Home View from Underground A far cry from the subway system’s bad old days

A far cry from the subway system’s bad old days

by Benjamin Kabak

An October derailment have many fearing the bad old days. (Photo via @NYCTSubwayScoop)

Remember the bad old days? Remember when the subways weren’t safe, when track fires and derailments ran rampant, when trains weren’t air conditioned but were covered in graffiti and Bernard Goetz came to stand for a generation of New Yorkers too scared to use transit after dark? Remember cars that lost power, doors that wouldn’t open and public address systems that wouldn’t address? Anyone old enough who’s lived in New York City long enough certainly does.

While I came off age in the city toward the tail end of those dark days for the city and its transit network, I’ve heard the horror stories and read the news clippings often enough to know that no one wants to relive those days. The transit network, which has rebounded from the 1970s and 1980s to carry over 5 million passengers per day, has become too vital to slip back into that morass of decay and neglect.

For the past few years, though, fears of a regression have crept into news coverage of the subways. It’s certainly true that deferred maintenance brought about by an underfunded capital plan will risk sending the subways into a lull, but over the past 25 years, the MTA has invested heavily in its state of good repair. Although stations and their components aren’t up to par, the tracks, switches and signals that truly count are in far better shape than the naked eye can see. If the station walls are crumbling, riders are willing to overlook cosmetic blemishes as long as the trains run regularly and quickly.

When accidents happen though — such as the derailment on the 6 train the other week — the fears creep up a notch. At Transportation Nation yesterday, Jim O’Grady spoke to some riders who worry about the bad old days. The October 24 incident was the third derailment in six months, but no one was injured as the train jumped the tracks early in the morning. Still, New Yorkers like to fret, and fret they shall. “If they keep cutting the budget and keep raising the fare, less people will be able to ride it and it won’t be as reliable,” Straphanger Amber Morgan said.

O’Grady, who isn’t waxing nostalgic, notes how the system isn’t bad when we use its nadir as a comparison, but he notes that not everything is wine and roses these days. He writes:

Budget cuts have made some things worse. Recent NY MTA data show a 20 percent increase in trains arriving more than five minutes late at the end of their runs. But New York City Transit President Tom Prendergast said major service disruptions — like those caused by derailments — are not worsening because of belt-tightening

“We do not think it’s in any way related to budget issues or financial issues,” he said. “We treat every derailment very seriously. I mean, I was here at a point in time twenty years ago, when we had 27 derailments a year.”

Surprisingly, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign agrees with Prendergast. He said the NY MTA’s average of less than two derailments per year over the last five years is not bad. But Russianoff added delays and overcrowding are other matters. “You know, it’s not the bad old days yet,” he said. “But you have to worry about going down the slippery slope.”

As much as I believe that Albany has failed the MTA and that the MTA’s debt bomb could have tremendous consequences for the operating budget and fares down the road, the system simply isn’t re-entering the bad old days. We’re not going to see 27 derailments per year as the MTA once averaged; we’re not going to see track fires and broken-down trains. The MTA’s current fleet of rolling stock and its obsessive attention to track beds and in-tunnel infrastructure has insured our system against such an immediate future. A one-off derailment happens.

The real worries though are about the long-term future. If the MTA doesn’t get the infusion of capital it needs and if it can’t continue to invest over the next 10, 15 or 20 years, then we can begin to worry. The system broke down in the 1970s and 1980s because rolling stock that had long outlived its shelf life was still being pressed into service each day while track beds and signal systems that were 40-70 years old weren’t being maintained and upgraded.

It’s very tough for those of us living in the here and now to see beyond our immediate needs. I want my train to arrive quickly in the morning when I come to work, and I don’t want to wait out a sick passenger or pushy straphangers. The fears and concerns about the bad old days though lurk in the distant background. They won’t crop up tomorrow, next week or next month. But do we have the foresight today to avoid a disaster in 2025 or 2035? With the MTA’s debt levels rising, I don’t think we do.

