February 16, 2018: A Plan for Planned Work

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, a freelance writer covering many subjects, one of which is transit 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.

A quick note before we get down to business this week. I’ve partnered with the excellent Subway Weekender website to bring you the very best in planned service change guides in lieu of my janky summaries. I really think you are going to dig his work. In addition to super-simple service advisories, Lance makes custom subway maps for each weekend and week’s late-night changes. Subway Weekender has been my go-to resource for getting around planned service, so I’m thrilled to now share it with you all and include it in the newsletter.

One Saturday a few months ago, my girlfriend and I were at Grand Central waiting to catch a Metro North train to Connecticut. We had a few minutes to kill, so we went to Joe’s in the Graybar passage. As we approached from the terminal, the sound of a cello grew louder. My girlfriend and I looked at each other in puzzlement. The music was spectacular, clearly the product of a professional or high-level student. But more than the skill itself, the acoustics were absolutely stunning. From 100 feet away, we could hear each note as if it was emanating from headphones in our ears. The sound spilled down and filled the passage like a cloud rolling over a mountaintop.

Just across the hallway from Joe’s, a male cellist in a tuxedo, probably in his early 30s, was strumming along. Leaning against his cello case in front of him was a small black placard:

Since 1985, the MTA’s Arts & Design program has sponsored Music Under New York, “to bring joyous and engaging music to the commuting public.” According to their website, 350 soloists put on 7,500 annual performances across 30 locations.

Not just anyone can perform. Every year, auditions are held at Grand Central and are judged by a “panel of professionals, consisting of representatives from the music industry, cultural institutions,” and more. Each performer gets five minutes to impress the judges.

After we got our coffee, we couldn’t peel ourselves away from the cellist. We leaned against the opposite wall and soaked in every note. Being a Saturday, the passage was mostly empty. Only a few travelers scuttled by, but none of them stopped. While we listened to the music, I looked up and noticed the ceiling I had walked under countless times before was a work of art unto itself. It felt like our own private concert in one of New York’s great spaces.

This city is a trying place. Our transit system tests our patience at an increasing rate. But every once in a while, it gives us a gift few other cities could.

I have no idea who the cellist was or what song he played, but those were some of the best five minutes I’ve had in this city. I felt like I was somewhere truly special, in the best possible way, if only for a little bit.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please help spread the word, either on social media or just by telling a few friends. It’s very much appreciated.

As always, send me any thoughts, feedback, or Dog in a Bag photos to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.  

This Week In #CuomosMTA

I hope everyone enjoyed the planned work on basically every line last weekend, because I have a feeling there’s a whole lot more where that came from.

From my reporting, I’ve found a pretty widespread acknowledgement that the subway needs extensive work and nights/weekends are the least intrusive time to do it. But that doesn’t mean the subway should be borderline unusable during those times. This weekend in particular, I was struck by how little thought seemed to go into how the planned work on each line would affect the system as a whole. People trying to get across boroughs often had to work around several different disruptions in a single journey (if it was possible to get where they needed to go at all).

Transit’s approach to planned work has always been to shut down or alter service on portions of many different lines and provide alternatives for those specific disruptions in a piecemeal fashion. This not only results in incomplete service advisories—where you’re directed to another line that is also down—but also in scenarios like the one I found myself in last weekend. I wanted to get to downtown Brooklyn from Lefferts Gardens, but the Q, 2, and 5 were all disrupted. Yes, there were replacement buses along the Q—and a several-hundred person line for them—and the 5 was running along to the 2 in Brooklyn, but only every 20 minutes.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be better to, say, take the Q entirely offline for the weekend but beef up service on the 2/5 and other adjacent routes to compensate rather than relying on shuttle buses. Instead, Transit seems to be acquiescing to the concept that planned work means terrible alternatives. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it does require a fundamental re-thinking of how planned work is done.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • The evidence is gradually mounting that there are significant gaps in service even during “good service.” I detailed some evidence for that two weeks ago, but this week, I sat at the Canal Street 6 stop and literally counted trains as they went by so I could see how crowds were impacted by train spacing. Uptown 6 train headways were as high at 12 minutes during peak morning rush hour, but often as high as seven minutes. Meanwhile, The Big Board has analyzed subway data and found some scheduled trains on many lines simply don’t run. It also has a nifty tool for looking up a specific stop and seeing the scheduled versus actual service.

  • Joe Lhota is once again back in the news, this time because he took a $150,000 a year job sitting on the Madison Square Garden Company’s Board of Directors. (How many jobs does this guy need?) Anyways, this is particularly concerning since MSGC owns MSG, the big building sitting on top of Penn Station, perhaps the single most important (and contentious) building for MTA operations. (Amtrak owns Penn Station, not the MTA.) But not to worry, an MTA spokesman told POLITICO “If there is anything that involves MSG and Penn Station, Lhota will appropriately recuse himself from any matter where there could be even the appearance of a conflict.”

  • The Daily News published a nice little infographic on how the MTA’s budget breaks down. Please do note that the MTA spends $2.6 billion (about 16 percent of its annual budget) on debt service to pay off bonds it borrows to fund its exorbitantly expensive capital projects.

