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.
No subway story this week because I have some housekeeping news. Thanks to you wonderful people and your lovely support for this newsletter, I’ve migrated to a more robust platform that’s designed specifically for editorial newsletters (as opposed to marketing ones).
I know image display has been an issue for some. You may have already noticed a “view in browser” option at the top-right of this email. If you’d prefer, you can now view every edition on a clean, ad-free web page which should solve any formatting issues. That link will also take you to the new landing/signup page: signalproblems.substack.com.
I have also created a Subway Knowledge Base page I’ll link to at the top of every newsletter for new subscribers or anyone who just wants a refresher. This way everyone can get caught up without having to go back over every previous edition. It’s pretty bare bones for now, but if you have any suggestions I’d love to hear them.
But there’s another reason I’m moving platforms. Even though it won’t change anything any time soon, I want to be as transparent as possible. Enterprising readers might discover that Substack allows for paid subscription newsletters. While recent editions of Signal Problems haven’t taken up quite as much of my time as the first few, it’s still a solid 5-10 hours a week to put it together, plus some projects I have started with an eye towards future editions. I enjoy doing all of it, but I’m also a freelance writer. As much as I would love to have the flexibility to spend that much time every week on a free newsletter, that simply isn’t my financial reality. Which is to say, some type of paid model is possibly on the horizon because I would rather charge a little bit to bring you the best damn subway newsletter I can.
To be clear: nothing’s changing for at least a few months. But if I do opt to start a paid tier, it will be priced very modestly, I will still have a free version that allows anyone to read a section or two of the newsletter every week, and I will also give a discount to existing subscribers.
So if you’re a subscriber now, there’s no reason to unsubscribe. In fact, it’s all the more reason to spread the word now so others could get that potential discount for existing subscribers should the time come. Again, the new sign-up page is signalproblems.substack.com, but I’ll still migrate new subscribers over from Tinyletter as well for the time being.
Another idea I have floating around: anyone who has a Dog in a Bag photo published in the newsletter would get a discount, too. So make sure you keep those coming just in case.
For this or any thoughts on anything I said above, send them 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.
This Week In #CuomosMTA
Events like these are incredibly frustrating. How can one door or one sick passenger cause such delays?
With the doors, the entire train must be taken out of service due to safety concerns. On the one hand, I understand; you can’t have people riding in a car with an open door. On the other hand, it seems like there must be a better way than taking the entire train out of service. According to the Subway Action Plan, 40 percent of car breakdowns are caused by door malfunctions. These tend to not be drivers for major subway incidents since the trains aren’t stuck, but it takes time to figure out if the door is truly broken. And if it is, you’re talking several hundred to a thousand people flooding the platform causing a cascade of overcrowded trains and rippling delays.
As for sick passengers, we all know this is a euphemism for basically anything passenger-related. Unfortunately, it is all too often code for “mentally ill person doing things.” Sometimes, those things are horrific and/or dangerous. Other times, they do something like activate an emergency brake for no reason, or another passenger does so based on the behavior of the person in the train.
This is not the MTA’s failure. It is an American failure to take care of our mentally disabled and homeless, who all too often have no safe place to go or to receive care, so they wander the subway system and sleep on E trains. It is very difficult to audit the MTA’s usage of the term “sick passenger,” but I suspect it is sometimes used when it shouldn’t be precisely because it ought to elicit sympathy and compassion in all of us. But it should at least be a reminder that the subway is hardly the only aspect of society that is letting New Yorkers down.
News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood
The Regional Plan Association published a report two years in the making on the MTA’s astronomical construction costs. The Times did a short write-up on it that’s worth checking out if you can’t stomach reading the entire report, but here’s the big picture from the RPA: “The entire process of designing, bidding, and building megaprojects needs to be rethought and reformed top-down and bottom-up.”
There is also a delightful anecdote in that report about how the MTA needed office space for employees and instead of possibly renting some in the very dense neighborhood the Second Avenue Subway was being constructed, they decided to blow a damn hole in the ground and build it there:
The high costs of the 96th Street station can be partly explained by the inclusion of 65,000 square feet for the MTA workforce in underground facilities and office space, requiring expensive blasting. The station has hundreds of non-public-access employee spaces. This equates to three to four times as many employee spaces as any other station along the line. The MTA’s justification was that 96th is a terminus, which is only temporary because the line will actually terminate at 125th Street when phase two is completed. Instead of spending the extra millions of dollars to build these temporary facilities, the MTA should have explored the cost-effectiveness of providing employee spaces at the surface by renting commercial space.
Also in that RPA report, I noticed a little tidbit about how the MTA decided to scale back the track design at 72nd Street on the Second Avenue Subway, which has serious implications for how much service it can provide if/when the full SAS is ever completed. You can read my article about that at the Voice.
