Home Queens Full Queens Boulevard service to return Monday as derailment investigation continues

Full Queens Boulevard service to return Monday as derailment investigation continues

by Benjamin Kabak

Crews worked overnight to re-rail an F train that had derailed on Friday. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin.

The MTA never works better than when in crisis mode. When something bad happens, crews are diverted to solve the problem, and issues can be resolved quickly. For an agency known to drag its heels, intentionally or not, on long-term planning problems, it’s refreshing to see it spring into action when push comes to shove.

We saw this play out this past weekend when, on Friday at 10:30 a.m., an F train derailed in Queens. By the Friday evening rush hour, Transit had restored local service, and although trains were taken out of service along parts of the line on both Saturday and Sunday mornings this weekend, the MTA anticipates a normal rush hour with both express and local service by 5 a.m. Monday. Workers had to re-rail and then remove an eight-car train and repair around 500 feet of rail while inspecting nearby infrastructure to ensure trains can operate safely.

Meanwhile, the MTA shared some findings over the weekend that indicate the focus of their investigation as well as their safety record. First, it appears as though operator error was not to blame. While the 1991 Union Square derailment that led to four deaths was due to the result of a drunk motorman, officials have all but cleared the F train’s crew of wrong-doing. Rather, the derailment happened at a spot that has become the focal point of efforts to combat broken rails.

According to the MTA, the rail that snapped, leading to this derailment, was manufactured in November and installed this past March. It’s not clear if it was installed incorrectly or if it contained a defect. It will, Transit said, be sent for metallurgical testing. We’ll see what comes of that.

Overall though, it’s not surprising that this rail broke. As what the MTA describes as its effort to reduce derailments to zero, workers map broken and defective rails to identify where large-scale replacement and hardening efforts should occur. During the presentation on this topic to the MTA Board in February, Transit targeted the Queens Boulevard corridor as one of five problematic areas, and the MTA has plans to install 23 miles of continuous welded rail to reduce broken rails and noise and vibration issues. That project, unfortunately, isn’t due to start until 2015 when funding is in place. (The other areas include the 7th Ave. IRT from Dyckman south, the 8th Ave. line from 207th to Jay St., 6th Ave. between 59th and Jay St., and the Astoria line from 57th St. to the phantom stop/11th St. Cut area in Queens.)

It is also important to keep numbers in perspective. The MTA says it has experienced 17 mainline derailments in the last decade, and for a system that runs 8000 trains per day, the derailment rate is less than half the national average. As recently as 1980, the MTA reported 20 derailments in one calendar year. Still, as deferred maintenance re-enters the picture and as Queens subway riders climb aboard their express trains in the morning, tensions will be high. These derailments are bad news, and we don’t expect them. That’s why, of course, they garner so much news coverage. But they serve as a reminder why New York City needs a fully funded and fully supported capital plan for the MTA. Anything worse puts everyone in danger.

After the jump, a video of MTA workers rerailing the F train.

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Boris May 4, 2014 - 11:46 pm

“The MTA never works better than when in crisis mode.”

I’d give two main reasons for that. One, in emergencies, silos break down as people work together, face-to-face, across departments. Business as usual involves a lot of isolation, red tape, and “we don’t do it this way here”-itis.

Two, the operating vs capital distinction. Operations are focused on short term results, and there’s never a shortage of fires to put out. The capital departments are more concerned with being made redundant (and for good reason). To paraphrase the famous saying, it’s easier to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic than to tell hundreds of people that they (and their old processes, funding structures, and political decisions they enable) are the reason the ship is sinking.

BrooklynBus May 5, 2014 - 8:37 am

“The MTA never works better than when in crisis mode”

I have been saying the same thing for years. We seen it after 911, after Superstorm Sandy, and on many other occasions. All in infighting between departments stop, red tape disappears, the blame game ceases, and everyone just does what needs to get done. Why can’t it just be like that all the time?

John-2 May 5, 2014 - 12:26 am

The Daily News story seems to show the bulk of the broken rail problems are on the B Division (even the A division segment planned for work, on the 1 between Dyckman and Chambers had fewer than 100 incidents over an 11-mile segment, about 40 percent the total for the 207th-Hoyt segment, with only two additional miles in distance for the Eighth Avenue line).

