State highlights misleading performance metrics in audit of LIRR

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An audit of the LIRR was conducted by the state comptroller's office from Jan. 1, 2015- Aug. 22, 2018. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

A recently released audit of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority conducted by the state comptroller’s office highlighted misleading performance standards in Long Island Rail Road reliability from 2015 to 2018.

The audit, which was released two weeks ago, was conducted by the office of state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli from Jan. 1, 2015, to Aug. 22, 2018.  The office set out to determine the accuracy and consistency of MTA agencies such as the LIRR, Metro-North Rail Road, and MTA Buses and Subways.

Under the Public Authorities Law, the MTA is required to provide an annual performance report for each agency. Additionally, the MTA is required by the Federal Transit Administration to submit performance reports to the National Transit Database.

Organizations such as the FTA have different performance metrics than the MTA.  

For example, the FTA defines ridership as the number of times that passengers board public transportation vehicles, including transfers.  On the other side, the MTA usually considers ridership to be the sum of every fare-paying customer, resulting in a discrepancy of final figures that were analyzed in the audit.

The audit focused on ridership and mean distance between failures or MDBF, as the two key performance measures for the six agencies. MDBF is a transit industry term that tracks a transit vehicle’s mean distance between failures or breakdowns. It also measures the performance of an agency’s maintenance department.

The LIRR’s basis of mileage is per train car, rather than per trip and the railroad calculates MDBF failures by including strictly mechanical failures that result in a delay of six minutes or more.

The audit analyzed February 2018, a month where a total of 202 failures were reported. Of that total figure, 127 were excluded for not meeting the proper failure requirements.  Twenty-four of the 75 remaining met MDBF approval, according to the audit, but the comptroller’s office said some were improperly excluded.

Had the proper failures been included, the total number would have been increased by 58 percent, according to the audit.  The audit also said “the reported MDBF does not appear to reflect the actual service being delivered.”

 However, the LIRR saw a slight improvement in 2019 reliability after a gradual decline in prior years. According to LIRR statistics, MDBF fell from 216,772 miles in 2016 to 185,217 miles two years later.

In terms of ridership, the audit noted that LIRR officials calculate ridership by using a sampling methodology focused on physically counting each passenger for a sample of trains. 

The audit noted that this process was established based on an employee count from the 1990s and has not been adjusted to reflect current public transportation trends.

Aside from electronic purchases, the method for calculating ticket sales figures used by the LIRR today is one that was developed in 1983.  The audit noted that this methodology has also not been adjusted to account for modern ridership trends.

The auditors recommended that a further evaluation of the MDBF be conducted to determine if the measurement is understood and is an accurate representation of fleet reliability and to conduct an updated survey to properly calculate ridership trends in a more modern era.

In response to the audit, LIRR President Phillip Eng addressed each concern and recommendation presented in the 18-page document, generally agreeing with the findings and suggestions.

“The LIRR will continue to regularly reassess its ridership calculation methodology in order to make sure it employs the most updated information available,” Eng wrote. “In addition, it is expected that the MTA’s implementation of a multi-agency New Fare Payment System (NFPS) will strengthen the LIRR’s ability to track, monitor and analyze ridership data.”

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