This Is The Last Stop On This Train

Everyone please leave the train. Thank you for riding with Signal Problems.

Shortly after I became a subway reporter in the summer of 2017, I ordered a four-foot-by-six-foot subway track map. Unlike the traditional subway map, this one is geographically accurate. It also shows the terminals, individual tracks, and all the points where trains can transfer from one track to another. I hung it behind my office chair so I could easily consult it.

It’s hard to believe now, but less than two years ago, right around the time Governor Cuomo declared the MTA in a “State of Emergency,” appointed former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to re-take the reins, and launched the Subway Action Plan, I knew little about the subway. Like every New Yorker, I knew it didn’t work very well, but I didn’t understand why. I hate not understanding why things are the way they are, especially when that thing makes millions of people miserable on a daily basis.

So, I decided to find out.

Track map. Photo credit: vanshnookenraggen

I felt like I was being dropped into a strange world, one using words and technology unfamiliar to me. But the more I learned, the more I realized that few people, even transit experts, truly grasped why the subway was so much worse than it used to be. And that, to me, was very interesting indeed.

For the first few months on the beat, I had a routine. As soon as a service alert was issued, I’d swivel to my track map and trace the lines to see where the problem was, what the re-routing possibilities consisted of, and which option NYCT chose. I did the same for every weekend service advisory. I had a rule that if I didn’t understand something, no matter how seemingly trivial, I had to find the answer.

Sometimes, I spent days locating a boring answer to an inconsequential question. Other times, that question, which likewise appeared inconsequential at first, proved the key to unlocking a vault of enticing details. Perhaps it contained a key phrase used in an important document—ISIM B was an exhilarating rabbit hole—or someone else had asked that same question years ago who was glad to be hearing from someone asking it, too. You just never knew.

At its core, Signal Problems was about my quest to answer these questions, to find out why things are they way they are. Or, as I put it in the tagline: “What the hell is going on with the NYC subway.”

It was a newsletter about a very specific subway era, one I have occasionally described as The Great Slowdown.

This era is over. Subway performance is improving. Although some of those improvements are due to schedule adjustments, the number I tend to hear most often is that roughly half of the improved on-time performance is a result of running the trains better. It’s far from perfect, but it’s much closer to the performance New Yorkers became accustomed in the late 2000s and early 2010s, probably the single best era for subway riders in the city’s history when balancing operational efficiency and creature comforts. As long as Andy Byford remains in charge, I expect those improvements to continue.

I also wrote many articles about the Project Formerly Known As the L Shutdown. Repairs are still happening, but the (minimal) service issues resulting from the new plan—as well as potential long-term ramifications—are not the same as the ones I covered as a full-time subway reporter.

Yes, The Great Slowdown is over, but a new era of the MTA is beginning. It is one where Andy Byford is no longer the face of MTA reform as he was for much of 2018, thanks to what appears to be a deliberate effort from Albany to supplant his achievements with the efforts launched by Governor Cuomo. Pat Foye has taken over the MTA, giving the authority a full-time leader for the first time since I’ve been reporting on it. The board has experienced significant turnover. It is still very much the MTA, but a slightly different one.

What will this new era bring? So far, it has been replete with promises of reform, including the passage of congestion pricing. If all goes according to plan, this will provide sustainable funding for the MTA so whether the MTA receives checks is no longer subject to Albany's whims.

Some of these so-called reforms, however, are already having a deleterious impact. The MTA is running the risk of missing out on a generation of young, passionate employees. A number of my sources, or coworkers of those sources—people I generally believe to be smart, capable individuals that wanted to help make NYCT a better organization—have left for other jobs, fed up with an authority hamstrung by an asinine hiring freeze that was never formally announced or instituted in any transparent way. Further, they perceive Governor Cuomo’s constant interventions as undermining their efforts rather than aiding them, a dynamic exacerbated by his frequent childish ridiculing of the very authority he controls. Another cohort of young, eager potential employees can’t get hired at all, because of either Kafkaesque HR hoops or the aforementioned hiring freeze.

