The maiden run of the South Fork Commuter Connection went off as planned Monday morning despite snow, sleet and slush — and some confusion.
When the train that would be the 6:16 a.m. eastbound South Fork trip rolled into Speonk, a handful of westbound travelers approached the doors, wondering if their 6:20 a.m. ride was early. Eventually, that familiar, automated Long Island Rail Road voice began its “this is the train to…” announcement, clearing up the uncertainty before anyone got mixed up.
According to a Southampton Town news release, on Monday, 15 passengers rode the 6:16 a.m. Speonk train and 12 passengers rode the 8:26 a.m. Hampton Bays train. Ridership data for subsequent days were not available by press time Wednesday.
There was some confusion over how to purchase South Fork Commuter Connection tickets. Using the ticket machine at the station, some bought a standard higher-priced eastbound ticket, which did not include a transfer ticket for the town-sponsored “Last Mile” shuttle buses. Others skipped buying a ticket in advance, opting to try buying it on the train, because long lines at the ticket machine might have meant missing the train altogether.
It turned out the $4.25 one-way Commuter Connection (including the shuttle bus) ticket option on the machines is buried under “deals and getaways.” Buyers have to select that option, and then select “more options,” to find the South Fork Commuter Connection button.
At 6:38 a.m., the Long Island Rail Road reported on Twitter that “everything is currently operating as intended” on the South Fork Commuter Connection system.
Once the passengers got on board that first train, it was a fairly smooth ride — conductors seemed unfamiliar with commuter-connection ticketing — and some riders expressed cautious optimism for the new commuter service.
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Susan Miller of Manorville, who works for East Hampton Town.
She was among the commuters who had tried the first edition of the service, an experiment about a decade ago offered during the widening of County Road 39. The last time around, she said, “I read a lot of books on the train.”
“I really hope this works because a lot of effort went into this,” she said. “That’s abundantly clear.”
Those efforts involved lengthy negotiations with the Long Island Rail Road, as well as obtaining funding from New York State — led by New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., with help from New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, town representatives in East Hampton and Southampton and other advocates — to establish “last mile” shuttle service from the train stations to employment hubs such as town halls, business districts, schools, Main Street in Sag Harbor and more.
Erin King of East Quogue, who got on the early train in Hampton Bays, said she had heard from people who wanted to try the new service but couldn’t because the train times don’t line up with their schedules.
She said one reason she had decided to try it is she finds driving to her job working for East Hampton Town very stressful.
“Every day I feel like I’m taking my life in my hands,” Ms. King said. “People are lunatics on the road.”
Another passenger who got on at Hampton Bays, who would be getting off the train just 10 minutes later in Southampton, said he had done so for the environmental benefits of using public transportation.
“I’m really happy the train has started. I’m really supportive of it,” said Marty Shea, Southampton Town’s chief environmental analyst, who, like Ms. Miller, also used the commuter trains 10 years ago. “It cuts down on air pollution and carbon emissions. It makes the ride to work more enjoyable and relaxing.”
He urged employers and workers to find ways to take advantage of the commuter trains.
“I think as an incentive, companies should allow employees to work 15 minutes less per day to encourage them to use mass transportation,” Mr. Shea said.
Employer flexibility may be the key to making the system work. For Ms. Miller, who usually works four 10-hour shifts a week, even the early Speonk train gets her to work late.
“I’m trying to make it work,” she said. “I can make the time up. I’ll be working extra hours on Saturdays until June as a backup.”
The Hampton Hopper and Hampton Jitney provide the shuttle services. On Monday, Hampton Jitney chief executive officer Geoff Lynch himself greeted the lone passenger who transferred from the Speonk train to the shuttle at the Bridgehampton train station.
“We are very excited about participating in this endeavor,” Mr. Lynch said later in the day. “We need some type of traffic mitigation, and we think this is a good start. When spring and the nice weather hits, the trade parade will build up again and we’ll see more ridership on the South Fork Commuter Connection.”
Lin Restivo of Hampton Bays said she worries about the likelihood that the shuttle buses will get stuck in traffic, particularly when summer comes. That’s why she chose to walk from her job on Bridgehampton’s Main Street to the train station, instead of boarding the bus.
“That’s an issue they really need to address,” she said.
A passenger boarding the commuter connection at 6:16 a.m. at Speonk on Monday reached Sag Harbor’s Main Street by 7:21 a.m. — an hour and five minutes, skipping whatever trade parade volume would have clogged up Route 27 on the morning after a modest snowfall.
“People might not be in a rush to start this yet, because the traffic has not picked up,” Ms. Miller said. “It’ll be a big difference in April.”
A few riders encountered trouble en route back to Speonk later in the day. They were stranded at Hampton Bays, not realizing that was the last stop of the late commuter connection train, despite the published and publicized train schedules. The earlier westbound train would have taken them all the way to Speonk, but it didn’t line up with their work schedules.
That’s when strangers stepped up. In at least two instances, people with cars at Hampton Bays offered to help those who were stranded, bringing them to warm places like Starbucks to await further assistance. In one case, “further assistance” meant an Uber ride from Hampton Bays to Speonk, which cost $46.
A Long Island Rail Road spokesman said Tuesday there are no plans to extend the later westbound train to go all the way to Speonk because of the timing of a regularly scheduled eastbound train on the same line. Officials had initially tried to find a way but the Montauk line lacks sidings — except at Hampton Bays — to allow trains going in opposite directions to pass each other, the spokesman said.
Tom Neely, Southampton Town’s director of public transportation and traffic safety, said the town may add a shuttle bus from Hampton Bays to Speonk late in the day. He said there’s also a program called 511 Rideshare that could help, but it requires advance registration.
“Long-term, we hope to solve that problem with the railroad. It’s not inexpensive to run buses,” Mr. Neely said. “We are regrouping and having conversations about things like this.”
Those riders or would-be riders with issues to report can email SFCC@ehamptonny.gov or SFCC@southamptontownny.gov, or call the LIRR at (718) 217-LIRR.
Riders were stranded again on Tuesday, according to Ms. Restivo, who was among those who helped a stranger on Monday.
“We should all try to help each other,” she said. “It’s good to reach out and try and help that person who may need the help. That’s what people should do — help out your fellow man. We’re all in the same boat, we’re just walking different paths.”