February 2, 2018: When Good Service Is Bad Service

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.  

On Sunday, I was walking by the Prospect Park B/Q/S stop. As you go down Lincoln Road, you can see the tracks to your left from the overpass. The tracks are slightly below ground level, weaved between rows of low apartment buildings. As I passed, a man had his son on his shoulders so the kid could see the approaching Q train. The train rounded the corner slowly but gracefully, as trains do from a distance, and the kid watched it.  

We spend most of our time complaining and worrying about the subway (rightfully so), but it’s vital we still take time to appreciate it. We must separate the system itself from those who manage it. The subway doesn’t belong to the MTA or to Cuomo; they are merely caretakers. Instead, it belongs to that kid, to his father, and to everyone in this city, residents and guests alike.  

My worry when I started this newsletter was that it would be wall-to-wall bad news, service problems, and criticism. While there will be plenty of that, I didn’t start writing about the subways because I hate them. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m that kid on his dad’s shoulders watching the trains go by. It's imperative that we always remember the subways belong to everyone.  

For this reason, I absolutely adored the Times Magazine's follow-up to their subway feature, where readers submitted their own subway stories. I feel like we need more of that. So if you have a short story that makes you appreciate the subway despite all its problems, I’d love to hear it and possibly feature it in an upcoming edition.  

If you are enjoying this newsletter, please help me get the word out. I don’t have the resources to promote it beyond the very basics, so any shout-outs would be great. In addition to the ever-appreciated social media posts, another easy thing is if people at work are complaining about their commute on Slack or Slack equivalent, drop a link in there to tinyletter.com/signalproblems and say a nice thing or two.

Tell them there are dog pics. That always helps.

Speaking of which, keep those Dog in a Bag submissions coming! For this or anything else, send them to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we're all in this together.    

This Week In #CuomosMTA  

At the risk of undermining my own line ratings, Wednesday featured two very good examples of the MTA reporting “good service” when service was in fact not good.
In the mid-afternoon, Brooklyn-bound L’s were terminating at Lorimer and Manhattan-bound ended at Atlantic, leaving most of Williamsburg and Bushwick without L service. The MTA changed the L’s status from “service change” to “delays” at 5:10 PM, and then to “Good Service” 15 minutes later. So, according to the official MTA website, the L only needed 15 minutes to go from “service changes” to “good service.” That’s suspicious, considering it takes trains a solid hour, at least, to traverse the entire line.
Here’s what the L platform at Union Square looked like at 5:40:

There were reports across the L of dangerously overcrowded platforms (more so). And here, at 5:53, is the official NYCT Subway account telling a customer that L train service has resumed “with delays”:

Remember, at this exact time, the official MTA website had upgraded the L to “Good Service.”

Another customer reported at 6:35 that there were announcements the L was running with delays despite, again, the website still reporting “good service.”
Here’s what I think happened: NYCT gave the go-ahead for L trains to resume running normally from their origin points, which then got reported as the line resuming “good service” even though it would take a solid hour, at least, for actual good service to resume as trains left their origin points at regular intervals. One of the L's terminus points, 8th Ave, doesn’t have any extra train capacity. So to fully resume Canarsie-bound service—the one that matters more during evening rush hour—we’re talking about trains going the full length of the L and then doing their Canarsie-bound journeys. That does not take 15 minutes as the MTA implied with their service update. Why they didn’t leave “Delays” as the L’s status is unclear.
A far more common reason for discrepancy between the MTA’s line status and on-the-ground experience is a lag in updating the website. We saw this happen about an hour after the L debacle when riders reported massive delays waiting for A. Some even said there were announcements that the A was running along the F line. It seems like the delays began around 6 PM, but it wasn’t until 6:33 when the MTA officially updated the A’s status to “delays.” However, within 15 minutes the line was officially back to “Good Service.”
Was it, though? Here’s a screenshot someone sent me from 6:47 PM:

I had my own more minor experience with this phenomenon last night. Around 9:45, my Q train took around half an hour to go from Canal to Dekalb, which normally takes about eight minutes. The train conductor made some announcements about "construction" and it was obvious there was a bunching of trains since we were advancing signal-by-signal and despite the delay the platform at Dekalb was not crowded. This whole time, the Q remained in "Good Service."

At the very least, I would recommend not only looking at the current status of a line when you're about to take a journey, but its recent history too. This can easily be done via Subwaystats.com. News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood  

  • The Daily News reports that, at least sometimes, crews show up hours late to planned work locations, meaning tracks sit unused. While the MTA claimed this is a rare occurrence, the source who leaked this to the Daily News said it is, in fact, not rare. “You’re inconveniencing riders and not doing anything more with the time.” The credibility gap widens.

