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For Commuters, Train’s a ‘Godsend’

Fri, 05/31/2019 - 15:14
Kerri Cettel’s commute from Medford to her job at Douglas Elliman in Bridgehampton used to take two hours. Now her train ride from Westhampton Beach takes just half an hour, she told Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, left, and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr.

About three dozen people gathered on the platform at the Long Island Rail Road station in Hampton Bays Tuesday morning to wait for the 6:35 eastbound commuter train. Among them were Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who wanted to hear riders’ perspectives on the newly instituted South Fork Commuter Connection.

Stepping on the train, which arrived a few minutes behind schedule, and choosing seats on the upper deck among passengers who had boarded in Westhampton Beach and Speonk, the two politicians said they were encouraged by the  number of riders so far. “We knew it would start slow, and it did,” said Mr. Thiele. The first week of service there were 40 people a day. “Two weeks ago, there were over 200 riders a day,” he said. “As the seasonal traffic is starting to build, more and more people are getting off the road and on the train.” 

They happened upon two new riders, Jennifer Cunnius of Mastic Beach and Gloria DelGado of Hampton Bays, co-workers at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s laboratory. For Ms. Cunnius, the commute on the road is often an hour and a half. “Driving is a real pain,” she said. They wanted to try the train.

On the other hand, Laura Carlisle, who lives in Hampton Bays and is the chief financial officer for a landscaping company in East Hampton, sounded like a pro. She has seen the ridership grow since the commuter service began in March. “Last Thursday, you couldn’t get a seat. There wasn’t a seat on the train,” she said while waiting on the platform. 

Tuesday’s ridership was light by comparison. Public schools on the South Fork were closed Tuesday as school districts took unused snow days for an extra-long weekend, so there were no teachers commuting to work that day.

Ms. Carlisle explained that most people in East Hampton are getting picked up at the train station by “a friendly employer or an understanding colleague.” She is looking forward to taking her bike and getting some exercise when the weather is cooperative. The forecast called for rain Tuesday afternoon and evening. 

“The fact that I can get from Hampton Bays to East Hampton in basically 30 minutes and not sit in two hours of traffic each way . . . I’ll take the train!” she told the politicians. Asked what else she likes about it, she said, “I’m having a cup of coffee and I’m totally relaxed . . . and I know for sure I will get to work on time.” 

“It’s that predictability. It’s an hour and a half each way of your life back,” Mr. Schneiderman said to Ms. Carlisle. 

“At least,” she said. 

Ms. Carlisle also had a message — the price is right at $4.25 round trip. “They have to keep the price the same. It’s perfect.” 

Tracy Hillman, who is originally from East Hampton but lives in Hampton Bays now, has perhaps the most convenient commute; he works at Riverhead Building Supply across the street from the East Hampton train station. He started taking the train in March, too. 

“So far I like everything about it except that they are cutting out Friday’s schedule,” he said to Mr. Thiele and Mr. Schneiderman. The Friday commuter train stopped running as of Memorial Day weekend so that the tracks could be free for the afternoon “Cannonball” express train that brings weekend visitors to the South Fork from New York City for the summer season.

Mr. Hillman took the Suffolk County transit bus on Friday morning. Asked how long it took, his answer was simply, “Oh my God.”

Mr. Thiele said officials are working on the Friday summer service. They have secured money from the railroad as part of the congestion pricing revenues to make capital improvements so that trains on the South Fork can pass each other. The inability to do so limits the train schedule; however, such improvements will take a couple of years, Mr. Thiele said. 

Mr. Schneiderman recognizes the demand. “The schedule is not perfect. We couldn’t make it perfect with just one set of tracks. . . . In the future, with some improvements to infrastructure, I think it’s going to be a real success.” 

Kerri Cettel, who works at Douglas Elliman’s Bridgehampton office, commutes from Medford and seemed to agree with that sentiment. Her schedule fits around the train schedule and her husband, who works from home, is able to get their children off to school, but she sees room for improvement. She gets on in Westhampton because the train she takes west in the afternoon goes to Westhampton, but the later trains do not. She even wrote a letter about it to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the L.I.R.R.

Even without a perfect schedule, Ms. Cettel is happier taking the train than driving. “It’s not so much the time, it’s the aggravation,” she said. 

Sarah Glass, a Pierson High School special education teacher who commutes from Calverton to Sag Harbor, said by phone on Tuesday that the train has made “a huge impact in terms of quality of life.” 

She gets on the 6:15 a.m. train in Speonk on school days, gets off in Bridgehampton and takes the shuttle being offered as part of the commuter program to Pierson, where classes start at 7:50 a.m. When she was driving to work, sometimes even when she left her house at 6 a.m. she wouldn’t get to Sag Harbor until 8:30. 

“In terms of stress and aggravation, and even more importantly, productivity” the train is the winner, she said. “We can get so much done on the train. I can grade a huge stack of essays for my high school English class — that’s brilliant.” Plus, she said she is a lot less drained at the end of the day, she said. 

A May 18 New York Post article that called the South Fork Commuter Connection the “Long Island Rail Road’s most unnecessary train” and “yet another stunning example of L.I.R.R. waste,” was woefully inaccurate, she said — and several teachers called The Post to say so. Ridership has picked up monumentally as word has spread. There are 4 to 12 teachers from Sag Harbor School District on her train, depending on what they have going on after school, since there is no train to accommodate them if they have to go home late. 

“Over all, it is really just a godsend. I can’t say enough good things about it.”

As traffic builds, ever more South Fork workers are choosing rails over road

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