One of the highly-touted elements of the Subway Action Plan was buying more gigantic vacuums to clean up tracks, thereby preventing track fires. Part of the plan was to buy three vacuum trains that can vacuum as they go along the tracks. Pretty nifty! Turns out, the MTA doesn’t have them. All three were supposed to be delivered by now, but instead we have…zero.
‘It's unfortunately an MTA procurement screw-up,’ said Richard Brodsky, a former state lawmaker who headed the Authorities Committee that investigated the MTA. ‘They didn't tell the board that the same provider had provided inadequate and defective equipment in the past.’
Rather than appointing a full-time chairman to oversee an MTA in crisis, Cuomo re-hired his old friend and loyal compatriot Joe Lhota, who is also “Senior Vice President and Vice Dean, Chief of Staff” of NYU Langone Medical Center. To make this arrangement work, Lhota told POLITICO he works 40 hours a week for each job and sleeps four hours a night. And to make up for the fact that he has another full-time $1.6 million annual salary job running a hospital, the MTA created an “office of the chairman” that splits one job into four.
Speaking of Lhota, his latest Big Idea is to put the alarms back on the emergency doors as retribution for the Manhattan DA decriminalizing (but not legalizing!) turnstile jumping.
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. Also, there will be no 1 trains between 96th and 137th St starting around 11 PM this week only. Also also, there will be no 2 trains in Brooklyn between Frankin and Flatbush Aves.
A trains will be making lots of local stops starting around 10 PM, except for the local stops between Hoyt and Utica, which they will not be making.
This week and next week, the E will run local and only from Jamaica to Roosevelt (basically Queens only) starting around 9:30 PM every day. The F will do the exact opposite (Manhattan only). This will end February 23. This is part of the FASTRACK program to do comprehensive maintenance.
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. 4 trains will also be running local late nights (uptown will be local Grand Central to 125th, downtown from Grand Central to Brooklyn Bridge). And uptown 6 will be skipping all stops between Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central starting around 9:30. A lot of these changes are happening next weekend too.
No line ratings this week. I’m switching from a completely arbitrary Thursday-to-Wednesday schedule to a slightly less arbitrary Sunday-to-Saturday time frame. They’ll be back next week.
In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better
This week's estimate: 2021
Pretty uneventful week in the grand scheme of things, so no change from last week.
Your Weekend Advisories (some big ones this week)
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 E will run along the F in Manhattan and the first two stops in Queens. Shuttle buses will operate replacing service in Queens, but in Manhattan you’re on your own.
One J disruption ends, another begins. J service will end at Hewes in Brooklyn, no so Manhattan service. In a preview of the Lpocalypse, shuttle buses will run between Hewes and Essex.
The A/C are skipping lots of stops in Manhattan in both directions. I would strongly consider alternate routes. This is for track maintenance.
4/6 trains area mess this weekend, running local from Grand Central to 125th and skipping all stops between Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central. To get to any of those stations, you’ll have to overshoot and then transfer to a downtown 4/6 (downtown 4’s will be running local). This is for track maintenance/replacement.
No D trains south of Columbus Circle. After that, it will run along the A and E (which isn’t running in Manhattan) to World Trade Center.
If you’ve noticed the F and G have had lots of signal problems lately, so has the MTA, because Queens-bound F and G trains will skip Fort Hamilton, 15 St-Prospect Park, and 4 Ave-9th St due to priority repairs.
The Q is all fucked up in Brooklyn, skipping Dekalb and then switching to the D after Atlantic Ave. MTA has the dreaded “consider” F and N trains advisory, meaning there’s no real alternative.
No R train service in south Brooklyn.
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
Transport for London may be a shining beacon of efficiency for those of us across the pond, but they still have their issues. Mainly, they’re expecting a loss of almost £1 billion and don’t have the money to pay interest on borrowed funds. There are a number of reasons for this and none of them are because TfL is bad, but it’s just a reminder that even with semi-steady government funding and robust congestion pricing, running a very good 21st Century transportation system is hard.
Munich has proposed a $6.83 billion metro and tram expansion project that will add 25 miles of track over 20 years including a brand-new metro line running through the city center. It took the MTA eight years and $5.57 billion to build three miles of the Second Avenue Subway.
MTA Mention of the Week
From user @Chrislhayes (yes that one): “FIX THE SUBWAYS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD”
Bonus MTA Mention of the Week
From user @Jee_vuh: “Omg an MTA market researcher is surveying a passenger on this train and just asked "how would you rate the subway, from very satisfying to very unsatisfying" and before he could answer like six other people just shouted "VERY UNSATISFYING"”
Dog in a Bag
Photo credit: Ryan Cunningham