• MTA, and SAS, operating on a Sunday schedule · With a big national holiday upon us, New York City Transit is operating on a Sunday schedule throughout the day today. While no work-related service advisories are in place, no weekday-only trains will run, and wait times will be longer than usual. As I have to trek all the way to the hinterlands of the Upper East Side, this will be my only post today. I’ll be back on Friday as long as Time Warner – an awful, awful compnay – manages to restore my Internet and cable service. Have a great Thanksgiving! · (2)

Over the next few hours, hundreds of thousands of people will flock to airports around the country. Some will take buses and taxis while others take subways and commuter rails. Many will rely on monorails to navigate through terminals, and others will have a short walk to the gate all in a mad dash to get somewhere before Thanksgiving.

It is, then, fitting that Michael Grynbaum started the day on The Times’ City Room blog with a paean to the Train to the Plane. For New Yorkers old enough to remember the 12-year subway experiment, the Train to the Plane was a three-car subway that made seven stops in Manhattan — three in midtown along the 6th Ave. line with a switch to the 8th Ave. line south of W. 4th St. — and one at Jay st. in Brooklyn before going express to Howard Beach. In the days before the JFK AirTrain, airport-bound passengers then had to take a shuttle bus to the terminals.

The fares for an express bus with luggage racks and on-board officers weren’t cheap. The ride, as Grynbaum, relates, cost $3.50 in 1978 (or $11.60 in 2009 dollars) and rose to $6.75 by the time service was discontinued in 1990. The train remains part of subway lore though, and Grynbaum tells more of the story:

After a year, the train was handling about 2,000 rides a day, or 12 percent of all trips to J.F.K. from Manhattan. Gas shortages and two strikes on the city’s bus lines helped attract interest — not to mention the infectious theme song, composed by Charles Morrow, a celebrated jingle writer and one-time collaborator with Simon & Garfunkel.

But there was backlash. The train ended before the actual airport, so passengers had to switch to a bus. “Internally, we used to call it ‘take the train to the bus to the plane,’ ” said Trudy L. Mason, who helped oversee the express train service at the transportation authority.

And everyday subway-goers had to be reminded not to step onto the specially marked express trains, which loaded at the regular subway platforms. “One erring passenger did find his way aboard,” a reporter for The Times noted in May 1979. “When the conductor tried to collect the $3 fare, the man apparently thought he was being shaken down and refused to pay.”

The trains, graffiti-free and patrolled by a police officer, were the cleanest in the system, which some riders seemed to resent. “These brand new air-conditioned J.F.K. trains pull into stations with horns blaring,” Joseph J. Filippone of South Ozone Park, Queens, wrote to The Times on July 18, 1979. “They go gliding by, almost always at least three-quarters empty, while thousands of commuters are resigned to stuff themselves into already overcrowded, hot and dirty trains.”

By June 1980, The Times was already wondering: “JFK Train: Wasteful or Wonderful?” The train was running a $2.5 million annual deficit, and officials began discussing an early demise.

As passengers eventually realized that they could reach JFK by taking a slightly longer trip but paying just the regular fare by riding the A train, the Train to Plane fell to the wayside. Every few years, City officials begin a push for a true raillink, a dedicated track that would connect Lower Manhattan to the JFK Airport. We missed an opportunity to build one out to then-Idlewild when Robert Moses built his highways, and due to an estimated cost of nearly $10 billion, we saw a recent effort die in spite of a guaranteed $2 billion federal grant.

And so we remember jingles and long-gone express trains. As many travel for the holidays, we take moderns trains to modern monorails to over-capacity airports. One day, our Train to the Plane may come, but it won’t arrive any time soon.

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  • Northbound Cortlandt St. platform reopens today · At 2 p.m. this afternoon, MTA officials and New York politicians were gather at Cortlandt St. for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the reopening of the northbound Cortland St. platform. For the first time since August 2005, Queens-bound R/W trains on the BMT Broadway line will stop at the Cortlandt St. station. Unfortunately, due to prior plans, I won’t be able to make the ceremony at which MTA Chairman and CEO Jay H. Walder, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator Dan Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Councilman Alan Gerson will appear. I do, however, hope to snap some pictures of the renovated station later today. The southbound platform will remain closed until at least early 2011. · (10)


Coming soon: a break in the London Underground’s Circle Line

For New Yorkers accustomed to our snaking subway system, the concept of a feeder-style circle line is a foreign one. Our trains run from borough to borough, from the eastern-most reaches of Queens to the northern parts of Manhattan, from Coney Island to the Norwood, and the closest route we have to a circle are the short Shuttle routes in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In London, though, the Circle Line is a way of life. This yellow line makes a loop around Zone 1 of the London Underground and offers passengers connection to every other Tube line. With no way out of the loop, this line is subject to frequent delays and is among the least reliable in London.