I’m not sure if that indicates the longer/heavier B division railcars may be more of a strain on the rails that the IRT equipment, but the sections targeted by the MTA for special work don’t seem to correlate with the numbers of trains per hour on the lines (or some segment of the Lex would definitely be on the list).

Tower18 May 5, 2014 - 11:34 am

I wondered this as well. The worst segment is the 8th Av line, which is relatively straight and not terribly high-traffic. Only the CPW Express segment sees any high level of sustained speed (like Queens Blvd), and even that is much slower than it should be. What indeed about these B division lines makes them more prone to breakage?

BruceNY May 5, 2014 - 9:15 pm

And you raise a good point: why is the longest, straightest express run (CPW) so relatively slow? The 7th Ave. IRT runs much faster even with all the gentle curves on Broadway.

Spendmor Wastemor May 5, 2014 - 10:38 pm

Bureaucritters and planners looove slow, it means more staff and management is required to move the same number of riders, who will be reminded that their little lives are largely futile. 18 mph is plenty for the proles.

Nathanael May 6, 2014 - 1:20 am

Well, honestly, I believe the IRT lines have had their track redone more recently.

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 7:18 am

Replacing rails is an operating cost, because it has to be done on an ongoing basis on lines that already exist.

Not that it has always been funded that way in the Generation Greed era.

Quirk May 5, 2014 - 11:09 am

Who’s generation Greed? Is it the baby boomers?

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 12:17 pm

The way I use the term, it’s the so-called “Silent Generation” and the first half of the Baby Boomers, those born 1930 to 1958 or so. They had the highest average wages in U.S. history, higher than those who can before and (in a surprise) those coming after.


And yet they’ve run up a massive public and private debt to be foisted on those coming after, so they could live large or live they way they used to as our economy went down, depending on your politics.


Following “Generation Greed” you had Generation Apathy. “We’re screwed anyway, so let’s just worry about ourselves and not the big picture.” That’s what I heard from my peers over the years, who will find out how well that works out when they reach deep old age and are offered medical marijuana followed by legal assisted suicide instead of Social Security and Medicare. As for transit? As the debt keeps going up and up as we borrow for ongoing costs with long term debt, better learn to ride a bike.

CHristopher May 5, 2014 - 1:37 pm

The thesis sort of makes sense but the dates would be wrong, those born in the silent generation (which is generally before the baby boomers) were such a small demographic that they wouldn’t have had the electoral clout to influence the electorate. It was more the so-called Greatest Generation that wanted to keep their post-War growth growing while social changes were bringing more people into the workforce and the suburbanization that desiccated the cities. The tax revolts, the anti-unionization, the pro-corporate chafes following the malaise of the 1970s wasn’t led by my parents generation it was lead by my grandparent’s generation. Those themes were picked up by the boomers in the 1980s. All being influenced by a by money interests on the right that had been laying in wait. Of course is a similarly simplistic view. I guess to say it was one generations fault is really probably a poor idea anyway but those who were leading the charge and who were in the position of power to do it were the Greatest Generation. Not the Silent Generation.

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 1:50 pm

“Were such a small demographic that they wouldn’t have had the electoral clout to influence the electorate.”

They were lucky enough to come of age at the right time. I’d bet they expected each generation to be better off than the one before, so they didn’t see the need to save or build for the future like the Greatest Generation. That turned out to be wrong.

The soaring debts date to 1980, if you look at the chart. So do the multi-tier contracts, with younger generations paid less. There were different ways the realization that we weren’t quite THAT rich could have played out. Screwing the next generation is the one chosen — over and over again, in the public and private sectors.

Nathanael May 6, 2014 - 1:19 am

1980: also when Reagan showed up with his “tax cuts for the rich, military pork for the rich, nothing for the 99%, and magic asterisks for the budget” policies.

Not coincidental.

I have wondered how so much bamboozling could have been so successful during the 1980s. I have one hypothesis: lead poisoning.


Unfortunately, members of the Generations of Lead Poisoning are now dominant in the upper executive echelons, and we see complete madness and incompetence in corporate boardrooms…

Bolwerk May 6, 2014 - 2:31 pm

Probably a bad explanation for politics. Lead may impact impulse control, but it also leads to severe cognitive impairment. With few exceptions, politicians (even Republikans) tend to be of normal intelligence or above.

