MINEOLA, N.Y. (CBSNewYork)Long Island Rail Road is begging its riders to come back.

Ridership is just a fraction of what it was before the pandemic, and leaders are asking the public to get off the roads and back on safely disinfected train cars.

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Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and LIRR President Phil Eng hopped a train to drive the message that it’s safe to get back on board.

“I can tell you today that the Long Island Rail Road has never been safer, it’s never been cleaner and it’s never been a more reliable commute than it has been in its history,” Eng said.

The message comes as road traffic is back, tolls have increased and vaccinations are climbing.

Curran says a return to mass transit will fuel the region’s recovery.

“Getting back to normal safely means taking the train whenever you can,” she said.

As CBS2’s Carolyn Gusoff reports, train cars are disinfected daily, air is filtered every 12 minutes and, for now, there’s plenty of room to spread out.

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But Charlton D’Souza, the head of LIRR Passengers United, says the safety issue is not fully resolved.

“I saw four people in one car not wearing masks. That’s a problem to me,” he said. “The train crews are frustrated because they’re having a hard time. I think at this point, the MTA police department needs to start issuing tickets.”

This time last year, ridership had plummeted to 3%. It is back now, but still only about a quarter of pre-pandemic levels.

Many riders say they’re happy to never go back to a five-day-a-week commute.

“Every day, it was, like, three hours total commute time, so the difference in sleep and all that has been huge,” commuter Patrick McDonnel said.

Working from home has been a game changer, but that worries some railroad advocates.

“The average commuter is getting two to three hours of their life back every day, five days a week, so it’s the reality. It’s going to be a problem for the railroad in that it’s going to be lost farebox revenue,” said LIRR Commuter Council Chairman Gerry Bringmann. “We will be lucky to get back to 80% in a couple of years.”

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That could hurt service and increase fares, but Eng says the railroad can accommodate the new normal, welcoming riders back off-hours and inter-island for work and play.

Carolyn Gusoff