Yet, Londoners have a love-hate relationship with it. Apocryphal tales are told of drunk Londoners who ride around the line in circles until the Tubes shut down while tourists often board trains heading the wrong way around the loop. The Circle Line has even spawned an annual pub crawl requiring participants to down 28 drinks — one at a pub near each station and one on the train — in 12 hours.

But starting December 13, the Circle Line will be a circle no more. As The Times of London reports, Transport for London is cutting the loop with the aim of improving reliability along this delay-plagued line, and although riders will no longer be able to ride in a circle, the line will retain its iconic name. Fiona Hamilton writes:

In an upgrade to one of the capital’s oldest Tube lines, whose trains have previously travelled in loops, it is being extended to Hammersmith, in West London, with a tail added to the existing track. There will no longer be a through service between the west and north sides of the current Circle: accidental snoozers will be woken up to change trains at Edgware Road.

Transport for London (TfL) said that the changes would bring vast improvements. The Circle Line passes many of the capital’s landmarks, including the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament, yet has been unreliable.

TfL said that during disruptions the line’s continuous nature had resulted in particularly severe delays: the lack of a start and a terminus meant that trains “backed up” along the track. As the District Line and Hammersmith and City Line share parts of its track, disruptions on those services also result in delays on the Circle Line. Under the new system, defective trains would be more easily removed from the line, resulting in less disruption as well as a more frequent service.

I’ve been to London a few times, and I’m always struck by the Circle Line stations. Many of them resemble the Notting Hill Gate station and feature open-air trenches with some beautifully built arches along the walls. I never had the chance to ride the complete circle and now never will.

Over at Human Transit, Jarrett Walker offers up his views on the end of the circle. There is a reason why none of New York’s subways run on a loop. It is an inefficient way to construct a reliable subway station and results in what Walker calls “awkward” provisions for layovers, recovery times and unexpected train problems.

In a way, then, the opening of the Circle Line reminds me of the Second Ave. Subway’s long-gone third track. With nowhere to go, stalled trains along Second Ave. will snare the entire route. It won’t be nearly as easy to fix as Transport for London’s Circle Line extension is.

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  • Stories from inside the D train come to light · Pete Donohue, Rocco Parascandola and Samuel Goldsmith, staff writers with the Daily News, have tracked down the man responsible for pulling the emergency brake on the D train on Saturday. Although police credited the one-minute delay caused by the brake with helping them secure the 53rd St. station following Dwight Johnson’s murder, officials warned against pulling the brake as it often delays emergency response teams. Furthermore, as the Daily News editorial writers note today, pulling the cord creates an “isolated death trap” in the middle of a dark tunnel.

    Still, Vincent Martinez’s story is illuminating. He says that alleged killer Gerardo Sanchez kept yelling at Johnson, “You should have let me sit down” and that Johnson did not punch Sanchez, as was originally reported. Martinez, a security guard, first tried to knock on the door of the train driver’s cab, but when the driver refused to come out, he pulled the emergency brake instead. Later, Martinez told police that he did not know who pulled the brake and that he didn’t see anything. He says he didn’t want to get arrested for pulling the brake cord after the motorman told Martinez that he should not have pulled the cord. It sounds as though this D train on Saturday morning was a gruesome and bloody scene for those 30 people in the car with Sanchez and Johnson. · (11)
  • Riding the rails, alone, for 11 days · I don’t have too much editorializing to add to the story featured on the front page of The Times today other than to say check it out. Kirk Semple relates the tale of a 13-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who ran away from home and spent 11 days riding the D, F and 1 trains. Despite widespread efforts by police and the child’s parents to find him, it took nearly two weeks for an officer to recognize the boy as he sat in a D train at Stillwell Ave. on Coney Island. It’s easy to forget how busy and how crowded the subways are, and this harrowing tale with a happy ending reminds us of the magnitude of New York’s subway system. · (4)

In 1980, through the first eight months of the year, the crime-riddled New York City subway system witnessed 15 murders, up from ten over the first eight months of 1979. Saturday morning’s murder on the D train was just the second such incident of 2009. It’s no wonder, then, that three days later, the city’s news outlets are still buzzing with features and stories about the underground killing.

