Much Ado About Nothing?

MTA says the F Train is doing better: Have you noticed?

Updated 19 weeks ago David Stone
MTA says the F Train is doing better: Have you noticed?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

In June, the New York Times published The Subway Got a Little Faster, essentially a bow to an MTA public relations gambit to make riding their trains seem better without really getting much in results. Roosevelt Islanders may be surprised at MTA claims that F Trains are among the most improved, maybe because the change is barely perceptible.

Related: Roosevelt Island's Third World Subway Station

Only E Trains are more improved than Fs, according to a metric "additional train time" that measures how much behind schedule subway rides are.

Although the idea that subways have schedules falls close to surreal, the MTA actually maintains an expectation for how long it should take to get from Point A to Point B. If your train takes longer, that's additional train time.

But in true bureaucratic fashion, the more important metric for most of us, the time we spend idling in a filthy, leaky station waiting for the next, often overcrowded F Train, is a separate item. For riders, the full picture is the one that matters. For the MTA, it's all about an inevitably expensive team of statisticians churning out irrelevant data.

Without improving performance.

So, for the record, the MTA says, if you ride the F Train from its start in Queens all the way to the Brooklyn terminal, you'll get there 57 seconds faster than last year. As if anyone actually does that.

Don't all stand up and applaud at once.

What's wrong with the F Train?

Starting with the caveat that, for all its faults, the subway is still the best way to get around town, its flaws for Roosevelt Islanders are well-known and, arguably, easy to solve with a little imagination and a big reduction in bureaucratic dithering.

  • Not enough trains: Uniquely dependent on mass transit because of our location in the middle of a tidal strait, Roosevelt Islanders know there aren't enough trains coming through our station, especially -- but not exclusively -- during rush hours. Anyone who buys the MTA claim that the tracks feeding Roosevelt Island are maxed out needs to take a long look up the darkened tunnel without a train in sight, a common rush hour experience here.
  • Unpredictable arrivals: If the MTA has anything like a schedule, how come nobody's seen it? All they can tell us is when the next train is expected, based on what's happening along the line, not anything like a schedule. And why do the intervals vary by such large margins, even on weekends? This suggests an absence of active management.
  • Lack of information: The State agency touts its MyMTA app, which reliably informs riders of what's going on system-wide. But the alerts that are a critical piece remain unreliable. Like the old Henny Youngman joke: "Want to drive someone crazy? Send a telegram that says, 'Ignore first wire.'", the alert system often sends out a message that reads something like "F Train service has resumed following an incident in Queens," without there having been anything preceding it.
  • Filth: The Gothamist and others, including The Daily, have document the long term ground in filth in the subway system. We see it every day. No city claiming to be the greatest in the world should tolerate a level of neglect that exceeds Third World experience. It's disgusting.

As I write this, we're in the midst of a series of escalator breakdowns in the Roosevelt Island Station. The MTA's formal response: "Non-MTA NYC Transit Equipment; outage reported to responsible party."

The term "responsible" is treated to an extraordinary level of flexibility.

F Train Solutions

Of course, it's unfair to complain without offering suggestions, especially since the MTA lives in an imagination desert.

  • More trains: It's simple, but the MTA resists, has for years, claiming that the tracks feeding Roosevelt Island are at their limit. This is nonsense, and the ease with which the system reroutes trains when needed, sending multiple lines through the station proves it. Alternatives: Flip a couple of under-utilized M Trains through Roosevelt Island, instead of down the 53rd Street Tunnel, each hour during rush. Currently, the system does this to increase service on the more high profile Q Line. Why not flip an occasional R, too? Why not establish a shuttle between, say, 57th and 21st Streets?

At a recent Town Hall, the best idea an MTA official could come up with for solving Roosevelt Island's subway overcrowding was adding an additional entrance. Make that an expensive additional entrance, this being the State agency that never saw a price tag it didn't like.

It's hard, sometimes, to suppress laughter.

This solution is like dealing with your apartment being too small by adding a backdoor, one that costs more than you can imagine, and not maintaining it.

It doesn't solve anything, but it has the advantage of bureaucratic consistency, wantonly throwing money at a problem and never accounting for its effectiveness.

Don't give up hope. When transportation failures cramp growth expected along the F Lines predicted growth as a technology corridor, a solution will be found, far too late and far too expensive, but at least we've got that to look forward to.

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