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Alex C November 8, 2011 - 1:31 am

Trains aren’t constantly breaking down, but those R142A’s on the 6 are rather crappy though. Damn things are ten years old and are already in awful condition. Either Westechester Yard is awful at what they do or Kawasaki’s build quality just wasn’t very good from the onset with that order. Also, some of the trackbed in the system looks awful. Parts of the Fulton IND and 4 Ave BMT look like the concrete slab is just about to crumble. Looks aren’t everything obviously, but I’d hope they’d get on that eventually.

Benjamin Kabak November 8, 2011 - 1:32 am

I could be more specific: There are definitely parts where the track bed hasn’t been replaced and needs to be. But the priority has been on addressing those components over station aesthetics. In a time of limited resources, I think that’s the right choice.

al November 8, 2011 - 1:57 am

Does anyone know if the MTA is considering self steering axle bogies on the next set of railcar orders? I believe there are some track condition related derailment issues with some models, where a conventional bogie might bang on through, but some bogies with axles that have some play might derail.

It might still be worth considering, since it would reduce rail and wheel wear and noise reduction around curves (especially elevated/open air/in station sections).

Alex C November 8, 2011 - 2:48 am

If they actually do something like that I will eat my hat. The super advanced R160’s don’t even have diaphragms between cars, let alone articulation and are grotesquely overweight. Any new railcars will be the same bland 1930’s style steel vaults on wheels with computer equipment on them and the same ultra-heavy trucks.

Eric November 8, 2011 - 9:15 am

I have to say, those articulated subway cars are really nifty. I rode on one in Paris and the extra room and ease of movement was very enjoyable.

al November 8, 2011 - 11:56 am

The R143/160’s are even more overweight than you think. The trucks are actually lighter than the old ones (15k-16k lbs each vs 18k-19k lbs on R32-R42). However, R32-R42 B division cars were 10k-15k lbs lighter in total empty weight.

I think they’re still spooked by the Rockwell truck fiasco. And there might be a certain sector in the NYCTA that still have memories of bad track conditions that might not play nice with lightweight equipment running on them.

John November 8, 2011 - 2:15 am

I’m curious as to how exactly they resolve a derailment issue. What type of equipment do they bring in to get the train back on track? How long does it usually take? What happens to the affected car/train when it is taken out of service thereafter?

Scott E November 8, 2011 - 11:07 am

There is a crane-like vehicle that rides along the tracks and can lift the derailed vehicle back on the track (assuming the wheels are not too severely damaged). The tunnels are designed with a few inches of additional height above the height of the train for this purpose. (The Steinway Tube, carrying the #7 under the East River, might be an exception).

Compare this to PATH, which does not have that extra headroom. I’m not sure how they would deal with derailments, but they don’t seem to happen often in that system.

al November 8, 2011 - 10:25 pm

There is the time tested methods of blocks of wood, jacks, bars of steel and chains attached to a locomotive.

Larry Littlefield November 8, 2011 - 8:41 am

“I’ve heard the horror stories and read the news clippings often enough to know that no one wants to relive those days.”

But for people like Sheldon Silver and those he (in reality) represents, however, the system is in good enough condition that a downward spiral could be allowed to happen and they’d before those days would be relived.

The condition of the system is the flip side of the debt bomb. Rather than properly funding maintenance and ongoing normal replacement, Generation Greed substituted a final debt for a physical one, and process that may soon reverse — starting in about two months.

John-2 November 8, 2011 - 10:12 am

The problem today is the same as it was in the 1960s, when the deferred maintenance problem really got going, and in a way is the same reason why politicians and planners are never all that gung-ho about subway improvements. Whether it’s building the Second Avenue line or fixing cracked concrete ties on a 100-year-old line, the public really can’t see what’s being done, in the same way a new building or even a repaved street or highway is easily noticeable.

The fact that building and maintaining the subway isn’t ‘showy’ and makes is tougher for politicians and other bureaucrats to show off the final results to the public makes those things easier for them to rationalize cutting. Up until now, the memory of the 1970s and 1980s riding horrors have been strong enough among the pols and the riding public to counter the inclination to cut funds from places people don’t notice. But the further away we get from the dark ages, the more that collective memory is going to fade and the more likely it is that we’re going to repeat the same cycle, with similar results.

