LIRR Taps a New Leader Who Rose Through the Ranks

Rising through the ranks, Robert Free, a 32-year LIRR employee is the second interim president since February 2022, and wants to emphasize safety, reliability with an improved customer experience

| 22 Oct 2023 | 03:58

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chair and CEO Janno Lieber announced that Robert Free is going to be the new acting president of the nation’s largest commuter railroad, replacing Catherine Rinaldi, who had run it for over a year, while also heading Metro-North simultaneously. He will oversee the passenger railroad’s 7,000 employees which takes in 70 million yearly riders.

Refreshingly, Free is not an Ivy-league MBA, but a Port Jefferson native who started working at the LIRR 31 years ago as a station cleaner. One of his co-workers was Anthony Simon, the General Chair of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation (SMART) Union, which is one of the LIRR’s eight unions. Acting President Free previously served as senior vice president, operations at the LIRR, after his tenure as the railroad’s chief transportation officer.

“Rob Free has seen and done it all during his long career at the LIRR,” said MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber. “He’s led efforts on system safety and customer experience while helping to open critical projects like Grand Central Madison, Main Line Third Track and the first new LIRR station in 50 years at Elmont-UBS Arena.”

As acting president of the Long Island Rail Road, Free has said he will prioritize three things; safety for customers and employees, reliability, and improving the customer experience. On his punch list? Oversight on the continuing recovery of LIRR ridership following the COVID-19 pandemic with necessary schedule adjustments.

The changes will have to adapt to new ridership patterns, brought about by the service expansion created by the new Main Line Third Track and Grand Central Madison opening earlier this year.

Like any other top rail official, there is a learning curve.

Interim president Free will need to intimately know all about planned future capital projects and programs in coming years, not to mention the MTA 20-year plan announced a few weeks ago. The ogre of excessive overtime by LIRR employees is something else he will need to deal with, which was not curbed by his predecessors. This line item means less money for capital projects to keep commuters happy. Another factor, shared with other MTA divisions, is fare evasion, complicated by rush hour and special events when riders are forced to stand all over the commuter cars. At these times, on-board train staff cannot collect fares. Critically, for Manhattanites, the East River tunnel remediation will affect Penn Station train frequency until 2027.

The new leader, a married father of four children, has lived for 25 years in Port Jefferson Station, and commutes from his home by train daily.

Rinaldi will continue her current role as President of Metro-North and Senior Advisor, MTA Railroads.

Noted Free. “I am always looking at ways to improve the customer experience, from planning your trip, by improving the TrainTime app, and making sure train service is meeting our customer’s needs. From the moment you arrive to the moment you depart our facilities I want it to be the best experience possible.”