Kicking the can down the road

A few weeks ago, I came across a Longreads roundup post in which Catherine Cusick gave Signal Problems a shout-out. She said a lot of incredibly nice things, but one sentence really stuck with me. She wrote:

“I still just wish I could understand — really, truly, honestly understand — why what should be a world-class subway system is so incredibly broken.”

So do I!

To help get us all closer to that point, I put together a post that went out to paid subscribers on Tuesday. It’s about the Subway Action Plan’s shortcomings, how the actual focus on just running the trains better is already paying dividends, and what this demonstrates about how we got in this mess in the first place. I concluded:

“The modern subway crisis is a product of the politicization of the MTA seeping into the organization’s very DNA. Only by having management no longer focused on political goals is it possible to fix the subway.”

If you’d like to read it, support the newsletter, and receive future paid editions, become a paid subscriber which will also grant you access to previous subscriber-only editions.

Subscribe now


Two memos regarding the L non-shutdown were leaked this week from the NYCT Operations Planning department. The first, which Streetsblog reported, outlined a very questionable alternate service plan on nights and weekends given the L will only run every 20 minutes during those times.

The second, which was leaked to me and I wrote about for Gothamist, has some pretty dire warnings about what L crowding will be like during weekends without significant mitigation efforts.

In combination, the two documents beg the question: why is the L staying open on weekends? If the only way one-tube operations can work is to direct a vast number of L riders to other subways or buses, then surely it would be beneficial to just shut the L down—as they have for seven recent weekends—and work on both tunnels at once, making the construction shorter, and avoiding potentially troublesome crowding on L platforms.

The only realistic explanation is there is some external pressure preventing that outcome, someone telling them that is the way it has to be. As I’ve written before, the new L rehab plan started from the premise of “keep the L open 24/7” and formulated a plan around that. Hell, the MTA even says in each of their statements that they’re focused on delivering “a plan that will keep the L train running 24/7” as if that is a goal in and of itself. And there will be trade-offs. Anyways, what was it I was saying about the politicization of our transit system again?

On a completely unrelated note, there will be no L service between Broadway Junction and 8th Ave during late nights this coming week.


The MTA board delayed a vote on the fare hike for one month so they can come back to the table with another proposal that may or may not involve tying the revenue to service improvements of some kind. That would be a dangerous idea because it would give the respective agencies too much incentive to play with the performance stats by, say, padding schedules to ensure they hit on-time performance targets. Instead, I liked Ben Kabak’s proposal to tie fare hikes to more frequent service, which would be a far better bet that the money would result in better service.

Anyways, this vote has been looming for three months—and biennial fare hikes have been a thing since 2009—so the whole “we need more time” message is a little curious. It’s almost as if some destabilizing factor suddenly came into the picture very recently.


Speaking of padding schedules, Metro-North is adding running time to schedules to accommodate “infrastructure work.” It sounded from the board meeting like the longest schedule addition will be 12 minutes, but most will be shorter than that. On the one hand, extending schedules to accommodate slower run times is obviously not desirable. On the other hand, assuming the infrastructure work is good and necessary work, then giving riders an accurate schedule is obviously better than lying to them. But it will be important to watch if this “infrastructure work” ever finishes, about which a few board members expressed skepticism. And, if it does, will the schedules go back to the pre-work run times?


You may have heard of the Penn Station Access plan, calling for four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx, connecting the New Haven line to/from Penn Station. After a year of stalled negotiations between Amtrak and the MTA, an agreement is finally in place to get this project moving. That’s good! Everyone’s happy, right? Right?

Well, yes! But: one of the hold-ups was Amtrak wanted the MTA to pay for replacing the century-old Pelham Bay Bridge which it argued could not accommodate the heavier load. Here’s WNYC on how they solved that impasse:

Under the agreement brokered by Cuomo, the Pelham Bay Bridge replacement would be postponed for 10-20 years. 

Short of Andrew Cuomo standing outside the MTA headquarters and kicking a can of “What The L” Blue Point lager down Broadway, this is about as close to the literal manifestation as “kicking the can down the road” as you’ll find.


It looks like NYCT is installing countdown timers on some of the station time signals to help operators move through them faster. Here’s a good example of how they work:


LIRR is spending $20 million to study the possibility of moving a station with an average daily ridership of 30. Yes, 30. As in three-zero-no-I’m-not-missing-any-more-zeros. It’s not totally clear where the $20 million is coming from as the article references “state funds,” but an awful lot of LIRR’s money is state funds to begin with, so there could be some creative rhetoric at play, or the state is wasting an awful lot of money.

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

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 2 3 – All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • 4 –

    • No service between Bowling Green and New Lots Av

    • Reduced service between 125 Street and Woodlawn

  • 6 – Pelham Bay-bound service is express-only in the Bronx

  • 7 – No service between 74 St-Broadway and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • A – No service between Howard Beach and the Rockaways

  • J – No service between Myrtle Av and Broad St

  • M – No weekend service

  • R – No service between 36 Street and 95 Street

Late Nights:

  • 2 4 – Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Brooklyn

  • 3 – No late night service

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • A – Downtown service is express-only in Manhattan

  • D – No service between 34 St-Herald Sq and Atlantic Av

  • E – Manhattan-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – Uptown service runs via R line between DeKalb Av and Canal St

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Subway Take of the Week

David and I are both very distressed by the lack of esteemed riders lately. Everyone seems very cold and very depressed. So instead, we’re mixing it up and doing David’s Subway Take of the Week.

So, David, what do you think about the L shutdown situation?

“It seems hilariously bad? And kind of predictably so. Cuomo definitely doesn't know what Move Fast And Break Things means but I sense he's saying it a lot now.”

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

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 signalproblems@substack.com.

It’s been an especially lousy week for journalists, so for all the journalists out there, here’s an extra-special Dog in a Bag edition. I got photos of *the same dog* from two different people!

Photo credit: Tabitha Decker

Photo credit: Amy Plitt

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

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