Christopher November 8, 2011 - 10:35 am

So our streets are covered with light rail systems because people “can see it”? Please. There has been a coordinated and strong effort via the roadbuilding lobby, including the oil industry but also the auto industry and others, against transit improvements of any kind as being un-American, socialist and anti-individual. We build new bridges and roads in no time flat and at great expense (and heavily subsidized) without a care to it, not because we can see them but because from the USDOT on down that’s where the money is.

John-2 November 8, 2011 - 5:56 pm

The fact is politicians and others in power love building things they can take credit for that will be permanent monuments to themselves. It’s the same reason why Robert Moses disdained not just subways, but vehicular tunnels, seeing them as just bathrooms with cars inside.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have lobbies pushing for road transportation money over mass transit, but that is helped by the fact that roads, or grandiose public buildings, feed the egos of those who appropriate the money in a way something underground that’s new (and certainly preventive maintenance on an aging system) does not. Just because you hate GM, Firestone and Big Oil doesn’t mean you should spare Sheldon Silver amd the others in Albany in charge of the purse strings from your anger.

pea-jay November 8, 2011 - 10:42 am

Speaking of debt, who “owns” it. I understand that servicing it will become increasingly oppressive over the decades but is the MTA “independent” enough from NYS that if it went bankrupt and defaulted on the debt would NYS suffer an adverse credit rating? If NYS is sufficiently insulated from a default, the cynic in me thinks maybe the goal is to load the MTA up with debt (while maintaining the physical infrastructure) until it is maxed out, then bankrupt the organization (which would also terminate all labor agreements) and re-constitute the operations in some new entity, debt free and able to set new work rules and pay scales.

Or am I off base here?

Larry Littlefield November 8, 2011 - 10:52 am

That’s one possible outcome. Two issues:

The City of New York actually owns the subways, except for the few segments of line built since 1968. But the bondholders could take all the subway cars and sell them from scrap in retaliation if they were not paid.

The bonds are triple tax free, which means they are held by cash rich people who don’t want to pay taxes like the little people. The way the public employee unions have pensions that are exempt from state and local taxes, so they don’t have to pay taxes like the little people who don’t get pensions either. Do you really think the serfs would be able to stick it to those two groups, the people who matter in this state?

pete November 8, 2011 - 4:39 pm

Wrong. The bonds have no assets backing them.

The Series 2008A Bonds –
• are MTA’s special, not general, obligations, payable solely from the State taxes deposited into the Pledged Amounts Account of the
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Dedicated Tax Fund as described herein, and
• are not a debt of the State or The City of New York or any other local government unit.
MTA has no taxing power.

The Dedicated Tax Fund Bonds are MTA’s special obligations payable as to principal, redemption
premium, if any, and interest solely from the security, sources of payment and funds specified in the DTF
Resolution. Payment of principal of or interest on the Bonds may not be accelerated in the event of a default.
MTA Dedicated Tax Fund Bonds are secured primarily by the “SOURCES OF PAYMENT”
described above, and are not secured by
• the general fund or other funds and revenues of the State, or
• the other funds and revenues of MTA or any of its affiliates or subsidiaries.
The Bonds are not a debt of the State or The City of New York, or any other local governmental unit.
MTA has no taxing power.
Summaries of certain provisions of the DTF Resolution and the Standard Resolution Provisions have
been filed with EMMA and are available on MTA’s website.

Read more here http://www.mta.info/mta/investor/investor_02.htm

Then again, politically MTA bonds are government bonds, and there is no way the MTA or any other NYS “public benefit corporation” will ever default.

Scott E November 8, 2011 - 11:13 am

That may be the goal, but it would be a harmful one. The equipment the MTA uses is highly specialized, and I’d bet the vendors know the equipment and the systems better than anyone employed by the agency itself. If the default on payments for their equipment and services, a reorganized MTA would have a hard time convincing these same vendors to work with them, or to find new vendors to figure out what was done previously.

