Home View from Underground One unavoidable delay too many

One unavoidable delay too many

by Benjamin Kabak

I angered the Subway Gods yesterday. When I wrote last night about my fast, efficient and painless rides between Manhattan and Brooklyn, someone up there — one of those subway watchers in the sky — decided to enact some vengeance, and when retribution came on Thursday, it was slow and painful.

On Thursday morning, during the tail end of rush hour, I had to venture again from Grand Army Plaza to Yankee Stadium/161th St. in the Bronx. This two-borough, two-subway ride usually isn’t too terrible. I find the 2 or 3 arrive fairly frequently, and switching to the 4 at Nevins St. is about as painless as it can get. But yesterday, my experiences on the 4 were dreadful.

The first part of the ride — the transfer — went about as smooth as can be. I caught a Manhattan-bound 2 as it arrived at Grand Army Plaza and made it to Nevins St. five minutes later. While the first train that pulled up on the express tracks was a rush hour 5 making stops in Brooklyn, the train right behind it was a 4. Little did I realize the trouble that 5 would present.

Since I didn’t feel like switching again at 149th St.-Grand Concourse for a Woodlawn-bound 4, I let the 5 pass me and boarded the 4 well ahead of the time I need to get to the Stadium. The 4 swiftly traveled to Borough Hall and then utterly crawled from Borough Hall through the Joralemon St. Tunnel and up the supposed express tracks underneath Lexington Ave. At no point did this rush hour 4 train seem like an express, and in fact, I could have taken the 6 from at least 86th St. — and probably 59th St. — and still beaten my 4 to 125th St.

At every station, the automated male voice would announce that the train was moving slowly “due to train traffic ahead of us.” Every five minutes, the automated announcer would “apologize for the unavoidable delay.” As the minutes ticked by, I sat there silently fuming, knowing that my ride was taking a good 10 minutes longer than it should have.

While Wednesday’s rides showed how the subways could be if the trains ran so frequently as make waiting times seem negligent, today’s rides showed what happens when subway lines are running trains at capacity. The East Side IRT lines are, by far, the most crowded lines in New York. That is, after all, why the MTA is working to build that ever-promised Second Ave. Subway. To address the crowds, the MTA has added train after train until we arrived at our present situation: a subway line packed with trains.

While completely saturating the Lexington Ave. Express line makes for a slightly less crowded commute, it also makes for the most sluggish express ride you’ll ever take. It makes for an express ride so slow that the local trains seem to be zooming by. While yesterday I had to urge more funding for trains, today, I have to wonder if the MTA has overdone it on the East Side IRT. Is it better for passengers, psychologically, to be on trains that actually go at express speeds or is it better for them to have the illusion of space at rush hour?

Thursday’s ride also, for me, highlighted the need for the proposed flip seats that would be in the up position during rush hour. If these flipped seats allow New York City Transit to decrease the train load on the IRT in order to speed up the trains, I’m all for it. Otherwise, the trains will fill up with passengers frustrated by one too many unavoidable delays.

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Ed August 22, 2008 - 4:58 am

You don’t seem to ride the 4 very often. This is pretty much a description of my normal commute for the last couple of years, going in the other direction.

And yes, the MTA screwed up by putting far too many trains on that line during rush hour. You pretty much have to add another twenty minutes to your schedule when planning to get anywhere on the 4 and 5 during those periods, the trains are so slow.

I don’t think folding seats are necessarily the option. Actually I would remove some trains from the line. Adding trains has not really reduced overcrowding, because it seems to encourage more trains to use the line. Now for East Side commuters, the alternatives to using the 4 and 5 aren’t that great, though I have found going cross town and using the West Side lines to go uptown and downtown slightly faster. But I think there is alot of people using that line who could find alternatives or reschedule their trips for other times than rush hour. Even to get to Yankee Stadium from Grand Army Plaza, you would have been better off walking to Pacific Street, taking the D to Columbus Circle, than transfering to the B to get to 161st Street

Ed August 22, 2008 - 5:30 am

In operational terms, the Lexington Avenue line is a bottleneck, and what the MTA is doing is trying to push more product, or passengers, through the bottleneck.

This is the last thing you should do with bottlenecks. The solution to bottlenecks is either to unblock them, which is what building the 2nd Avenue Subway would do, or you reconfigure the rest of the system to handle the inventory built up by the existence of the bottleneck. This means running more trains on the West Side, not the East Side, and running more trains at non-peak times on the East Side, since once the East Side lines hit capacity some riders will switch to other lines, even if if means going out of their way, or avoid travelling at rush hour.