A better explanation is we’re dealing with some or all of the following: anti-social personalities, narcissism, borderliners, and psychopathy. More than one observer has noted that Paul Ryan might actually be a sociopath. And Chris Christie really seems to be borderline (irrationality, impulsivity, mean-spiritedness…even the overeating!). And the narcissism describes people like Schumer and Cuomo quite well.

BeorumHillScott May 5, 2014 - 9:20 am

From an accounting perspective, replacing rails is a capital item that becomes an expense item over time as the work is depreciated.

In this case they are upgrading the rails to continuous weld, so it is even more clear case of capital.

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 12:19 pm

How about replacing spare parts on trains? Painting? Replacing diesel fuel in buses? Surely the MTA should issue 30-year bonds to pay for each year of this sort of thing, until debt service and pension costs equal 100 percent of revenues and those who matter are all in Florida.

BoerumHillScott May 5, 2014 - 12:39 pm

I agree with your general statements, but replacing rails is a lot different from supplies and wages.

In general I am fine with debt when it is for capital items and there is a payoff schedule that matches the useful life of the item.

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 1:45 pm

Where is the added revenue and/or cost savings to pay off the interest if you are just replacing existing rails on an existing line? It isn’t there. You have to keep replacing rail to avoid losing service, riders, your tax base, on an ongoing location.

New infrastructure (Flushing Extension, SAS, ESA) can accommodate more riders, attract more development, expand the tax base. So you can borrow for that.

So can investments that cut the need for labor, if the cost of the investment does not exceed the labor saved (and it is actually saved, unlike with CBTC).

But if you borrow for ongoing normal replacement, you just end up using more and more of your EXISTING revenues for debt, leaving less and less for transportation and future maintenance. Which is where we are.

Larry Littlefield May 5, 2014 - 1:46 pm

When you have real capital investment, there is a rate of return on it, hopefully one that exceeds the debt service cost. So in accounting sense, replacing rail doesn’t qualify.

Bolwerk May 5, 2014 - 12:50 pm

Depends, no? Replacing a part on a train or line that routinely needs replacing is probably an operating expense; do a midlife refurbishment of a car and it’s probably a capital expense. Replace peeling paint in a single station and it’s probably operating; repaint all the stations along a line, and you probably have a capital expense. Fuel used in revenue service is probably always an operating expense.

I don’t know that using derivatives and bonds to buy fuel is that ridiculous. Buy fuel futures or contract forwards, and issue bonds to cover the sale and you have a pretty good grip on your operating expenses for fuel over the time period. I suspect the MTA has a stable enough revenue stream to make the bond part overkill though.

lop May 5, 2014 - 3:11 pm

If a train car gets refurbished once after twenty years of service, for accounting purposes, it would be a capital expense, with an annual operating expense equal to the depreciation cost. If you have a large rail fleet, and you refurbish cars every year, they are each capital expenses by accounting rules. By borrowing for it, the MTA increases the cost of each refurbish. But because the rail fleet is large enough that this happens on a regular basis, the MTA shouldn’t face a cash flow problem in paying for the refurbish without taking on debt. Maybe the rail fleet isn’t actually large enough. The last five years of the MTA’s twenty year plan does see zero dollars spent on new rail cars, because disinvestment knocked replacement schedule off track and it’s not evenly distributed anymore. But there are other capital costs that have to be made on an on going basis system wide. So the MTA should be able to balance it out well enough that total costs vary little in any five year window. So none of these ongoing capital expenses should have to be paid for with long term debt, which only increases costs and forces those costs on to future riders/taxpayers. Short term debt(less than five years) to deal with any potential cash flow issues is more excusable, but probably not necessary in general.

The only capital expenses the MTA should ever borrow for long term are the ones that reduce costs, say by reducing the need for labor, assuming labor is actually reduced, or increase revenue, by expanding the system, and even then, only borrow so much that the added revenue or reduced costs cover the cost of debt service.

Spendmor Wastemor May 5, 2014 - 10:41 pm

Careful, with ideas like that they might hire you.

Bolwerk May 5, 2014 - 12:37 pm

An emergency replacement is probably an operating expense, or at least could be treated as one. The upgrade, which happens in the future over a long period of time, will definitely be a capital expense.


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