By Celia Bernhardt | [email protected]
MTA officials celebrated Robert Free’s first full day as Acting President of the LIRR, as well as record high Long Island Railroad performance, at a media roundtable on Thursday, Oct. 19.
Robert Free joined Chair and CEO of the MTA Janno Leiber, Head of Policy and External Affairs John McCarthy, and Acting Chief Customer Officer Shanifah Rieara to facilitate the roundtable at Jamaica Central Control.
Free, a lifelong Long Island resident, lives with his wife and children in Port Jefferson Station. He’s also a true veteran of the Long Island Railroad. “I’ve been at the Long Island Railroad for over 31 years now,” he said, “starting as a station cleaner, which I’m extremely proud of.”
From there he climbed the ladder, taking on progressively higher-up positions. Just before this new venture as Acting President, he served as Senior Vice President of Operations, where he “deliver[ed] on numerous mega-projects” and oversaw day-to-day operations.
“All that time, I never imagined that someday I would be leading this incredible agency,” Free said.
Free spoke of lofty overall goals for the agency. “We don’t want to just provide train service,” he said. “We want to be world class service that our customers can be proud of.”
The LIRR’s central goals as an agency will be “safety, reliability, and customer experience,” Free added. “These priorities go hand in hand—as I always say, you can’t have an on time railroad if you don’t have a safe one…Our priorities will also aim to improve the customer experience by continuing to work on things such as having our train schedules meet customer needs, and focusing on the little things as well.”
The Long Island Railroad has been without a permanent president since former president Pillip Eng announced his retirement in February 2022. Since then, Catherine Rinaldi has served as both “interim” president for the LIRR and president of the Metro North. After she announced her retirement from the LIRR world, Free was tapped to take on the job.
He isn’t guaranteed that position—Leiber said that the MTA still has an obligation to go through a full hiring process with a national search.
“You don’t just hand people jobs of this importance,” Leiber said, before adding his praise for Free.
“Rob Free is running the Long Island Railroad. And he’s incredibly qualified to do it, and he has my support. So the fact that I’m going through a process that is normal and expected for a major job of this kind—I don’t want it to be communicated that I don’t have full confidence in Rob Free.”
As he looked back at his career, Free said that he had “absolutely” enjoyed cleaning stations when he started off.
“It’s been very touching, to be honest with you. Within the organization, people reaching out to me, and how thankful they are and how hopeful they are…I actually even had someone from Metro North reach out to me, a coach cleaner, who told me that I was an inspiration. And I tried to be a very humble man but it’s very touching to me, realizing you have that much of an impact on people’s lives.”