From cleaner to leader, Rob Free becomes new LIRR president as interim head leaves


LIRR veteran Robert Free will soon lead the commuter railroad after its interim president, Catherine Rinaldi, announced Monday she’s leaving the post.

Rinaldi, who has held the position since February 2022, presided over the completion of several significant LIRR projects, including the addition of a third track on the railroad’s Main Line in October and the opening of Grand Central Madison at the start of this year.

“With these important accomplishments under our belt, it’s a good time to begin the process of my transitioning out of my role as interim president,” she said at a meeting of the MTA’s board Monday.

The job of leading the nation’s busiest commuter rail system will now be passed to Free, who’s currently senior vice president of LIRR operations and a three-decade veteran of the railroad.

“Rob has served the railroad with extraordinary dedication for many years, starting as a cleaner and working his way up through positions of increasing responsibility,” Rinaldi said.

Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Catherine Rinaldi boards a train at Penn Station on her first day as interim president of the Long Island Rail Road on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022.

Free is expected to take the reins next month.

“It is an honor to be able to put in this position,” he told the board. “I just want everyone to know that I will try my hardest to make the best of the railroad and the MTA as a whole.”

Rinaldi will remain the president of Metro-North, a position she’s held since 2018.

She will also be assuming a new role providing “strategic advice on cross-railroad matters,” Rinaldi said.

Labor leaders and transit advocates alike welcomed the decision Monday, praising Rinaldi for her tenure.

“Cathy Rinaldi stepped up during some very challenging times for LIRR,” stated Anthony Simon, head of SMART, the railroad’s largest union. “Running two of the busiest railroads in the country is no easy task.”

MTA Metro-North President and Interim Long Island Rail Road President Catherine Rinaldi and Senior Vice President of Operations Rob Free at Penn Station on Friday, May 26, 2023 as the first LIRR Cannonball service of the season departs for Montauk.(Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

Marc A. Hermann / MTA

Rinaldi and Free at Penn Station on Friday, May 26 as the first LIRR Cannonball service of the season departs for Montauk.

Simon said the railroads need separate leadership, however, and he welcomed Free.

“Rob elevated through the ranks and he knows and appreciates the workforce,” he said. “I look forward to working with him.”

Gerard Bringmann, head of the LIRR Commuter Council and a nonvoting member of the MTA board, also voiced optimism about the leadership change.

“This is the perfect time to turn the LIRR leadership job over to Rob Free, a seasoned LIRR vet who knows the railroad from the bottom up and has shown he cares about commuters and workers alike,” Bringmann said in a statement.

“He knows his stuff and has seen the railroad’s operations through some of the biggest changes in generations. We’re glad to have him in this role.”

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