Larry Littlefield November 8, 2011 - 12:25 pm

Instead as it is the vendors default, and the MTA still does business with them, because it has not choice because “the equipment the MTA uses is highly specialized.”

Al D November 8, 2011 - 10:51 am

I was around for those days when we had red flag zones, track fires, trains taken out of service for a malfunctioning door/indication and six (60′) car or 4 (75′) car A, D, F trunk line trains on weekends and nights jammed to and past capacity. We are nowhere near that today.

Bolwerk November 8, 2011 - 1:29 pm

Being very general, I always think of it this way: we cleaned up nicely. But we never did something equally important: creating a lasting foundation for transit investment. For all the self-congratulation we see, it’s the second that is at least as important as the first.

Larry Littlefield November 8, 2011 - 1:48 pm

Let’s be fair, however: just look at all the dedicated tax streams that have been created for the MTA since the mid-1970s. Yes I know they have been raided, but look at them all! That should have been a lasting foundation.

Instead of just just spending them, the MTA borrowed against them. That enabled the state to have the revenues be insufficient, operating costs to be shifted to the capital budget, and contractors to raise prices.

Imagine the debt isn’t there, and the pensions aren’t underfunded, meaning no interest payments and less in pension contributions. Voila — raise the fare a little and the MTA has all the money it needs right now!

Just like Social Security. They enacted a higher payroll tax in 1983 and created a “trust fund.” But they just blew the money and put IOUs in the trust fund. Now they are talking about gutting Social Security for those under age 55, who have paid that higher payroll tax their entire careers. Fine for those wealthy enough to benefit from the lower income tax levels, but not for the rest.

Nathanael November 11, 2011 - 3:38 pm

In Social Security, it’s specifically Congress who borrowed from the trust fund. Social Security holds Treasury bonds which have the same right to repayment as every other Treasury bond, and holds enough to pay full benefits until 2044. At least.

This means that attempts to gut Social Security are an outright scam.

JAzumah November 8, 2011 - 9:13 pm

That is the problem: “It’s not that bad.”

Until it is.

The 1970s didn’t happen in the 1970s. It started in the 1950s and the situation boiled over in the 1970s. The question we have to ask ourselves is where will the hard line be drawn? Intiatives to ensure that proper maintenance gets done takes much money and many years. It took 25 years from when the politicians decided they had enough until the system reached a state of good repair. Infrastructure failures are rarely linear. They usually have this exponential thing going, where failures rapidly take off.

There are elevated systems that have had nothing but new paint since built. Tunnels need rehab. Stations need rehab. The signal system has monthly failures now. History shows that by the time people begin to panic, it is too late. The 2012 capital budget is “unfunded”. Is that enough warning?

Apparently, it is not. So we will go to the 1970s again. This time, businesses have viable alternatives in New Jersey, Connecticut, the DC Metro area, and several low tax western cities. When they leave, they will NOT come back.

Nathanael November 11, 2011 - 3:44 pm

The difference from the 1950s-1970s is substantial, but not in a way which disagrees with you.

The difference is fundamentally political. In the 1950s, roads were “the future”, people were buying cars as fast as they could, and cities were tearing out railroads as fast as they could. Even in Europe. Now, the mood among the people, the trend in demand, it’s all the other way around: driving is dropping, ridership is rising.

So this time, the raids by elected politicians *do not have popular support*. Anywhere. This means the outcome will be different: rather than allowing decline for 20 years, the decline will create hostility to politicians and social unrest.

Businesses won’t go to NJ (worse transit!) or Connecticut (worse transit!), or low tax western cities (no transit at all!) but may go to DC (perversely expanding transit with federal money while the rest of the US remains underfunded). Or they may go to Europe (the US government has been getting really erratic lately on many levels). Or they may go directly to China, or to South America.

Anyway. Social unrest. What happens after the social unrest I hesitate to predict.


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