  • On Wednesday night, the MTA announced via a tweet that no MetroCards would accept debit or credit cards this weekend. People were like WTF so they delayed the shutdown to next weekend. I wrote about the whole mess here.

  • If you want to watch a 10-minute primer on how the subways got so bad in a style vaguely reminiscent of The Big Short, the New York Times has you covered. Cuomo rightly gets blamed for the MTA’s current state, but on some very, very small level I feel almost bad for him. He didn’t make the mess, he perpetuated the mess he inherited, which was exacerbated by the worst storm in the city’s modern history. This is not to excuse Cuomo of his responsibilities. He should be one of many people we blame. He just so happens to be the one currently in office.

On to next week's service advisories, not including the, uh, unplanned service changes which are sure to come:

Uptown 1 and 2 trains run express to 96th St after 9:30 PM until Feb 16. To access local stations, overshoot your destination then transfer to a downtown local train.
There will be no 7 trains between Queensboro Plaza and Manhattan Hudson Yards after 11:30 PM Feb 5 and 6. Pretty disruptive service change but only during two late nights. This is for signal maintenance. Also, Flushing-bound 7 Express trains will be making local stops during the day this week.
There will be no N trains between Queensboro Plaza and Times Square late nights.
The Q will not run between Atlantic Ave-Barclays and Prospect Park and skipping Dekalb Ave after 9 PM. The Q will switch to the D track south of Barclays. The MTA helpfully advises anyone inconvenienced to “consider the F and N trains.”
No D trains south of Columbus Circle starting at 9 PM. The Q will replace the D in Brooklyn.
Southbound 6 trains skip all local stops between Grand Central and City Hall after 9:30 PM.
Northbound 4 trains are skipping most Bronx stops 9:30 AM to 3:30 PM until March 2. Again, overshoot your destination and switch to the other direction to access these stops.
No R service after 9:30 PM in southwest Brooklyn. Take the N instead.

J and M trains headed towards Manhattan will skip Flushing, Lorimer, and Hewes between 9:30 AM and 3:30 PM weekdays until February 16. This is part of the track replacement program that is installing seamless rails. Note this has been extended an extra week.


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 (Thursday-to-Wednesday) 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.

Week of January 25-31, 2018:

Weekly superlatives:
Most reliable: the L
Least reliable: the D
Most representative of the entire system: the 3


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

This week's estimate: 2021
I was optimistic last week thanks to Andy Byford’s press tour, the positive news on congestion pricing, and the MTA Board pushing back on a questionable capital project. This week was a bit more of a crash back to reality.


Your Weekend Advisories

This is not a complete list of all the service changes and outages. But the MTA Weekender is clunky, clumsy, and annoying to use, as the interface hasn't been updated since 2012. So I've summarized here the disruptions that require major re-routing, which I define as the ones that make me go "Ah, crap." For a complete list of all the service changes, head over to the MTA Weekender website.
The 1 is skipping a bunch of stops in upper Manhattan and the Bronx and 3 trains are running local from 96th St to Times Square.
Hudson Yards-bound 7 trains will skip 69, 42, 46, 40, and 33 Sts every weekend until February 4. This is part of the Subway Action Plan announced last summer. They're replacing rail joints with seamless track which breaks less often.
The A/C/E are skipping lots of stops in Manhattan in both directions. I would strongly consider alternate routes. This is for track maintenance.
Jamaica-bound F trains are skipping 14th and 23rd Streets.
4 and 5 trains will be running local every weekend in January. And, southbound 4 and 6 trains will skip all local stops between Grand Central and Canal which makes it kind of an express train except it will almost certainly crawl along the line very, very slowly because there’s track work. 4 trains will also be a mess north of 125th St.
Like on weekdays, J trains headed towards Manhattan will skip Flushing, Lorimer, and Hewes this and next weekend (ending Feb 4). This is part of the track replacement program that is installing seamless rails. I wonder if they’re running behind schedule so they expanded work to the weekends.
Two ongoing, long-term projects you are probably already aware of:

Due to the ongoing Viaduct reconstruction until April 30, M trains don't run between Myrtle-Wyckoff and Myrtle Ave. There are shuttle buses, but come on. As if you didn’t need an extra reason to avoid the M on weekends, there won’t be any M service at all on the rest of the line on weekends until February 4 due to track replacement.
The 2/3 tunnel reconstruction continues apace until Summer of 2018. Don't try and take the 2 or 3 between Manhattan and Brooklyn. I live off the 2 but avoid it like the plague on weekends.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

MTA Mention of the Week

@kathrinemott: “Peak rush hour and a completely empty @MTA A train pulled into station. First brave passenger entered tentatively and answered the question we were all asking: It smells ok!”

Dog in a Bag

Please meet Nia, who is a very good bag dog. Photo credit: Ryan Cunningham