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

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.

08/16/13 6:00am
08/16/2013 6:00 AM

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Tom Spurge on the platform at the Ronkonkoma train station, where he makes the first of two transfers when he commutes from Greenport to Penn Station for his job in Manhattan.

It’s quarter past five on a Monday morning in Greenport and the village is still dark. At the Long Island Rail Road station, a handful of commuters step onto a double-decker train headed for Penn Station. Businessmen in suits sip coffee from paper cups and take iPads out of their briefcases to help pass the time during the two-hour, 50-minute ride to Manhattan.

At the head of the first car, commuter Tom Spurge gets comfortable. Mr. Spurge, 52, lives in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood but purchased a second home in Greenport with his wife, Nancy, 13 years ago.

The owner of an architectural woodworking company on Eighth Avenue, he’s familiar with the long journey.

“My office is two blocks from Penn Station, so it makes the train really viable for me,” he says. “It’s one day a week, which makes it pretty easy.”

For others who commute from the North Fork to NYC every day of the workweek, it’s not as simple. Most travel by a combination of car and train. Rather than board a train at eastern points, they’ll drive to Ronkonkoma to cut down their trips. And even though the LIRR announced last week that it will be expanding service to Greenport this year, that only applies to weekends. Four years ago, MTA officials were considering discontinuing all service between Greenport and Ronkonkoma except on summer weekends, but backed off that plan.

Early Monday, only about a dozen people boarded the train at the Greenport and Southold stations. Most of them said they were heading back to the city after a weekend visit.

But Doug Corrigan, who lives in Mattituck and works as a salesman for a financial services information company in the city, makes the grueling commute five days a week. Rather than boarding at the Mattituck station, however, he drives to Ronkonkoma to catch an earlier express train.

“I’m up at 5 a.m. every day,” the 39-year-old says. “I drive to Ronkonkoma, catch the 6:24 train to Penn and get in around 7:30, which puts me in my office chair, bagel in hand, at 7:45.”

His commute wasn’t always so long. Before moving back to his hometown last year, Mr. Corrigan lived in Manhattan with his wife, Abby, also a Mattituck native, and their two daughters. The Corrigans appreciated everything city life had to offer but longed for a home in the quiet hamlet where they both grew up.

“I definitely wanted a home as opposed to an apartment to raise my kids in,” Mr. Corrigan says. “Now I get to see my kids play on the same beaches I played on as a kid.”

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Robert Lechner represents a different type of train commuter. He often takes the train from Greenport to Riverhead, where he picks up his work truck in the morning.

Making the decision to travel almost three hours to and from work Monday through Friday wasn’t easy.

“People thought I was crazy, both local friends and city friends,” Mr. Corrigan says. “When I first decided to start the commute, I said, ‘Let me just try this for a few months. Is it doable? Is it not doable?’ There’s definitely that quality-of-life issue.”

For some, though, the punishing commute ultimately becomes unbearable, prompting drastic career changes.

Take, for instance, Phil Mastrangelo of Orient, who worked as a financial broker in Manhattan for 26 years until this May, when he quit his job in favor of growing and selling oysters on the North Fork.

“I wanted to spend more time with my family,” the 47-year-old says. “The commute wasn’t all that bad when the Long Island Rail Road was cooperating, but in the past five years all the service has become third-world. Nothing is scheduled anymore.”

Like Mr. Corrigan, Mr. Mastrangelo lived in Manhattan for years before moving to the North Fork with his wife and four sons. The decision came after a friend took him clamming on Peconic Bay.

“The water was so clear,” Mr. Mastrangelo says. “We found a scallop while clamming. After that, there was no turning back.” He and his wife built a house in Orient 11 years ago and have lived there full time ever since.

ELEANOR LABROZZI PHOTO | It’s still dark at the Greenport LIRR station when commuters arrive to catch the 5:30 a.m. train to Penn Station this time of year.

While life away from work was great, the morning commute was a slog for Mr. Mastrangelo, who used to wake up every day at 3:30 a.m. and drive to Ronkonkoma to catch the 4:58 train to Penn Station.

“If you leave at 4 and your train is at 4:58 and you have 55 miles to go, you have to go 60 miles per hour the whole trip, which makes it a little trickier,” he says. “My day was always measured in minutes, which made it very frustrating when the Long Island Rail Road wasn’t performing up to par.”

Driving over an hour to the Ronkonkoma train station in the pitch black presented its own series of obstacles, Mr. Mastrangelo says.

“It’s like driving through the wild kingdom,” he says. “There were owls, deer, raccoons, possum — everything possible.”

In the 11 years he made the commute, Mr. Mastrangelo says, he hit seven deer. One time, a deer ran into the side of his car, smashing both rear doors.

There were other challenges, too: when his sons were younger, he often couldn’t get home in time to attend their sporting events. Even if he worked just a half-day, unforeseen train delays often thwarted his plans.

Despite all this, Mr. Mastrangelo says he has never regretted moving to the North Fork.

“Orient just became exactly where I wanted to be,” he says. “I was doing what I had to do to maintain our home here.”

Having a home in what he calls a “nice, safe community” to raise his children is what sustains Mr. Corrigan on his morning commute from Mattituck, which he makes more enjoyable by grabbing a 12-ounce cup of coffee from 7-Eleven before driving to the Ronkonkoma station. Once on board, he listens to music on his iPod and tries to doze off.

“The commute into the city is very peaceful and I don’t mind it as much,” he says. “The commute home is more painful. I’ve already worked my 10-hour day, I get on the 6:21 p.m. train, and that puts me home at 8:30 p.m.”

Even so, Mr. Corrigan says, the sacrifice is worth it.

“The reward is I get to enjoy my hometown,” he says. “It’s something you do for the kids.”

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