While we explored the lessons riders could learn from this murder, the police response to an on-board crime in a subway car filled with people has led to some debate as well. After Gerardo Sanchez allegedly stabbed Dwight Johnson and the subway conductor and police were alerted to the crime, the subway car doors were sealed. Passengers were left inside with the killer for a few minutes until police could secure the area to ensure that Sanchez would not be able to escape.

Yesterday, facing some criticism over the decision to leave innocent bystanders in a car with a knife-wielding killer, NYPD Commissioner Tom Kelly defended the decision:

Kelly said the NYPD took the right steps early Saturday morning to contain Gerardo Sanchez, a Bronx man accused of stabbing Dwight Johnson to death over a subway seat on the D train. “They [the passengers] pulled the alarm, they stopped the train between stations. As a result of that, when the train pulled into the station, officers were there, they got on the train and arrested the individual,” Kelly said.

The decision to keep all of the train doors locked except one while police took a few additional minutes to arrest the alleged killer as about 30 horrified passengers looked on was met with questions about police policy and procedure..

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the train was immediately met by police — and he dismissed questions that police left passengers locked in the subway car with a murderer — again noting that a passenger had pulled the emergency cord that had briefly stopped the train in the tunnel. He said police boarded the train through one open door in the front as soon as it was in the station. “Opening all doors and letting everybody run in every direction and having a murderer back out on the streets doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said..

Meanwhile, the Daily News did one of its person-on-the-street stories, and those quotes featured for print all were critical of the decision. Just one person — a lawyer, to boot — defended the MTA. “It shows people in the future that if you commit a crime on the train, you’re going to get caught,” Leo Genn said. “My instinct is they did the right thing.”

The Post takes a more critical approach. The problem, the paper alleges, stemmed from the person who decided to pull the emergency brake. In a statement to Gothamist, Charles Seaton clarified Transit’s view on the pulling cord. “Use the emergency cord only to prevent an accident or injury…” the Transit spokesman said. “But if your train is between stations and someone aboard becomes ill, do not pull the emergency cord. The train will stop, preventing medical professionals from reaching the sick passenger. A sick person is better off if the train goes to the nearest station where police and medical services will be waiting or can be quickly summoned, without interruption.”

With crime down in the subways, riders are accustomed to police responses and emergency brake procedures. Murders almost never happen underground these days, and the attention this one has garnered is just proof positive of the progress the city has made in combating subway crime over the last 30 years. I think the police acted expeditiously to catch a killer, and I hope the 20-30 people in the D train on Saturday morning recognize that. Still, it must have been one terrifying experience.

Categories : Subway Security
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  • More details emerge on Saturday subway slaying · Earlier today, I offered up my take on what we can learn from Saturday’s senseless subway killing. As the day has worn on, more details about both men have emerged (Daily News, Post). The alleged killer was an exterminator who suffered a fall a few weeks ago and had been on pain medication. The victim was an extreme germaphobe who used his bag to act as a buffer between him and the outside world. These were two people who were not well, and both ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The most recent details focus around the conflict. We know that Gerardo Sanchez, the alleged perp, asked Dwight Johnson to move his bag, but while earlier reports said that Johnson started the physical fight, eyewitnesses say that Johnson complied after pointing out other open seats. Sanchez then started yelling at Johnson and stabbed him in the neck, severing the carotid artery and killing him instantly. As passengers gathered to one end of the car, Sanchez sat there in a stupor.

    Clearly, then, if this account is accurate, we can see how any outside interference was nearly impossible in this situation. One man snapped, and a few seconds later, the other was dead. No one else could have stepped in to be a hero, and the fact that Sanchez had a knife and no gun and did not turn on anyone else in the car is a relief. · (1)

Earlier today, I appeared on a story on Marketplace about the Second Ave. Subway and subway construction in general during tough economic times. You can listen to the story via the player at right or you can find it online right here. Jeremy Hobson and I spoke at length about the economics behind the Second Ave. Subway and the ongoing construction on the East Side, and his story explores why this economic downturn hasn’t yet killed the Second Ave. Subway as the downturn in the 1970s did.

To summarize my thoughts briefly, the issue comes down to both the politics and mechanisms of the current funding. Much of the money for the project was secured before the economy went south, and the federal dollars are specifically earmarked for the Second Ave. Subway construction. In the 1950s, the transit agency could siphon funds away from the project to invest in other areas of maintenance while in the 1970s, the costs were funded through a scheme that resembled a pay-as-you-go structure. The Feds ensured that the money would be there this time around, and the MTA can continue to work through a bad economy.