  • Closing subway stations for an extended period of time has a profound effect on a community. Over at VICE, John Surico dove into how the shutdown of the 30th Street subway station on the N/W in Astoria has crippled local businesses. With the L train shutdown looming, this is an alarming preview of what could be coming down the road for many Williamsburg and Bushwick businesses.

Line Ratings 

Using the fantastic Subwaystats.com website, I've compiled weekly ratings for each line. Each number represents the percent of time the last week (Monday-to-Sunday) that the line had "Good Service." For example, if the number is 70 percent, that means the line had "Good Service" 70 percent of the time and any form of disruption—planned work, delays, service changes, etc.—the other 30 percent.

This is just one of many ways to measure a line's performance. It's not perfect. For one, it relies on the MTA's definition of "Good Service," which there are very good reasons to doubt. On top of that, most people would prefer a line be down all weekend for planned maintenance but not for the two hours during rush hour. I wish the MTA compiled Lost Customer Hours like Transport for London does, but then again I wish the MTA did a lot of things.

If you’re having trouble viewing the graph below in the email, check it out in your browser by clicking the “view in browser” button at the top-right of this email or going to signalproblems.substack.com.

Week of February 4-10, 2018:

Extremely bad, no good week for the subway, with the entire system experiencing 10 percent less good service than the prior week and about 8 percent less than the year-to-date average. It was almost entirely due to planned work. The 7 is the outlier here, because it has had lots of planned work recently which finally ended.

Best line: the W

Worst line: the D

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: 2021

No change once more from the previous two weeks, although I’m edging closer to going to 2022 or 2023 based on some reporting I’m currently doing. Hopefully I can share that with you all in the coming weeks.

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

For the upcoming weekend, here are the major service changes:

1 - No service between 96 Street and 242 Street

3 - No service; 1 trains replace normal service between 96 Street and 148 Street

4 - All service is local-only in Manhattan

A - No service between Howard Beach and Far Rockaway

A C - All service is express-only between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Canal St

F - Brooklyn-bound service runs via E and C lines between Roosevelt Av and Jay St

G - No service between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Church Av

J - No service between Broadway Junction and Jamaica Center

M - No mainline service between Broadway Junction and Essex St

N - No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 Street

Q - All service is local-only in Manhattan

R - All service runs via F line between 36 St/Northern Blvd and 57 St-7 Av

S (Rockaway Park) - No service between Beach 90 Street and Broad Channel

Here is this weekend’s service map. I know it’s tough to read in your email client, but it should be better when viewed in a browser. You can find the full PDF version here.

And for next week:

1 – No service between 137 St-City College

4 – No service between Brooklyn Bridge and Atlantic Av

D – No service between Bedford Park Blvd and 205 Street

E – No service between Roosevelt Av and World Trade Center

F – No service between Roosevelt Av and 21 St-Queensbridge

R – No service between 59 St/4 Av and Whitehall St (Wed. morning only)

Full map here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Did You Know…It’s Not Your Imagination, the Subway Really Does Break When It Rains

(I wrote this on Sunday night, only to find on Tuesday the New York Times published an article on the same subject. Whatever, here it is anyways.)

“The appearance of the city through much of its history has left little mark or analogue today,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life, perhaps the single greatest work on the early history of New York City.

“Not until about a century ago did the place begin to take on some of the characteristics with which we familiarly associate it. Manhattan’s identity as a natural site is particularly irretrievable—the fact that it once contained two substantial ponds, was crisscrossed by streams, possessed marshlands and flats, hills, and valleys, was ringed by a coastline alternately rock-ribbed and swampish…Manhattan’s largest body of water was the Collect Pond…which lay approximately within the bounds of the present-day streets Franklin, Worth, Lafayette, and Baxter.”

Canal Street is so named because there was…wait for it…a canal there, which served as the city’s northern limit until the 1820’s. All that water didn’t simply disappear once humans decided to excavate, flatten, and pave over the city. It’s still there, flowing underground.

Another thing that is underground is the subway.

When announcing the Subway Action Plan, MTA chairman Joe Lhota went as far as to call water “the greatest enemy to having an efficient subway system.” On a clear sunny day, he said, the MTA pumps some 13 million gallons of water from the subway system. Of course, they pump even more water out when it rains.

But as Lhota pointed out, every subway system has this problem because it’s just a function of working underground. Due in part to the density of the subway system in Manhattan and the large number of track miles underground (420 to be precise) it arguably poses a bigger problem for New York than most other cities.

According to the MTA, 20 percent of track-related delays are due to water damage or effects from water damage. Water, if not properly drained can damage switches, washes debris onto the tracks and damages signals by shorting the circuits. I don’t have any specific reason to doubt these figures except that the MTA has been caught trying to shift blame for delays onto external factors before.

There are ways to mitigate water damage like having efficient, well-maintained drainage systems. In theory, the Subway Action Plan takes steps to seal leaks with chemical grouting and clean 40,000 street grates. Until and unless the MTA consistently maintains the system from everyday water leakage, the subway really does break when it rains (and snows). You can count on it.

MTA Mention of the Week

From user @JOrtega95: “Gotta take a huge crap SO NATURALLY THE 7 TRAIN IS RUNNING LIKE MOLASSES!!! THANKS MTA!!!”

Dog in a Bag

Photo credit: Seth Rosenthal