Promised Improvements Are Illusions

2 Reasons Why the Subway Mess Won't Be Fixed Soon

Updated 44 weeks ago David Stone
Governor Cuomo proudly rides the new 2nd Avenue Subway, last year.
Governor Cuomo proudly rides the new 2nd Avenue Subway, last year.

A report this week in the New York Times had the same effect as wiping mud off a window into the universe of MTA screwups and how the cumbersome State agency responds to self-inflicted wounds by pointing fingers at riders, publicly, and punishing its own employees internally. It explains how fixes are blocked by earlier mistakes and neglect.

Overcrowding on Roosevelt Island platforms ten years ago, although even worse today, was bad enough that, going to work on weekday mornings, I devised a strategy for wedging my body onto the next F Train by predicting where the most people might squeeze off when it arrived, thus, opening up space. (Best location: at the elevator. Probably still is.)

Researching an article for the Main Street WIRE then, with Steve Shane still running RIOC, I brought up the commuting challenge, especially in view of new Southtown buildings planned and under construction. Cornell Tech wasn't even a twinkle in Michael Bloomberg's eye yet.

Why not just send a couple more trains per hour through Roosevelt Island? 

Then, as now, there were always longish waits between most rush hour trains while on other lines trains ran came into stations more quickly. The 7, for example, had just 90 second intervals at Grand Central.

"They can't," Shane insisted. He had to insist twice because I clearly wasn't buying.

He'd already pursued it with the MTA, like RIOC a State agency run by the Governor.

I thought he was just doing bureaucratic duty to protect the business. He wasn't. The MTA really couldn't, and they still can't.

Similarly, in the past year, I suggested rerouting a couple less in demand M Trains down the F Line during rush. Katarina Matic, Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright's Chief of Staff at the time, thought it was a great idea. I had hopes that my minor brainstorm would find its way into the bureaucratic web and bring changes.

It didn't.

There's always a reason.

That reason is a botched MTA response to a 1995 collision in Brooklyn that killed a train operator and injured 50 passengers. 

System-wide, MTA began installing new switches and modifying old ones to prevent speeding. When a train passes over a switch, it triggers a timer. If it gets to the next switch too fast, it automatically brakes the train. 

Sounds good in theory, but with the MTA, predictably, it was also a lot of posturing to create the appearance of taking effective action when in reality the solution created more problems than it solved. Eventually, rather than own up, the MTA decided to punish operators and blame the public.

According to the Times report, "In reality, many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit."

In other words, superficial improvements for show and, in the background, the usual MTA failure at the fundamentals, resulting in delays without making things better.

Because blaming union employees is easier than accepting fault, the MTA began penalizing train operators after they tripped  switches more than once, taking away vacation days and forcing retirements, even though the signals are not reliable.

But delays and water tell a different story on Roosevelt Island and elsewhere.
But delays and water tell a different story on Roosevelt Island and elsewhere.

The result? Many operators slow down for all signals because you never know when one is malfunctioning. They can reportedly be forced into retirement after a few as two incidents.

“I’m not playing with my job,” one operator told the Times. “Our instructors are the ones telling us, ‘Don’t go by what’s posted, go 10 to 15 miles lower,’ instead of just having someone fix it or adjust it."

For years, the MTA blamed resulting slowdowns on passengers and overcrowding. You may recall the narrative, played out all over the local media, that the subway system's success caused a massive build up in riders jamming onto trains. The influx of new passengers stalled traffic by preventing doors from being closed, forcing trains to stay too long in stations.

Sounded reasonable, didn't it?

But then, ridership leveled and even dropped off a bit, and the delays worsened. 

It wasn't the passengers. It was the MTA. It wasn't really the operators either.

As most of us live in the real world, not the peculiar, insular universe of self-protecting government bureaucracy, it's easier for us to see how failure to accept fault and responsibility lends itself to ineffective solutions. It's not so simple when unelected government officials, more accustomed to shifting blame than shouldering responsibility, run the show.

There is no coherent plan in place to fix the switch problem the MTA created two decades ago or, worse yet, to assure that ongoing maintenance keeps it fixed. But you can get WiFi, most of the time.

The second problem's more confounding.

Track work is inherently dangerous, and after two workers died in separate 2007 incidents, the MTA put together a safety task force.

The task force, the Times article says, "...recommended new slow zones adjacent to tracks where crews were working; an increase in the minimum crew size; and a longer, more careful setup process for work crews."

Worker safety is paramount. The new rules resulted in 20% more delays caused by track work. Virtually any rider can live with inconvenience when it saves lives, but the trouble with the MTA is, it didn't.

In the past 5 years, 3 more workers have died.

By comparison, London's Underground, roughly the same size and age as the NYC Subway, has not had a track work fatality in 20 years.

The MTA declined to answer specific questions from the Times about track work generated delays.


The MTA has finally stopped blaming overcrowding for delays, but they haven't really come face-to-face with reality. Only 7% of the recently announce $836 million Subway Action Plan is set aside for signal maintenance.

Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo, ultimately responsible for the subways, was mocked on Twitter by challenger Cynthia Nixon for telling reporters last September, “I would venture to say if you were looking very carefully, you would see improvement already.”

Since then, the number of delayed trains has increased by at least 8%.

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