Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, transit reporter for the Village Voice. If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway.
As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.
Thank you to everyone who filled out the survey last week. If you didn’t get around to it, you can still do so here. It’s been really informative.
One of the most common requests I’ve gotten so far is for a section on actionable items to improve the state of the subway. The reason I haven’t done this already is because, well, there isn’t much you can do at all.
This is very much by design. Without going into the subway’s entire history, one of the key elements of the New York City Transit Authority when it was formed in 1953 was that it was not directly answerable to the public. This allowed them to raise fares, cut service, and take other measures considered necessary that politicians had been fearful of doing. As such, your inability to vote on MTA issues or executives is very much a feature, not a bug, of the city’s transit system.
Still, there are a few things you can do. Here’s a quick list:
VOTE! Very few New Yorkers vote. You don’t have to obsessively track every political race, but when election season rolls around, take a few minutes to read up on your local candidates and then VOTE. Signal Problems will help when the time comes, but in the meantime make sure you’re registered to vote and keep in mind that you have to be a member of the Democratic (or Republican) party to vote in the primaries. And when you do ultimately vote, remember that the governor controls the MTA and your state senators have far more oversight regarding the MTA than city councilpersons.
Write to your elected officials. I am deeply skeptical of the impact tweeting angrily at Cuomo, the MTA, or other elected officials can have. Instead, do something that takes only a tiny bit more effort and write to them through more formal channels.
The State Senate website makes it very easy to find out who your senator is and to write them.
You can also use Resistbot—which makes writing to your elected officials stupid easy—to write to the governor’s office, too.
For surface-level transit issues like bike and bus infrastructure, write to your city council member. The city council home page has a handy searchable map for finding out who yours is and how to contact them. This is particularly important if you’re into bus-only or bike lanes.
Get involved with the transit advocacy community. This doesn’t necessarily require a huge time or monetary investment. I have a quick guide to come organizations that do good work towards the bottom of the Subway Knowledge Base. Getting involved with one (or several) of these groups will multiply the efficacy of the above items.
If you think I’m forgetting something, let me know.
This Week In #CuomosMTA
The subway made international news this week when the 145th St 1 station became a waterfall and the Bryant Park station had to be temporarily closed because of a pretty severe leak right where the train meets the platform. In general, Monday morning was a wet mess, with station leaks all over the place. Some took this to be more than just a metaphor for the general state of the subway and actually the result of its neglect.
But it’s not that simple. First of all, the city got hit with a lot of rain; more than an inch and a half within a very short period on Monday morning to cap off an all-night shower. The subway wasn’t the only part of the city that was flooding; to wit, the 145th St waterfall was not coming from within the subway, but from the street. That afternoon, I went for a run in Prospect Park and the top of the Long Meadow (the field just south of Grand Army Plaza) was basically a lake. In another part of the park, I saw one young kid in full rain gear playing in a puddle that came up to her waist.
And as 2nd Ave Sagas noted, there may in fact be signs of progress here:
Just want to circle back to this again quickly: Remember the August 2007 rain storm that completely paralyzed the subway? That didn't happen today! That's good progress.April 16, 2018
But the biggest disruption struck the city’s subway system, where most lines were shut down during the morning rush when the water knocked out signals, stranding or delaying millions of riders. Though the Metropolitan Transportation Authority restored most of them during the day, a half-dozen were still out of commission during the evening rush hour and the agency said some problems could last into today.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to review how the transit system had failed after a sudden downpour for the third time in seven months. At a separate news briefing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg referred to “chaos with the subway system,” but refrained from judging the agency’s performance.
By and large, service functioned normally on Monday. I am loathe to cut the MTA a break when it comes to excuses for delays—it is very much their job to minimize all delays no matter the cause—but some things truly are out of their control. A good litmus test is whether they are the only city service experiencing the issue. I do not accept “rain” as an excuse for poor subway service because everything else functions in the rain; I do, however, think Monday went beyond that, as many streets and parks were also flooded.
Which makes it all the more impressive service was as normal as it was. Overall, there was nothing resembling the system-wide meltdown from 2007. Hell, there were other mornings this week that had worse service. Ironically, what got labeled as another entry in the FIX THE SUBWAY narrative was actually a sign that the MTA did fix something.
Also This Week In #CuomosMTA
East Side Access’s cost went up by another billion, which means it will now cost a whopping $11.2 billion. Nobody believes this will be the last cost increase before service begins in December 2022.
I want to linger on this a bit. $11.2 billion for a project that will almost entirely benefit non-city residents. The original cost estimate was $3.5 billion. The mere fact that there aren’t a series of hearings and investigations into ESA speaks to the toxic apathy towards astronomical construction costs from both Albany and the city.
