Remembering a fire at Chambers St.


A 2005 fire at Chambers St. relay room threatened to derail service on the 8th Ave. line for years. (Photo by flickr user Remon Rijper)

As the Long Island Rail Road struggles to overcome a fire that has knocked out much of its service, the fragile state of the city’s transit infrastructure has again come under the microscope. The signal tower that burned on Monday dated from 1913 and was scheduled to modernized next year, and while it’s amazing to think that 100-year-old technology can still run the nation’s busiest commuter rail, that the system hasn’t been updated since Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president is a sad commentary on transit investment.

This isn’t the first time in recent that part of the MTA’s signal technology has been taken out by the fire. The last high-profile incendiary incident came in January 2005 when a homeless man at Chambers St. searching for warmth amidst a snowstorm started a fire that destroyed a key relay room for the 8th Ave. IND. Initial reports featured tales of a subway system in chaos. C service was suspended as the V ran to Euclid Ave., and the A train had to run local and at slow speeds while drivers relied on the subway equivalent of manual transmission.

Reports from Transit were just as dire. “This is a very significant problem, and it’s going to go on for quite a while,” Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, said. He said that would cost millions of dollars to restore the signal system and that service along the A and C lines would be slowed for three to five years. Could damage to 70-year-old technology really cause such inconvenience?

The impact was immediate. Transit had to cut rush hour service from 26 trains in each direction to just eight in the aftermath of the fire, and the 600,000 commuters who relied upon the A and C trains were struggling to find faster ways around town. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the signal modernization project: The MTA’s timeframe for restored service grew shorter and shorter.

Just a few days after the fire brought dire predictions of five-year service outages, Reuter had to admit that he vastly overstated the importance of the burned relay room, and less than two weeks later, full service along 8th Ave. had nearly been restored. Reuter changed his story after the fire and claimed he meant to say that the signal repairs would take 3-5 years, Service, he maintained, would always be restored quickly. “I must have misspoke or didn’t clarify myself very well on that, he said. “I am sorry.” In fact, repair work on the burnt-out signal room did not commence for over a year after the fire.

But in the aftermath of the incident, the TA’s overall point remained: It would take a very long time to modernize the subway’s signals. At a City Council hearing a few days after the fire, then-Senior Vice President for Subways Michael A. Lombardi said it would take 45 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the system up to date. While City Council members at the time called it “inadequate,” “inefficient and irresponsible,” no developments over the last five years have changed that outlook. The $88 million project to restore and modernize signal service at Chambers St. wrapped this May, five years and three months after the 2005 fire, but the rest of the system remains without a timeframe for these badly-needed upgrades.

Meanwhile, as Long Island-based commuters struggle to get into the city today, we see the importance of keeping technology up to date. Currently signal systems have built-in redundancies and better fireproofing technology, traits absent from those towers built in 1913. Without investment, the infrastructure ages to the point where one fire at the wrong point in the system can knock out an entire rail network, and that’s a problem for New York.

Categories : Subway History

14 Responses to “Remembering a fire at Chambers St.”

  1. MS says:

    I worked on this contract, and while I think it was a shining success for the MTA (both in how they were able to “troubleshoot” the issue to let trains run automatic through the Chambers St Interlocking, and that all of the signal equipment was placed in-service before the 42-month contract completion date), it shows that there needs to be sufficient investment into signal system upgrades. Everyone loves the idea of cleaner/newer stations and platforms, but until we address the aging signal system the MTA will be at risk of possibly disastrous outages, such as we saw last night with LIRR service.

    • Brian says:

      Agreed 100%. The problem is that most people think that a cleaner as well as a new station can improve service. The grim reality is that the signal system is too old to handle the needs of service from the present to the nest twenty-five years.

  2. Al D says:

    LIRR needs a business continuity plan. If this junction is critical for all, or nearly all of its operations, there needs to be redundancy, a second tower or a back up system at LIRRHQ, are 2 examples.

    • John says:

      It sounds like that’s what they were already planning to put in later this year.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      They DID have a business continuity plan. Within hours after a fire, they were able to restore something like 66 to 75 percent of service. For a breakdown that happens once every few decades, or so, that seems pretty reasonable.

  3. Jamisen says:

    Great piece, Ben. I didn’t realize just how fragile the system is. When I think about how many trains are running at any given time and how many miles of rails there are, it always seems like a miracle that the subway and the commuter networks are as reliable as they are. Still, it is clear that there are some serious shortcomings. The overheated rails in NJ last month were a nightmare too, though I’m not an engineer so I don’t know how much of that could be prevented.

  4. Larry Littlefield says:

    Aside from the 1970s, from the time the subway system was essentially complete in the mid-1950s, New York City Transit has been replacing its signal systems, starting with the oldest (IRT) at a once every 60 year pace.

    In the 1970s capital construction stopped due to massive pension costs and debts run up to pay for operating expenses. As a result of that missed decade, signal systems on some lines are now more than 75 years old and falling apart. This includes large portions of the IND.

    Now we are facing a second stoppage, due to massive debts run up to pay for ongoing normal replacement and operationg expenses (via some of them being classified as “reimbursable), and a huge increases in pension expenses (though not quite as huge because the TWU strike for 20/50 did not succeed).

    Also hurting signal replacement efforts — a massive increase in what the contractors charge the MTA.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Larry, the signal was due for replacement. It’s not a stoppage, and it has nothing to do with borrowing.

      If I can stop calling the MTA incompetent for once, you can stop talking about debt.

  5. John says:

    Back in the early 1990s, Caltrans was telling residents in the Santa Clarita/Palmdale/Lancaster areas northeast of Los Angeles that it would take a decade to get the rail line through their areas upgraded to handle Metrolink commuter rail service. Then the Northridge earthquake hit in January ’94 and collapsed the I-5/California 14 interchange, leaving residents with no direct highway access into the main part of Los Angeles County.

    Facing the possibility of over half a million angry northern L.A. County commuters, the time period for getting the Metrolink line going — stations and all — was cut from 10 years to … one week, and the line was in operation before January was over. Fear of losing your job(s) can be a wonderful motivator for a government bureaucracy.

    • Andrew says:

      I’m not familiar with this particular case, but that sounds like the difference between doing a thorough job and coming up with something that’s better than nothing.

      • Scott E says:

        It also shows how much faster you can build something when you don’t need to work around existing, operating service.

  6. Brian says:

    I remember the Chambers St. Fire like its yesterday’s news. People should be thanking the V line by helping ease the pain for A/C line commuters in Brooklyn for that week. As for the fire in general, the lesson learned was that the signal syatem is old and is in dire need of replacement.

  7. Matthias says:

    …while drivers relied on the subway equivalent of manual transmission.

    You say that as though there were something wrong with manual transmissions.

    while it’s amazing to think that 100-year-old technology can still run the nation’s busiest commuter rail, that the system hasn’t been updated since Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president is a sad commentary on transit investment.

    I couldn’t agree more.


  1. […] 2005, a fire in a Chambers St. signal room raised fears that service on the 8th Ave. IND would be slowed for years. Service was back up to speed within […]

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