Aug
03

Subway Noise Revisited

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Hi everyone. While Ben is out of town on a well deserved break, Jeremy and I will do our best to keep the website in service over the next week. Let’s see if it’s still up and running when he returns.

Over the past year I’ve spent considerable time in the archives of the MTA Transit Museum poring over records, newspaper clippings, and correspondences between Transit Authority officials and members of the public. I’m doing this for the sake of reconstructing a historical soundscape of the subways, as part of my doctoral research at NYU. Over the months I’ve found quite a bit of information, although it’s not readily accessible due to the fact that “sound” isn’t something that the collection catalogs index. I tell you, there’s nothing more rewarding than going against the organizational grain in an archive and coming up with something that otherwise would be lost to time.

As was covered here earlier, a new report coming out of the University of Washington and the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health later this month addresses the dangerously high noise levels present throughout the subway system. While the results of this survey will no doubt have an impact on the relationship between the MTA and the public in the next few years, it’s hardly the first time that the noisiness of the train has come under scrutiny. In fact, on October 29, 1904, the day after the subway opened, a J.R. Sedden wrote to the New York Times editor warning of “Auritis – A Subway Disease.” He predicted that it would become a fad among New York doctors over the next year. Although hearing loss has been a serious concern for passengers and transit workers ever since, the name never stuck. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing.

By the early 1970s, noise pollution had entered the public sphere as a serious issue. Around the same time that Mayor Lindsey was pushing for new noise-control codes to regulate the level of sound throughout New York, a series of reports on the noise levels of the subway were released, including one organized Columbia professor Cyril M. Harris and another from the Environmental Protection Agency.

One of the most interesting things that I found in my archival visits was the scant mention of an MTA public hearing held on December 11, 1974, concerning the noise levels of the subways. According to the MTA annual report from that year, the MTA board expected the public to be receptive to recently begun renovations of subway stations, including the installation of noise-canceling wall covers and other echo-deterring materials. Instead, the public overwhelmingly pressured the MTA that the more pressing issue was the elimination of wheel and brake noise. Apparently, the MTA took the public’s protests to heart and sunk several millions of dollars into maintenance efforts, including wheel-trueing and track welding, in order to reduce train noise.

Sadly, the MTA has no other record of this public hearing, so it’s hard to venture past speculation in recreating this little chunk of subway history. I’d love to read any press coverage or speak to someone who was in attendance. If you have any leads, please let me know!



Categories : MTA, Subway History

9 Responses to “Subway Noise Revisited”

  1. R2 says:

    Good to know that noise has been a complaint of the subway since the time it opened. You know what else has — heat.

    Thanks for uncovering the 1974 hearing (pun not intended). This I find troubling: “Instead, the public overwhelmingly pressured the MTA that the more pressing issue was the elimination of wheel and brake noise.” (Not knowing the general context or any additional information other than that provided in this post, here are my thoughts)

    Can’t believe they were pressured by non-experts in audition (i.e. the general public) ! If anything, BOTH approaches are needed to improve conditions for riders. Cut down on the source (squeals from the brakes, for examples) AND invest in sound-dampening technologies! Cutting down on the echoes would do wonders. Subway stations are really just caves.

    What few people understand is that noise actually sounds louder to one’s ear than it actually is (as when registered by the decibel reading of an audiometer). Call it a quirk of our auditory system, if you will; it’s just the way it is.

    Boiling it down, “noise” in the subway is two problems: sound intensity from things like wheels screeching on tracks AND echo/reverb when all sounds bounce off the walls.

    Even with my rudimentary understanding of auditory perception, I can say investing in curing the latter would be noticed more by the riding public.

  2. bboyer says:

    R2, you bring up many good points. The sentence that I wrote above that you might object to was nothing more than my interpretation of the information provided in the 1974 MTA annual report:

    The New York City Transit Authority held a public hearing at Hunter College on December 11, 1974 in connection with its application to UMTA for the $50 million grant. In response to public reactions expressed at that public hearing, the program now puts much more emphasis on efforts to reduce causes of wheel-rail noise and much less on station acoustical treatments.

    Under the modified program, the start-up of the project to weld rail will now be expanded to at least twice what was originally proposed, and two new wheel-trueing machines are contemplated instead of one. Intensified rail grinding and wheel-trueing remain a basic part of the entire effort.

    Judging from that report, which is the only evidence of the hearing that I have found, I would have to say that the MTA represents its change in policy as being affected by public opinion, at least in part. Most likely expert opinions were also heard, but the annual report’s language would lead a reader to believe that the public’s opinion mattered more than naught in 1974.

    Perhaps your reluctance to believe that says something about the MTA’s reputation in 2009.

  3. rhywun says:

    Subway noise rarely bothers me, but the other day a train coming into my normal commute station (Rector St. R/W) caused an unholy screech the likes of which one only experiences maybe once every five years. Naturally, it was one of those ancient R’s all patched up with duct tape. I hope they sent that beast back to the shop for repairs.

  4. Alton says:

    I agree there a number of ways to approach the noise issues in the stations. However, I’ve never understood why the rail lengths are welded together so poorly in the stations in the first place. You can see about a half-inch gap between them.
    The near bone rattling CLACK, CLACK (pause) CLACK, CLACK is completely avoidable with less shoddy work. After all, the LIRR can create smooth welds between rails lengths at the stations I frequent, why can’t the subway folks? It seems like such a simple solution to ease a good portion of the noise issue – and likely some wear and tear on equipment.
    Anyone ride the Metro in DC? The trains glide into the station without a CLACK to be heard because the welds are seamless.

    • R2 says:

      That is a very good question, and one pointed out by an out-of-town visitor friend who knows a thing or two about such things. He also pointed out the wooden ties which don’t always go the full length across from rail to rail (and would this contribute to noise or otherwise make the ride bumpier? Or this is done for other reasons?). Somebody on here must know the answer to this.

      There HAS to be a reason (besides the obvious one which is leaving space for expansion/contraction from varying temperatures — then again LIRR is MORE exposed to the elements….). I’ll have to ask around to see who would know the answer to that.

      • Kid Twist says:

        Drainage. When you see half ties in a concrete roadbed, the space in between is a drainage ditch. And at least a few people have managed to survive a fall onto to the tracks over the years by lying flat in that space while a train rolled over them.

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  6. Interesting,

    I am the co-chair of an org called NYSAE or the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology and we are deeply interested in this subject matter as well as any involving the nyc soundscape. You should consider joining. Maybe you would consider giving a presentation to the group. let me know if i can contact you directly. check out the website at http://www.nyacousticecology.org

    edmund mooney

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