When the weekends roll around in New York City, I know just as well as anyone else that riding the subways becomes something of a crap shoot. Usual train routes are thrown out the window as weekend work forces the subways into an oft-indecipherable mess of service changes that are often scheduled with no regard for each other. We’re lucky if all of the folks driving the MTA’s subways know about the service changes. Expecting straphangers to memorize the voluminous changes simply isn’t realistic.
Now, we all know why the MTA has to change service over the weekend. It gives the authority the best time to perform work, and by reducing service over a span of 54 hours on the weekend, the authority doesn’t interfere with peak-hour, weekday travel. To that end, the MTA has tried to make weekend subway trips as easy as possible. They’ve redesigned their signs and unveiled an online diagram of weekend subway service. By and large then, it’s possible to find out either before you leave the house or once you get to the subway what the changes are, but when things go bad on the weekends, they go very, very bad. Communication, it seems, is the issue.
I had three experiences this weekend that truly drove home that point. The first happened on Saturday. I was waiting at Spring Street for a downtown 6 train in order to reach the Brooklyn Bridge stop where I could transfer to a Brooklyn-bound train. According to the MTA’s timetable, normal southbound service on the 6 at around 3:45 p.m. involves a train every eight minutes. I waited 20 minutes for mine as four different express trains passed Spring St. Not once did the MTA make an announcement concerning any delayed trains, and with the PA/CIS system offline, the countdown clocks could not placate the impatient masses. I could have walked to Foley Square in 20 minutes.
Today, I had a similar experience while heading to the TWA Flight Center for Open House New York. I made it to Jay St. at around 1:30 to wait for a Rockaway-bound A train to take me to Howard Beach, and I waited and waited and waited and waited. In the 30 minutes, I stood there waiting I saw four Coney Island-bound F trains arrive, four local C trains and four Lefferts Boulevard-bound A trains. It was not until later when I arrived home did I learn from Twitter that A service to the Rockaways had been temporary suspended due to a problem with the South Channel Bridge. The MTA never sent an announcement to the Jay St. platform, and conductors on arriving A trains failed to mention it either.
The final strike came on Sunday evening when I was journeying back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side. First, the MTA had arranged weekend service so that it was basically impossible to get a one-seat ride from areas in Brooklyn served by the BMT Brighton Line or the IRT Nostrand, New Lots or Eastern Parkway lines to Manhattan. The Q wasn’t running at all, and the 2 and 3 weren’t heading into Brooklyn. I wonder if there’s a way for the MTA to stagger these service changes without cutting off an easy ride to the West Side for everyone in a large swath of Brooklyn.
With these service changes in place, the ride back from the Upper West Side featured numerous cut-ins by the conductor on my 2 train as he told riders where to go. As we pulled into Times Square, he urged passengers to switch to the N, Q or R trains to get to Brooklyn, and then he did the same when he told riders nearing 14th St. to take the L to Union Square. Now, generally, that’s a great idea, but by telling customers to switch to the Q, the conductor was giving out erroneous information. With the Q shut down, people switching from the IRT to the BMT would find themselves even more inconvenienced than if they simply made the out-of-system transfer to Bowling Green from South Ferry.
Now, I know and you know that the MTA doesn’t want to ruin people’s weekend commutes. They’d prefer to run frequently trains without altering the service patterns, but life with a subway system over 100 years old doesn’t quite work like that. We begrudgingly accept service changes. We shouldn’t though begrudgingly accept bad customer service and communication. Transit has a central control room with the ability to broadcast messages to PA-equipped subway stations throughout the city. When they don’t take advantage of that ability, it’s a problem.
Ultimately, there’s no compelling reason why Transit never made an announcement regarding the Broad Channel problems yesterday. If they can broadcast it to Twitter, they can send it to the station. With the PA/CIS technology in place, there’s no compelling reason why two 6 trains went missing from the schedule at 3:45 p.m. on a Saturday with nary a word over the PA system, and it goes without saying that conductors shouldn’t be telling riders to switch to trains that aren’t even running.
In the minds of customers, these little things all add up over time. If the MTA wants public support at a tough time in its financial and political history, it has to do its part too. Keeping straphangers informed of changes over the weekend when travel is already tough enough should become a customer service priority.