The MTA is blaming Amtrak for this latest increase, but also acknowledges they made mistakes such as (via Newsday):
Setting unrealistic budget and timeline estimates “without really knowing the complexity” of the project
Unnecessarily splitting the project into 50 different contracts that have frequently conflicted with each other
Making discretionary design changes after the project was well underway
Overpaying for some contracts that were not competitively bid and even at one point ordering steel beams that were the wrong size
Difficult to fathom how outrageous this is.
For <1/2 the cost (€3.7b), Paris is extending RER E regional rail, with 5 miles of subway, 3 massive new subway stations, + 29 miles of renovated railway. Line will serve 2x as many passengers as entire LIRR. https://t.co/4hFJdkUf5T https://t.co/VrVrBlAfQf
News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood
Jessica Murray wrote about her experience showing Andy Byford the various subway accessibility issues people deal with every day. The whole post is well worth your time—I am consistently blown away how unfair this city is to people with accessibility issues—but I want to specifically highlight one anecdote:
A moment that stood out for us all of us was when Jennifer, whose cerebral palsy affects her speech, ordered her breakfast. The person taking the order addressed Andy to ask what Jennifer wanted. Having experienced this her whole life, she had her response ready, “I can speak for myself.” After we sat down, he made a remark about it and told us he couldn’t imagine regularly receiving that kind of treatment. This moment really said the most about the kind of person he is, and we left our subway ride feeling like we might have an important and influential ally on our side.
NYCT released their findings about the F/G Bergen St signal problems that have caused a multitude of issues lately. I appreciate the transparency, but the 1.5 page report boils down to: shit broke. I went into more detail at the Voice about what exactly these signals are, why they break so much harder than every other signal problem, and what it says about the relentless cries for signal modernization. It might not be the lesson you’d expect.
If you’re looking for a very, very brief primer on the history of the subway and why it’s been so hard to manage the past 70 years or so, this is a good place to start.
The subway claims another victim.
Here are some sweet photos of the subway from the days of yore.
The Astoria N/W station may be getting elevators in 2019.
From the Department of You Can’t Make This Shit Up: Cuomo held a press conference to literally show how waving a magic wand will fix the subway.
In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better
This week's estimate: still 2030
I will update this again once Byford releases his corporate plan and/or Grand Signaling Plan.
Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender
Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.
2 - No service between E 180 Street and Dyre Av
4 - All service is local-only in Manhattan
7 - No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards
A C - multiple diversions
Uptown service is express-only between 59 St-Columbus Circle and 168 Street
Queens-bound service is express-only in Brooklyn
C - No service between 145 Street and 168 Street
E - Downtown service runs via M line between 5 Av - 53 St and W4 Street
F - No service between Church Av and Coney Island
J - No service between Broadway Junction and Marcy Av
M - No mainline service between Broadway Junction and Essex St
N Q R - Manahattan Bridge / Whitehall Tunnel switcheroo (Sat. only)
Manhattan-bound N R trains run via Manhattan Bridge
Manhattan-bound Q trains run via Whitehall St
2 - No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av
4 6 - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Grand Central
A - Downtown service is express-only between 125 Street and Canal St
D - Uptown service runs via A line between W 4 Street and 59 St-Columbus Circle
E - Jamaica Ctr.-bound service is express-only in Queens
G - No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Square
Q - All service runs via N line between Prince St and DeKalb Av.
Subway Detective Agency
Have a weird question about the subway you’ve always wanted to know? Send it to email@example.com.
From virtually every New Yorker on Twitter: What’s the deal with the D/F service swap?
I somehow neglected to put the explanation for the Manhattan D/F line swap that occurred a few weeks ago here, but it happened again this week, so here it is. From someone in the know:
There's track work on the D line between 59th and Rockefeller Center. Because of this, the D has to run south via the 8th Ave line. After West 4th, it can switch back to the 6th Ave line. However, the link from the 8th Ave line to the 6th Ave line and vice versa only connects the local tracks of each line. There's no way for a southbound 6th Ave local train to switch to the express track south of the merge with the 8th Ave line. So the D is forced to stay on the 6th Ave local, which leads to the F line. There's no way to get back to the D line. So they're forced to send the D's via the F, so the F's are rerouted via the D to fill in.
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World
Here’s the Mayor of London riding the tube to work and reading a newspaper by himself.
This is from last year, but I just saw it: Japanese kitten trains!
Companies are bidding on building an O’Hare Express from the Chicago airport to the Loop. The mayor says it will be entirely privately financed. Uhhhhhuh.
MTA Mention of the Week
Hi Luke, thanks for letting us know. We're sending a crew to get this fixed ASAP. ^MWApril 18, 2018
Just want to say thank you for coming out and fixing the problem, I was a little skeptical of it being fixed and I was just fed lip service, but within 24hrs it was fixed!!! A little bit faith has been restored in the NYC subway system!! pic.twitter.com/cUtzXIqRO9April 19, 2018
Dog in a Bag
Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Seth Rosenthal
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