Stony Brook’s international students struggle with Long Island Rail Road

By Jim Lo

Growing up in Egypt, Abdelrahman Salama wasn’t used to taking the train. Uber is the major transportation system there, but when he enrolled in college, other students assured him that going into the city would be easy.

“They told me it would only take 45 minutes,” Salama said.  “It is a two-hour commute where sometimes it gets really tiring.”

A normal train ride into the city takes 95 to 120 minutes from Stony Brook University, but recent data from the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) shows that on-time performance has dropped to 88.1 percent in March 2018.

“I think the trains are really slow, and the schedules aren’t frequent,” Kenneth Li, a junior from China studying mechanical engineering, said. “It takes a lot of time especially when it comes to transferring.” Growing up in Beijing, Kenneth is used to taking high speed trains that travel at 190 mph.

Many international students are unable to attend Admitted Students Day in the Spring, where incoming freshmen are given a general understanding of life at Stony Brook. One of the components is getting familiar with campus, including the walk to the train station.

All international students are required to attend a 5-day orientation a week before school, where orientation leaders summarize important dates and events on campus, and answer other questions.

“The only thing I learned about the transportation system is how to take a bus to Target and Walmart,” Rhea Browne, a junior from Dubai studying political science, said.

Without fundamental knowledge about how the train works, some international students only learn after making mistakes.

“I took the wrong train last Friday and found four other foreign students from Stony Brook University,” Namita Chaturvedi, a junior from India studying psychology who was commuting from campus to the city, said. “They barely spoke English, nor did they know they were on the wrong train.”

Chaturvedi arrived a minute before the train left, after the announcements for track changes had been made.

The LIRR created an app called Train Time. It allows users to search for train schedules four months in advance, and sends out alert messages in regards to delays, cancellations and reschedules in 2016.

“I know at least five people who couldn’t use the app on their phones,” Chaturvedi said. “We wouldn’t know any changes [that were] made to our trains if we are already on our way to the stations.”

The LIRR is the largest and oldest commuting railroad in America that still operates under its original name since 1834. With an annual $1.6 billion operating budget, it transports 89.2 million passengers annually. 

The transportation system carries over 301,000 daily passengers on 735 trains through 11 rail lines and 124 stations. With over 700 miles, the train reaches Manhattan with Penn station, touches Brooklyn with Atlantic Terminal, and the easternmost of Long Island with Montauk.

“I use the LIRR very often, it’s my most commonly used transportation system,” Deeya Sonalkar, a sophomore from India studying biology who visits New York City at least twice a month, said.

The Stony Brook train station offers two full service ticket machines and two daily ticket machines, but only one next to the tracks. Not everyone has the app to purchase paperless tickets, and some have no choice but to enter a train without a ticket.

“One time, I had to buy a ticket on the train that costs $7 more because the person in front of me wouldn’t give up on swiping his broken credit card on the ticket machine,” Sonalkar said.

With minimal experience, international students often have a hard time figuring out where they are during a train ride. Though there are announcements before every stop, they are not always easy to understand.

“The announcements are so muffled.” Nicki Wong, a junior from Hong Kong studying biology, said. “It’s really hard for those who aren’t fluent in English to understand.”

Growing up in Hong Kong, Wong is used to having announcements that are broadcast through multiple speakers on trains and in stations. Maps are equipped with blinkers in carts so that passengers are fully aware of which station they are in.

Though foreign students  have trouble with the transportation system, local residents think the issue is exaggerated,

“We all have phones. If you’re not sure where you are, [you can] just search it up on Google Maps,” Mathew Walker, a resident of Smithtown, said.

As a junior in college, Wong thinks that the easiest way to conquer her fear of the LIRR is to take the trains frequently.

“It takes practice, now I’ll know which station the train is taking me to by observing the surrounding area,” Wong said.