Not only is a hiring freeze a clumsy tool for addressing bloat—it requires no actual reckoning with where the bloat is and how it became thus—it plugs the talent pipeline, meaning in five, ten, or 15 years’ time, it will be harder to find the next generation of capable transit employees to make the leap to a management position. This problem has the potential to evolve into a crisis as each agency—particularly Metro North, but certainly not exclusive to them—faces a glut of retirements in the coming years. Cuomo may be winning the battle about changing the way the MTA operates, but by scaring away the most talented and dedicated young employees, he’s losing the war.

In addition, none of the reform efforts enacted to date have seriously addressed the biggest drivers of the MTA’s bloated expenses. Until the very recent hullabaloo around LIRR overtime expenses—to call it the MTA’s worst kept secret would demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the concept of a secret—not a peep had been made from the current administration about reforming labor costs, including health and pensions. Health care and pensions combined account for more than 20 percent of the authority’s annual budget, which like many aspects of American health care can be rationalized without noteworthy cuts to the actual benefits employees or retirees receive.

I have zero expectation these problems will be addressed, as the union and the current administration sing each others praises weeks before their contract expires. This, along with the MTA’s debt load of approximately 16 percent of its annual operating budget, leaves the authority vulnerable in the case of a recession, something three-quarters of economists believe will happen by 2021.

On the construction front, reducing costs to merely “very expensive” and timelines to merely “very slow” would be a triumph. Promises have been made. This is not the first time. Should those promises be kept, that would indeed be a first. Early signs are not encouraging; the Second Avenue Subway Phase II, up to 125th St and Lexington, is slated to eclipse the Second Avenue Subway Phase I as the most expensive subway per mile on Earth.

Which is all to say, the next era of the MTA will likely consist of permutations of familiar problems. Readers of Signal Problems, and all New Yorkers, deserve diligent watchdogs holding all responsible parties accountable.

The single biggest reason I am shutting down Signal Problems is because I can no longer be that. Hopefully, someone else can.

For all the little factoids about the subway I’ve accumulated over the time I’ve written this newsletter, the most important lesson I’ve learned has been just how complacent we all were about the goop of inefficiencies at nearly every level of the MTA before they coagulated into a viscid bureaucratic molasses. It is my sincere hope that the MTA, state and local politicians, journalists, activists, and we, the riding public, do not make the same mistake again. Otherwise, we’ll be back in crisis before we know it. We built the vast majority of this epic wonder that sustains our city in a mere 40 years. What will the next 40 years bring?

I always struggle to articulate the subway’s importance without veering into hyperbole. But after staring at the track map for so long, I realized the map does that better than any words of mine could. Instead of the subway being the city’s hidden arteries and veins, the layers are flipped. The empty white spaces appear barren. The gray airports are insufficiently linked to life, like a comatose patient desperately needing a feeding tube.

Between it all, the lines and connections, the depots and abandoned tracks, is a story of a city, a great city that has become less great in large part because its commitment to this tremendous system has wavered. That commitment cannot be measured merely in dollars. It must also be measured in our determination to wrestle with the forces of selfishness, greed, and thirst for power that have long perceived the subway as a mere bargaining chip. It is a commitment that speaks to the very essence of who we are and what we, as a city, want to be.

To be sure, this would be a break from our past. It is also very much in contrast with the current political moment, where the glorification of unabashed, naked selfishness is the grand unifying trait of modern American society. But if New York is truly as exceptional as many of its most fervent boosters believe it to be, the Greatest City In The World™, then we ought to be up for the challenge. Whether that task yields success, failure, or the vast dark tunnels in between those two terminals, I’ll be following along, hoping for the best.

Finally, I have a parting gift for you, my dear, dear Signal Problems readers.

I received pictures of dogs in bags on the subway at a far higher rate than I could publish them. Sometimes, I would receive these photos during difficult days. But every time I got one, I couldn’t help but smile. The randomness with which I would receive these glorious treats made me realize that, at any given moment, there is probably a dog in a bag on the subway. Therefore, there is always something to smile about.

So, as a small token of my appreciation for all the wonderful support you have provided during such a difficult yet fruitful time in my career, here are 152 dogs in bags, including dozens that I never got around to publishing and all of the ones I did publish. May they be a source of joy and comfort during the longest of delays.

Speedy travels,

Aaron Gordon