There’s an exceedingly small threat of snow for Sunday night into Monday that seems to be growing smaller with each new weather forecast. It’s going to be cold again next week for a few days, but we’re getting used to a late winter of temperature fluctuations. No matter the forecast, this weekend’s work is going on as scheduled.

Before I jump in, don’t forget to RSVP for Wednesday’s Problem Solvers. I’m talking about the future of fare payment systems with Michael DeVitto, Transit’s head of fare payment programs. We’ll delve into the MetroCard’s immediate fate and various other topics relating to fare payment.

And here’s the rest of everything for the weekend:

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, South Ferry-bound 1 trains run express run express from 145 St to 96 St due to steel repair work south of 125 St to 133 St.

From 6:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, Bronx-bound 2 trains run express from E180 St 241 St due to switch repairs south of 219 St.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, 2 trains run local in both directions between 96 St and Times Sq-42 St due to track work at Times Sq-42 St.

From 11:45 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. Friday, March 14 to Sunday, March 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, March 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, 3 service is suspended due to track work at Times Sq-42 St. Take 2 trains or free shuttle buses running between 135 St and 148 St.

From 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, 3 trains are suspended in both directions between Franklin Av and New Lots Av due to subway car testing south of Crown Hts Utica Av. Take 4 trains for service between Franklin Av and Crown Hts Utica Av. Free shuttle buses operate between Crown Hts Utica Ave and New Lots Av making all 3 line subway station stops.

From 6:00 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, 3 trains run local in both directions between 96 St and Times Sq-42 St due to track work at Times Sq-42 St.

From 3:30 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, March 16, 4 trains are suspended between 149 St-Grand Concourse and Woodlawn in both directions due to panel installation at Bedford Pk Blvd. Take the D train or free shuttle buses.

From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 4:00 a.m. Sunday, March 17, Bronx-bound 4 trains run local from Brooklyn Bridge City Hall to Grand Central-42 St due to track maintenance north of 14 St-Union Sq.

From 5:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and from 7:45 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday, March 16, 5 trains run every 20 minutes between Eastchester Dyre Av and Bowling Green due to track maintenance north of 14 St-Union Sq. Bronx-bound 5 trains run local from Brooklyn Bridge City Hall to Grand Central-42 St.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 4:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, Pelham Bay Park-bound 6 trains run express from Parkchester to Pelham Bay Park due to station renewal work at Middletown Rd and Castle Hill Av stations.

From 2:00 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, 7 trains are suspended between Times Sq-42 St and Queensboro Plaza due to CBTC signal work and hurricane-related repair work in the Steinway tunnel, and track tie replacement work at Queensboro Plaza. Use E FNQ trains for service between Manhattan and Queens. Free shuttle buses make all subway station stops between Vernon Blvd-Jackson Av and Queensboro Plaza. The 42 Street Shuttle operates overnight.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, March 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, March 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, Manhattan-bound A trains run express from Canal St to 59 St Columbus Circle due column reinforcements between Canal St and W 4 St Wash Sq.

From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, Manhattan-bound C trains run express from Canal St to 59 St Columbus Circle due to column reinforcements between Canal St and W 4 St Wash Sq.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, March 15, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, E trains run local in both directions between Jackson Hts Roosevelt Av and Forest Hills 71 Av due to signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Av and Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17Queens-bound E trains run express from Canal St to 34 St Penn Station due column reinforcements between Canal St and W 4 St Wash Sq.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, Queens-bound F trains run express from Church Av to Smith 9 Sts due to signal work at Church Av.

From 12:30 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, F trains run local in both directions between Jackson Hts Roosevelt Av and Forest Hills-71 Av due to signal modernization at Forest Hills-71 Avenue and Kew Gardens-Union Turnpike.

From 11:45 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, Queens-bound G trains run express from Church Av to Smith 9 Sts due to signal work at Church Av.

From 5:45 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15 and Sunday, March 16, J trains are suspended between Delancey St Essex St and Hewes St due to track work on the Williamsburg Bridge. Take free shuttle buses.

