South Fork Commuter Connection starts next week

The LIRR's partial restoration of the South Fork Commuter Connection begins next Monday, March 3.  The service includes six new trains east of Speonk (though only two make the full trip between Speonk and Montauk) with shuttle connections to nearby workplaces.  Additional details about the shuttles can be found in this item from December.  The service runs on weekdays and supplements the LIRR's existing (limited) service east of Speonk.  The shuttle services connect only with four trains (two in the morning, two in the afternoon), shaded in teal below.

The restoration of this service has been many years in the making, thanks to persistent pushing for better service by state and local officials, including Assemblyman Fred Thiele (who has led the charge in many respects).  The finalized schedule is now posted on the MTA website and included in the new branch timetables taking effect on March 3:

The shaded trains above will connect with five different shuttles: two at Southampton, and one each at Bridgehampton, East Hampton, and Amagansett.  The Bridgehampton to Sag Harbor shuttle (units 3/4) will be operated by Hampton Jitney, the others by Hampton Hopper.  Click on the unit number below to view the schedule and full stop listing for each of the shuttles:

UnitRR Conn.DestinationsOperator
SH Town Hall, SH Hospital, SH Middle School, SH High School, Hampton Road & CR 39Hampton Hopper
Hampton Road, CR 39, David whites Lane, North Main Street, North Sea Road, Bowden Square, Windmill Lane, Nugent Street, Main StreetHampton Hopper
BH High School, Bridgehampton Commons, Pierson High School, Sag HarborHampton Jitney
JM Elementary School, EH High School, Long Lane, Newtown Lane, EH Middle School, Main Street, EH Town Hall, Abrahams Path, Springs School, Springs Fireplace Road, EH Fire Department, Cedar Street, Cooper LaneHampton Hopper
AG Library, Indian Wells Highway, Montauk Highway, Ocean Vista, Gurney's, Montauk Chamber of Commerce, Gosman's Dock, West Lake Drive, Star Island RoadHampton Hopper

This is slightly less than the eight routes originally planned (the Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor runs have been combined, as have the Amagansett and Montauk routes, and there is no service to the Wainscott area).  Also absent is unit 5: the bus shuttle from Hampton Bays to Westhampton and Speonk, which would have brought riders on the last westbound train to Westhampton and Speonk.

Riders will be able to flag down the shuttles at any point along the route.

The LIRR will be selling joint tickets for the rail trains and connecting shuttles for $4.25, valid for travel between Bellport and Montauk, however they will only be sold at full service ticket machines between Mastic-Shirley and Southampton.  This is less than the normal zone 12-to-zone 14 fare (now $6.25) for travel between Speonk and points east.  The machines will dispense a separate voucher that must be presented to board the bus.  Because vouchers are required to board the shuttles, and the shuttle drivers are not accepting any other form of payment, your trip must start at one of the few stations with full service TVM's or you have to buy multiple tickets in advance.

Missed opportunities

While it is great to see the LIRR paying some attention to East End Rail Service, they could be putting a better foot forward to put the new service in the best position possible to succeed.  As I mentioned last time, the new schedule includes a lot of crew and equipment down-time...over 18 hours a day.  That's a lot of time that could have been used to keep the equipment moving and providing additional service.  The new service also starts late in the morning (when compared to traffic levels on Sunrise Highway), and four of the six trips only operate part of  the way between Seponk and Montauk, with only two trips running the full length of the South Fork.

The utilization and service level issues were discussed more in the December post, but the biggest issue with the final schedule is how the only useful westbound train for most commuters only goes as far as Hampton Bays (train 2729 (numbered 2796 on the draft schedules), the 4:50p train from Montauk), meaning there's no return service to either Westhampton or Speonk if you work a typical 9a-to-5p workday, making taking the service from those two stations practically useless.  This is exacerbated by the apparent lack of shuttle unit 5, which was supposed to bridge this gap and bus people on the last train from Hampton Bays back to Westhampton and Speonk.

The LIRR attributes the premature truncation of this train's run to conflicts with trains 2738 and 2712 at Speonk, saying running the SFCC shuttle all the way to Speonk would risk delaying one or both of these trains.

On its current schedule, train 2729 would arrive Speonk at 6:00p, which is 10 minutes before train 2738 is due to arrive, and train 2712 follows 13 minutes after that.  Looking at LIRR's practices elsewhere, transfers at Huntington are typically scheduled for 8 minutes, which is enough for the first train to arrive, passengers to disembark onto the platform, the train crew to clear the train, for the first train to proceed forward onto the side tracks, and for the second train to pull in, allow passengers to board, and then depart.  Metro-North does a similar procedure for inbound Waterbury trains at Bridgeport in 5 minutes.  This would suggest there's sufficient time to squeeze in the shuttle train, if they put their minds to it and ran trains on time.

A couple extra minutes could be afforded by shifting the shuttle train a couple minutes earlier.  Or, the 4:00p train to Huntington and the 4:03p train to Babylon (which connects to train 2738 to Speonk) could swap slots west of Jamaica, allowing train 2738 to arrive Speonk seven minutes earlier, giving a 20 minute opening to thread the shuttle train in between.  Even better, train 2738 could continue to Montauk utilizing existing crew/equipment downtime (see item 6 on this list of zero-cost improvements for South Fork service), eliminating the need for that train to clear and move into the yard.  Then 2738 and the shuttle train 2729 could meet using the controlled siding just east of Speonk, allowing the shuttle to arrive and have 10-15 minutes to clear into the yard before 2712 rolls through.  Doing this would make it feasible to commute to/from all three stations west of the Shinnecock Canal, not just one.

