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Link: The damaging noise levels of the subway

by Benjamin Kabak

By and large, the subways are not a very forgiving environment. Filled with rats, garbage and a general lack of cleanliness, it’s too hot in the summer, and too stuffy in the winter. It’s also loud. With a constant barrage of announcement, screeching brakes, and express trains rushing by, we expose our sensitive ears to noise on a regular basis. Just how loud the subways are and how damaging the noise exposure can be is a constant topic.

Today, in The Times’ Science section, the regular Q&A column tackles that question. Linking to a 2006 study (that predates this site by a few months), C. Claiborne Ray explains that constant exposure to the noise of the subway system could pose a threat of hearing loss. Writes Ray, “Guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization set a limit of 45 minutes’ exposure to 85 decibels, the mean noise level measured on subway platforms. And nearly 60 percent of the platform measurements exceeded that level. The maximum noise levels inside subway cars were even higher than those on the platforms, with one-fifth exceeding 100 decibels and more than two-thirds exceeding 90 decibels.”

Recent technology has included sound dampeners on some new rolling stock. It may, then, be time to re-run the study, but in one regard, we’re doing ourselves no favors by shoving headphones into our ears. The NIH study notes that “personal listening devices only increased the total noise and risk.” So there you have it. Or as a certain Twitter account might put it: GUYS, it’s loud in the subway, and The Times is ON IT.

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13 comments

Andy August 13, 2013 - 2:25 pm

What about the elevated trains? Walking under the J train along Broadway is not quiet!

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Nyland8 August 15, 2013 - 6:54 am

New elevated train construction can be nearly silent – at least not above the din of street noise.

Using pre-cast, pre-stressed post-tensioned concrete construction – like what was done on the AirTrain from Jamaica to JFK – can make elevated trains be almost unnoticeably quite.

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Sal August 13, 2013 - 2:48 pm

Don’t forget about the panhandlers/”performers” that impose their noise on us both in the subways and at certain stations (Union Square is always deafening). It is a public health concern and more should be done to stop subway “showtime” and the the other street “performers”.

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BBnet3000 August 13, 2013 - 3:10 pm

I dont find the subway that loud generally, but some of the gaps where rails are fastened together can be very loud, and the screeching in tight curves.

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John-2 August 13, 2013 - 4:21 pm

Upper South Ferry’s reopening definitely boosted the system’s station noise quotient a bit.

I think in general the IRT and BMT noise is more related to stations being either on curves or directly adjacent to curves just outside the station — where the screeching wheel sounds float into the station — while the IND has fewer problems with noise from curves but more with the horrific designs from a noise standpoint it’s builders opted for on the Eighth Avenue line (offset stations at 42nd and Chambers-WTC and the CPW local stations that were just set up to bounce express train noise off the walls and into the ears of the customers on the platforms).

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SEAN August 13, 2013 - 4:24 pm

What’s that? can you say that again? Oh never mind – it’s another subway train.

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Alon Levy August 13, 2013 - 5:17 pm

Well, I think that

… (insert 30 seconds of express train passing noise)…

platform screen doors would practically eliminate train noise on platforms. In addition to the already large safety gains and the ability to air-condition platforms, the benefits of this would be very large.

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SEAN August 13, 2013 - 5:58 pm

Oh I agree, but is it feezable?

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Alon Levy August 13, 2013 - 9:05 pm

Didn’t the MTA say it costs THREE! MILLION! DOLLARS!!!!111!!1 per two-track station as a way of scaring people away from the idea?

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Alex C August 13, 2013 - 7:17 pm

The Grand Central and Union Square stations on the Lexington IRT absolutely need platform doors. If the MTA does it at any stations, has to be those two. I know there are gap-fillers on the southbound platform at Union Square, but it’s 2013, it’s doable. The noise at the curves is just impossibly loud and piercing. Two stations; get it done.

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Alex C August 13, 2013 - 7:18 pm

As an addition, in case it wasn’t obvious, I meant for the platform doors to enclose the platform and use plenty of noise abatement.

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Patrick August 13, 2013 - 8:42 pm

The train cars on the El in Chicago are impossibly loud, but I never realized it until I moved here.

Not to diminish this issue, but riding the train there is like riding the Cyclone at night – dark and deafening.

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BruceNY August 14, 2013 - 10:52 am

Whenever the BMT 49th Street Station was renovated in the early 70’s (and that red tile was put up), they also installed sound absorbing panels in the ceiling and between tracks. It is dramatically quieter in this station, even when expresses roll through, than in any other station that I can think of. Couldn’t they re-visit that as a possible solution? It’s bound to be less costly than platform doors, and never seem to require any sort of maintenance.

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