stop less than six minutes before it’s supposed to.
Know your “rights:” In response to a call from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to create a passengers’ “bill of rights,” similar to that used in the airline industry, the LIRR in 2011 adopted an eight-point “Pledge to Customers” outlining the railroad’s responsibility to riders, including during an emergency. Among the railroad’s promises: to waive the $10 processing fee on ticket refunds when a service suspension is announced.
There’s an app for that: Loads of mobile applications and websites offer digital services to help LIRR commuters. The MTA’s official TrainTime app offers arrival countdown clocks for trains. And mylirr.org allows riders to track their trains on a map in real time and find out how many cars are on it. Some third-party services also can be useful, including the Clever Commute app, which crowd-sources information on train service, or traintext.com, which, for a fee, promises to tell you the track number for your train, what model it is, and even its car numbers.
A safer seat: This one is a little morbid. Because train accidents, including collisions and derailments, tend to involve the first, or last car of a train, some riders prefer to sit somewhere in the middle of a train, where they are less likely to be affected.
Jamaica comforts: Stranded at Jamaica during a service suspension? Head south on the overhead pedestrian walkway to the AirTrain building for bathrooms, hot food vendors, and even a bar.
Connect with other commuters: In addition to apps and digital services, social media can be a great resource to get real-time service information, including photos, straight from fellow riders. Facebook groups, like the Long Island Fail Road, are loaded with commuters sharing their experiences during every rush hour.
Have a backup plan: Don’t wait until that rush-hour service suspension to figure out how you’re going to get to work or back home. Expert commuters map out their commuting plan B ahead of time, including by finding out which transit lines can get them where they need to go, including on the subway, NICE Bus or Suffolk County Transit.
Come prepared: Experienced commuters know to pack more than just their monthly pass in their bag. Portable phone chargers, neck pillows, emergency snacks, bottled water and noise-canceling headphones can come in handy during a lengthy train delay.