Additionally, the Second Ave. Subway, while not a stimulus-funded project, acts as one anyway. By continuing work, the MTA continues to employ contractors and construction crews. Constant investment in this decade-long project creates constant jobs, and to kill it now would be politically ugly and economically unwise.

In the end, as I said to Hobson, I am uncertain of the future of Phases III and IV of the Second Ave. Subway. Phase II relies on preexisting tunnel, and Phase I, I believe, will finish. But beyond that, the money and the timeline remains ever so out of reach. For now, though, construction continues apace along Second Ave.

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On early Saturday morning, for just the second reported time this year, a man was murdered on New York City Transit property. Although the details remain vague, a 37-year-old Bronx man named Gerardo Sanchez was arrested for the murder. I don’t want to be put too much stock into just the second incident this year, but we can see a few lessons for riders in this rather senseless death.

Yesterday evening, the Village Voice’s Runnin’ Scared blog summed up the various accounts of the murder:

According to the either dozen, two dozen, or nearly thirty other passengers in the car, Sanchez asked another passenger, Dwight Johnson, 36, to move his bags to free up a seat. Johnson refused, a decision the News calls “understandable” (the News went with both “a half-filled car” and a “nearly empty car”).

Sanchez, who per the Post is either “hulking” or a slightly-built 5’6,” argued with Johnson, at least six inches taller, until Johnson punched him in the face. At that point Sanchez pulled a steak knife and stabbed Johnson repeatedly in the hands and neck.

A passenger pulled the emergency cord and notified the conductor, who contacted police. He was told to seal the car, with a number of other passengers trapped inside, until police arrived at the…station five minutes later. Sanchez managed to slip the knife out of the train door, but it was retrieved from the tracks later.

Runnin’ Scared reported that the police arrived at Rockefeller Center to make the arrest while pictures showed Sanchez removed from the subway at 59th St./Columbus Circle. Other reports had the police at the 7th Ave. stop. Still, the crime happened in the blink of an eye between Rockefeller Center and 7th Ave.

Lesson #1: Do not place bags on the seat next to you

Although the <em>Daily News said that “no right-minded person” would demand a fellow passenger to remove a bag from a seat and that Johnson “understandably” declined, the reality is that Johnson was violating New York City Transit regulations. Section 1050.7 (j) of the Transit rules says that a person may not occupy more than one seat “when to do so would interfere or tend to interfere with the operation of the Authority’s transit system or the comfort of other passengers.”

Lesson #2: If someone asks, just comply

It’s often tempting — especially in half-full trains — to spread out and take it easy. Yet, we never know much about other riders. When someone asks to sit down, the best response is to simply remove your bags from the empty seat and allow them to sit down. If you get a vibe from the other passenger that perhaps you don’t want to be sitting next to them, get up and move. I know this approach seems to run counter to our normal sense of personal space and etiquette, but it falls under the “safe than sorry” category.

Lesson #3: Don’t pick fights with homeless riders

According to some reports, Mr. Johnson may have been a homeless rider on the subway. If so, this makes Mr. Sanchez’s decision to start this fight even more perplexing. One of my rules of the rails is to avoid any sort of confrontation with indigent riders. Nothing good can come of it, and I’ve seen far too many fights between homeless riders and other straphangers or amongst groups of homeless riders who feel others are invading their turf.

Lesson #4: Is there a collective action problem?

This one isn’t so much a lesson as it is a thought piece. A few people noted in the comments on Saturday’s short post about this incident that the other riders in the car should have come to Mr. Johnson’s defense. I err on the side of avoiding confrontations on the rails, especially those that involve knives. I can understand other people’s attempting to separate two men fighting, but this incident spiraled out of control in the two minutes it takes a train to go from Rockefeller Center to 7th Ave. Should we really expect passengers to step in? I don’t think so.

Lesson #5: Alert the driver or conductor

Late at night, it’s far safer to ride in either the front car or the middle car of the train. That way, the conductor or driver will be around in case of an emergency. Although the driver did not see the incident — probably because the new wider drivers booths often have blacked out front windows — he responded quickly once alerted to the emergency by another passenger. These workers will respond in case of a problem but often need to be told of the problem.

* * *

In the end, I am generalization from something that happens approximately twice every 1.5 billion underground trips. It can by psychologically crippling to walk around underground fearing a murder, but we can be smarter passengers for it when one happens.

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