From 6:45 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and Sunday, March 16, Ditmars Blvd-bound N trains are rerouted via the D line from Coney Island Stillwell Av to 36 St due to design survey work near 20 Av.

From 10:30 p.m. Friday, March 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, Q trains are suspended between Prospect Park and Kings Hwy in both directions due to track panel work from Church Av to Newkirk Av. Take free shuttle buses.

From 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Saturday, March 15, and from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Sunday, March 16, Q service is extended to Ditmars Blvd to replace partially-suspended 7 service due to CBTC signal work and hurricane-related repair work in the Steinway tunnel, and track tie replacement work at Queensboro Plaza.

(42nd St)
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, March 15 to 6:00 a.m. Monday, March 17, 42 Street Shuttle trains operate overnight.

Categories : Service Advisories
Comments (3)

In a scathing report concerning Metro-North’s recent safety troubles, the FRA accused the railroad of prioritizing trumped-up on-time performance over everything else, including safety, and urged the agency to make top-to-bottom changes to ensure the accidents we’ve seen over the past year do not become routine. The report comes just over three months after the fatal Spuyten Duyvil crash and a few days after a train struck and killed a worker on the Park Avenue viaduct.

The 31-page report is available on USDOT’s website. It does not hold back. In all aspects of operations, ranging from procedures near at-grade crossings to operations, the FRA urged the MTA to refocus on safety. “The overemphasis of on-time performance has had a detrimental effect on safety, adversely affecting the inspection and maintenance of track and negatively impacting train operations,” the report says. “Interviews and observations by FRA during the course of Deep Dive indicate that safety on Metro-North was routinely overshadowed by its emphasis of on-time performance. Employees across all crafts expressed concern with this emphasis, and further expressed the view that, while their individual safety is important, the need to maintain on-time performance is often perceived as the most important criteria.”

Furthermore, while the lack of PTC is directly to blame for December’s crash, overall, the FRA found “safety culture” lacking. “Currently, no single department or office, including the Safety Department, proactively advocates for safety, and there is no effort to look for, identify, or take ownership of safety issues across the operating departments,” the report states. “An effective Safety Department working in close communication and collaboration with both management and employees is critical to building and maintaining a good safety culture on any railroad. Metro-North’s current safety culture fails to create a positive and productive environment that encourages safe operations, and the Safety Department is ineffective as a proactive safety advocate.”

Metro-North leaders, in a press conference this morning, vowed to respond quickly. “Safety must come first at Metro-North. I will not allow any Metro-North trains to run unless I’m confident that they will run safely,” Joseph Giulietti, Metro-North president, said. “Safety was not the top priority. It must be and it will be.”

Transit advocates embraced the report’s recommendations. “Metro-North Railroad must act promptly and decisively to put its operation in order,” Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council Chair Randolph Glucksman said.
Failing to make real and meaningful changes in railroad rules, practices, and culture not only threatens the safety of Metro-North’s operation, but puts at risk the trust and faith of its riders. Metro-North’s reputation among its riders has been built over thirty years, and now is the time for management to refocus on the foundations of their operation and once again earn the riders’ confidence.”

The MTA has until May 17 to submit a safety plan, and the feds plan to meet with Metro-North officials next month to begin planning. The public’s trust in Metro-North, once the shining star amongst New York City’s commuter rail lines, depends upon it.

Categories : Metro-North
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It’s been a rough decade for New Jersey Transit. What started out so promisingly with the ground-breaking for the ARC Tunnel has devolved into today’s mess. One of the busiest commuter rail lines in the nation and a key artery between New York and New Jersey has become bogged down in scandals surrounding inept responses to a hurricane and poorly planned Super Bowl contingencies. Even with a new leader, old stories continue to plague an agency trying to move forward against the tides of the past.

Earlier this week, Ronnie Hakim, a one-time MTA exec and former head of New Jersey’s Turnpike Authority, hosted her first board meeting as the new executive director of New Jersey Transit. After botched the Sandy prep and the Super Bowl logistics, Jim Weinstein finally lost his job at the end of February, and Hakim is the one in charge of picking up the pieces. So far, she’s saying the right things.