That MTA manager is trying to add more capacity to a bottleneck shows how stupid they are.

Tceez August 22, 2008 - 10:37 am

Could you show me some evidence that says that people will switch to other lines when their line reaches capacity. Because it fly’s in the face of everything I have seen.

And actually your post is suggesting that they increase service on the west side and keep service BELOW capacity on the East Side in order to make people switch their commute.


Actually, the difference between your 10 minute and 16 minute commute is meaningless compared to the 10,000 people who will now fit on a train with additional capacity.

The MTA’s mission is to move every NY’er who wants to swipe a metrocard, not ensure that you can roll out of bed and still get to wirk with a minute to spare.

R2 August 22, 2008 - 9:35 am


Operationally, the Lex is already AT capacity during peak-hours and even during the shoulders. Literally, no more trains can possibly be added w/o causing interminable delays or unsafe conditions.

Of course, when you run AT capacity, guess what: a hiccup anywhere along it will cause EVERYTHING to back up. A train with mechanical problems, yep, you’re gonna be waiting at least another 20 minutes.

More commonly, it’s the cumulative effect of people holding the doors trying to catch the train will back EVERYTHING up for a while to come, not just for that train, for thousands of passengers in trains behind it.

I thought this line was overcrowded 10 years ago, and it has only gotten worse!

Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes and while many Upper East Sides want the Second Avenue Subway, they always say: “can’t you put that entrance over there and not here?” (of course, when you go “over there” the other guy inevitably says the same thing!)

Todd August 22, 2008 - 9:42 am

You didn’t mention the other part of the problem. Regardless of how much it may speed other trains through, if you remove trains from the line, you will still have more people waiting on the platforms. Then if there is a delay on your newly reduced-service line, you will have even more people at the platforms.

Some platforms on the Lexington line are already so packed with people that they are downright dangerous at rush hour. Until the SAS is built, the only solution available is packing as many trains as possible onto the line. It sucks, but we have to deal.

paulb August 22, 2008 - 9:45 am

As I’ve been bike commuting the last year I don’t use the subway very much anymore, but this has been my experience every time I have taken it in that period. Last night returning to GAP from Grand Central at 7:30 pm it was the same story on the 4 line: start, stop, start, jerk, stop, jerk, etc. I am so glad I don’t depend on the subway every day now. It’s bad.

low rider August 22, 2008 - 10:51 am

I take the 1 from 103rd to 50th Sts. on my way to work. We get the usual cycle of delay/overcrowdedness (overcrowdedness because of delays, and delays because the doors can’t shut), and I can’t help but think: They should put razors on the doors (in place of the rubber) and anyone who is halfway on will get cut. This will let the doors shut and reduce delays. What do you guys think?

Marsha August 22, 2008 - 12:40 pm

That’s just sick.

Todd August 22, 2008 - 1:36 pm

Yeah, um, even I can’t support razors. How about ink?

Scott E August 22, 2008 - 2:13 pm

I’ve often wondered if it would make sense to split trains in half and run two 5-car trains for every one 10-car train. Then, the chance of someone causing delays by holding doors is, in theory, cut in half. Also, if someone does cause a delay, only 5 cars, rather than 10, would be delayed. On a regular schedule, trains should arrive twice as frequently. To resolve the clustering and long gaps that inevitably come up, two trains can fit in the station at a time (one behind the other) and be dispatched at regular intervals.

Of course, this would present some problems (operational problems, passenger confusion, union labor complaints), but I wonder if it might be a more efficient use of existing infrastructure.

Probably not.

Alon Levy August 22, 2008 - 2:41 pm

Trains can’t arrive twice as frequently. The minimum headway consists of safe stopping time plus dwell time plus margin of error. Halving the length of the train does nothing to the dwell time and margin of error, and reduces the safe stopping time by less than half. Any headway gain will therefore be very small.

Judge August 22, 2008 - 8:26 pm

Hate the people holding doors, especially the one fast bloke that holds the door for the much slower group / family. Because it makes sense to inconvenience 1,800 people on a train, and the row behind it, rather than wait a couple minutes.
Don’t the metro systems of Washington DC, Mexico City, and Moscow have doors that refuse to reopen?

Anthony February 2, 2009 - 1:28 am

Why dont you just get off at Atlantic Avenue-Pacific Street and transfer to the D, the D train will take u straight to 161st-Yankee Stadium and very rarely are delays on that line


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