Ticketing limitations

While joint tickets between rail and connecting bus services are definitely good to have, the partial restoration of the SFCC has some significant ticketing limitations.  The joint tickets are being sold as deal/getaway package tickets, so they are only available at full service ticket machines.  The LIRR is moving some of the full-service ticket machines on the South Fork around, but only half of the stations on the South Fork will have full service TVM's that actually sell the SFCC tickets: Speonk, Westhampton, Hampton Bays, and Southampton.  This means if you're boarding at any station east of Southampton, you won't be able to buy tickets for the SFCC.  If you want to commute from Bridgehampton or East Hampton and connect to the shuttles at East Hampton or Amagansett, you have no way to get tickets.  And since you must have a voucher to board the shuttles, you're pretty much out of luck unless you drive all the way to the machine at Southampton and double back.  The railroad says it has no plans to add any additional full service TVM's for riders east of Southampton.

Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Amagansett, and Montauk each have at least one of the red daily ticket machines, however those do not sell the package tickets for the SFCC shuttles.  The most obvious solution this problem is to have the daily ticket machines sell the tickets as well...  Since the vouchers are just printed on paper, it shouldn't matter if it's on the green weekly ticket stock (typical for package ticket vouchers) or just printed on the normal blue one-way ticket stock.

The LIRR has offered to provide employers with tickets in bulk that can be packaged into ticket books for sale/distribution to their employees, but there is currently no way to purchase the shuttle tickets anywhere other than those four stations with full service ticket machines.  So if you're trip starts at one of the downtown destinations with shuttle service, you can't board the shuttles unless you first trek to Southampton station and buy tickets first.

Further disappointing, the joint tickets are not being made available through the MTA eTix application, which would be ideal for those starting their trips at one of the stations without full service machines, or at one of the downtown areas with shuttle service.  MTA eTix doesn't sell any combination tickets, which has been an issue from the day eTix arrived.  The MTA says this is on the roadmap for future development, but not having it available for a service like this is a big limitation.  There is presently a startling lack of coordination/unification among transit ticketing in the NY Metro area...we already have eight separate and distinct mobile ticketing applications, including ones for the LIRR, NICE Bus, Suffolk County Transit, and Fire Island Ferries.

Additionally, you can only buy one-way joint tickets for the SFCC.  While you can buy multiple packages at once (up to 24 tickets per day with a credit card, no limit with cash), there are no monthly or weekly UniTicket options for regular commuters.  The railroad says they are evaluating a monthly ticket option as part of the initial phase of the service.

The LIRR is also not selling standalone shuttle vouchers, for those who might want to ride the shuttles locally without connecting to the train, or who might want to use the shuttles with half-fare or commutation tickets.  While the railroad has said they would have no objections if the towns wanted to sell the vouchers separately, they have no plans to sell standalone shuttle vouchers themselves, since that's not a ticket that currently exists in the railroad's tariff.  While the tariff does define what tickets the LIRR can sell, this idea has been in the works for over two years (LIRR first announced a partial restoration of the SFCC back in February 2017), which should have been enough time to make the necessary emendations to the tariff to allow them to put their best foot forward.

Limited (and separate) shuttle service

The last underwhelming aspect of this version of the SFCC restoration is the very limited nature of the shuttle services.  This is not really an issue caused by the railroad, but more the towns themselves.  Each of the shuttles will make just four trips per day, for the two trains in each direction shaded above.  Like the train equipment, these shuttles will be spending a lot of the day sitting around, doing nothing, waiting for their next run.  It would probably cost little to nothing to have the shuttles make continuous loops, connecting with the regularly scheduled midday LIRR trains, or enabling local travel within the communities.  If you live in Southampton and want to use the SFCC trains and shuttles to work in East Hampton, you can't.  If you want to travel between downtown Montauk and the Montauk Harbor area on the shuttles, you can't.

The shuttles are also being operated as a separate and distinct service from Suffolk County Transit, the public bus operator in most of the county.  The shuttles almost completely duplicate portions of the S92, 10B, and 10C routes, which all operate completely unintegrated with the LIRR (like other most other buses on Long Island).  The fare systems are different, and you can't transfer between the shuttles and SCT, or between SCT and the train.  These separate shuttles are a further fragmentation of LI's already uncoordinated transportation network.

Good start, but room for improvement

The SFCC coordinated rail-bus network will be one of the only such systems on Long Island, and hopefully it will serve as a good example and be applied to other areas across the region.  The LIRR's $2.6 billion Main Line Grade Crossing Elimination Project will significantly expand reverse-peak service opportunities, but if there aren't any ways for people to get from the train stations to their workplaces, ridership will struggle to grow.  Other railroads have had successes with these types of systems (see SFRTA Tri-Rail's robust network of free Commuter Connector bus routes linking up with train arrivals up and down the line).

The new service is a good start, and hopefully it will be enough to build ridership, but significant improvements are still needed.  Whether it's better utilizing the existing limited equipment, or making zero-cost improvements using trains that originate/terminate in Speonk, or correcting the number of ticketing limitations that will make it difficult to attract new riders, or running the shuttles continuously and integrating them into the SCT network, this should only be the first step.

The LIRR should continue to work towards improving frequency...the 2006 Sustainable East End Development Strategies (SEEDS) study recommended hourly rail-bus service during the day, with half-hourly rush hour service during the weekday AM and PM peak periods.  It would not take much to support hourly or better service on the South Fork, and the new FRA passenger equipment safety standard amendments can open the door for LIRR to get lighter, more efficient DMU equipment perfectly suited for East End service.

The South Fork is a very unique market, with a limited road network and continued growth, there is tremendous potential for increases in ridership, if the railroad would only put in the effort into supporting it.  It would not take billions in infrastructure upgrades, just some effort...

[This item appeared first on The LIRR Today.]

South Fork Commuter Connection starts next week