LONG ISLAND (WABC) -- The LIRR's new acting president, Robert Free, kicked off the first day of his job Thursday.
Free takes over the nation's largest commuter railroad after Catherine Rinaldi, who has served as both Metro North President and LIRR interim president for the past 18 months, announced she stepped down last month from her LIRR role to focus solely on Metro North.
"It's unbelievable, and I have to pinch myself sometimes, as well. I never thought in a million years that I would be in this role, but I genuinely care about the Long Island Rail Road," said Free.
He started his career with the LIRR as one of the railroad station's cleaners. Free gradually moved up through the ranks over the last three decades and served as the LIRR's senior vice president of operations for the last three years.
"It's been an unbelievable journey. But as the opportunities came to me, I seized upon them and just tried to make the best of it and be the best that I could to help the railroad be the best that it could be," he said.
Some Long Island commuters, elected officials and the Nassau and Suffolk MTA Board representatives were increasingly vocal about having a the LIRR having its own dedicated president, one they said would be more attentive to their concerns.
Free, who has been with the LIRR for 32 years, technically takes over as acting president as the railroad searches for a permanent president.
But he is very much in the running for the job. The MTA hopes the search will be completed by March.
Free says he has seen a lot of change come to the LIRR over the last three decades, but it continues to face new challenges. The biggest challenge he sees is streamlining the new schedules to make shorter commute times, and fewer transfers for riders.
He knows how commuters feel, as he takes the LIRR daily from Port Jefferson Station to Jamaica Station.
"His operational experience is very important. Him taking the train every day, right? Seeing the employees, seeing the members is a big difference," said Anthony Simon, chairman of Sheet Metal Air Rail Transportation.
Free has the support of the MTA's chairman and will likely be the leading candidate for the position when a permanent president is appointed early next year.