Long Island Rail Road cuts bar carts to focus on service improvements

By Nikolas Donadic

A tall, slender man sat in his black bomber jacket while he waited for his train home from work in the middle of a crowded Penn Station. The dark circles under Robert O’Shea’s eyes were pronounced, but he appeared alert as he sipped an energy drink.

The Mass Transit Authority (MTA) permanently discontinued the Long Island Rail Road’s bar cart service, on March 27.

“It’s completely ridiculous honestly,” O’Shea said of the decision. “You know how many people just come home, or [are] on their way home from a long, hard day’s work, and they just want to get a beer on the way?”

The bar carts were small carts or booths that operated on the train platforms and sold alcohol to passengers.

“Denying them that simple life pleasure?” O’Shea continued. “What’s the point? What’re they getting out of it?”

Prior to the March decision, just five carts were being operated at Penn Station, along with one apiece at the Jamaica, Atlantic Terminal and Hunterspoint Avenue stations.

“This service was subject to various reviews that led us to conclude that it’s not our core competency and that we should stay focused on providing safe and reliable transportation,” Aaron Donovan, an LIRR Spokesperson, said. “Other retailers meet this market.”

This decision came in the midst of widespread complaints about the railroad’s core service, revolving around delays and general timeliness, which Donovan acknowledged

It was seen as in the MTA’s best interest to focus its time and resources on resolving those issues, Donovan said.

The issue of delays was so notable that Congressman Todd Kaminsky of New York’s 9th District made an official request, in January, that the MTA review the delays and cancellations. There were over 400 late trains and over 50 cancellations in the district alone in December.

“They [the MTA] know better than I do how many people rely on them to get to work and to get home everyday,” commuter Antoine Qualls said, as he glanced down at his watch. “So who cares if some people can’t get their drinks? Boo hoo.”

Former bartenders were not terminated. Instead, they were offered other positions with the railroad.  Nevertheless, some of them were not happy.

“I’ve had 20 great years,” Dave Telehany, a former Track 19 bartender, told the New York Post during his final week of work. “Some of these people are part of my family.”

While this removal of the last remaining bar carts may have surprised passengers like O’Shea, others were not so taken aback.  

“This is nothing new,” commuter Jamie Albert said, as she sipped from a can in a brown bag. “If you wanna drink on the train, you still can, you just gotta get your stuff before you get in here.”

The MTA decision’s was not unprecedented, as the organization suspended Metro-North bar carts last year.

An internal MTA investigation into those carts began in December of 2016 after a vendor complained of missing funds. The result was a permanent suspension of the Metro-North carts, which played a direct role in the eventual suspension of the final LIRR carts, Donovan noted.

“[I] feel bad for the bartenders and the folks who look forward to a pop before heading home,” Jim Gannon, of the Transport Workers Union, said.

Although, the Transport Workers Union deals predominantly with New York City transit workers and a majority of LIRR employees are members of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, or SMART Union. SMART Union’s Chairman on the Long Island Rail Road declined to comment on this matter.

The MTA has not been shy about re-evaluating its stances on alcohol in the past.

It reviewed its alcohol policy as a whole towards the end of 2006. A six-month review by the MTA Board Alcohol Policy Task Force concluded that no significant changes were necessary going forward. The task force found that the MTA’s policy provided passengers a benefit without compromising their safety.

The MTA first began to restrict alcoholic beverages on its trains in May of 2012, when alcohol was banned on LIRR trains leaving Penn Station from 12 to 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as on all LIRR platforms during those hours.

The motivation behind such was multiple drunken attacks on train conductors in March of that year. MTA police enforced the ban.

Then Metro-North and LIRR prohibited alcohol on trains on St. Patrick’s Day on March 14, 2016. This policy also led to the temporary closure of the bar carts at Penn Station.

“That was such a trash move by them,” train passenger Jordan Danski said of the ban. “I mean, what’s the fun in St. Patty’s Day if I can’t get a little tipsy?”

The MTA also moved to ban alcohol from Metro-North and LIRR trains during SantaCon, a popular Christmas-themed pub crawl in New York City.

“I’ve never thought of the train as especially un-family friendly in anyway,” O’Shea said of the MTA’s trend of cutting back on drinking on the rails.

“I do not think we should be serving alcohol,” Mitchell Pally, an MTA board member for over ten years, told the New York Post. While he understands passengers frustration, the MTA is not in the alcohol business, he reiterated.

Travelers have plenty of options at Penn Station to fill their alcohol needs. However, not every station is as packed with stores and outlets as Penn Station is.

Bar carts offered consumers a convenience that they may not be afforded elsewhere.

“I think that people who were getting stuff from bar carts were pressed for time and that’s why they weren’t going to a local bar,” O’Shea said. “I think if they had the option they probably would’ve.”

While the change appears to have angered some passengers, others are taking the move in stride.

“Is it the end of the world? No, of course not,” Don Brocksa, a New York City bartender, said. “The bottom line is, if these people really want to get a drink, then they’ll either make time for it or find a way to fit it in.”

Athough in Brocksa’s mind the LIRR might be better off letting people drink on the trains.

“Although, if they think the complaints were bad before, just wait ‘til the old drinkers sober up and realize how long they’re really waiting for those trains,” he said.