For the first month of her job, she’s conducting a listening tour. She’ll speak with riders and workers, with politicians and the public, about New Jersey Transit and ways to improve operations, customer service and morale. “The average service time of our employees is over 20 years” she said this week. “They are people who take a tremendous amount of pride in what they do — and that pride has been beaten on. It has been really difficult. It’s almost like you want to say, this is not ‘Groundhog Day,’ right? Every day is not about the past. Every day should be about the future, and my job is to refocus us on the future.”

Yet, the ghosts of problems past continue to haunt NJ Transit. Earlier this week, the New Jersey State Assembly held a hearing on the problems that arose on Super Bowl Sunday, and New Jersey Transit failed to show. John Wisniewski, head of the Garden State Assembly’s Transportation Committee, succinctly summarized why NJ Transit’s issues that day should be of major concern to the region’s transit advocates. “We saw what happened at the Super Bowl almost as an advertisement as to why you should not take the train,” he said.

NJ Transit officials plan to speak with the Assembly at some point this year, and the agency’s board is conducting its own review. There is no word as to when their findings will be released. Newspapers in New Jersey remain skeptical.

Meanwhile, even the ARC Tunnel, once New Jersey Transit’s savior, reared its zombie head this week in an extensive Times profile of Gov. Chris Christie’s relationship with the Port Authority:

Mr. Christie also used the agency to help him out of political jams. When he came into office, his state’s Transportation Trust Fund, traditionally financed by the gas tax, was nearly empty. But Mr. Christie, as a candidate, had pledged not to raise taxes. The Port Authority’s involvement in a major project, it turned out, presented a perfect solution.

In 2010, Mr. Christie canceled construction on a planned railroad tunnel under the Hudson River that would have eased congestion for Amtrak and New Jersey Transit trains, and used $1.8 billion that the Port Authority had planned to spend on it to fill the trust fund.

This isn’t really anything we didn’t know or at least surmise about the long lost ARC dollars. They never went to transit improvements, as Christie once said, and the governor’s claims that he was primarily concerned with cost overruns still rings semi-hollow. Yet, the fact that there is no ARC Tunnel, that Gateway is decades away, that New Jersey Transit is stuck with the century-old pair of tracks leading to New York City will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future.

So Hakim takes over an agency whose ship needs righting. Hopefully, she’s up for the job, but it’s a thankless one without much support for her own bosses. Is there a clear way forward for New Jersey Transit? We’ll find out soon enough.

Categories : New Jersey Transit
Comments (13)

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m not much of a fan of the “Showtime!” crews that roam our subways. I find their antics tiresome, and over the past few years, they’ve grown more aggressive with moving weary straphangers out of the way, blasting loud music and coming precariously close to kicking New Yorkers in the face. What was once a gimmick has become a nuisance.

I know I’m not alone either. In a recent poll here, nearly three-quarters of my readers expressed similar sentiments. I’ve found that people who really love Showtime are enthusiastic supporters while those of us who don’t like it hate it with a passion. Now, we can count NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton amongst our ranks.

In an interview with Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein, Bratton discussed some quality-of-life issues when he mentioned his time riding the subway. (For some reason, the police commissioner’s subway rides are headline-making news, but that’s a concerning development for another day.) Lately, cops have been targeted panhandlers and illegal subway peddlers as part of a ticking blitz, and it seems that Showtime is next.

Bratton has always been a believer of the broken windows theory of law enforcement, and we could debate for hours whether ticketing panhandlers, who have no money to pay fines, and sleeping straphangers, who aren’t hurting anyone, is a worthwhile use of NYPD resources. The Showtime crews are a more active menace. “The issues of concern are those quality-of-life issues, the acrobats, the aggressive begging, the people manipulating the swipe cards in the turnstiles,” Bratton said. “We’re going to be having significant focus on those issues. You’ll see more police and you’ll see them more aggressively going after those so-called quality of life issues, which create fear, frustration and sometimes anger.”

So there you have it: The NYPD chief doesn’t like “the acrobats.” The War on Showtime is going to enter an entirely new battleground soon.

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NextStopis With the tragic explosion at 116th St. and its impact on Metro-North dominating the news on Wednesday, I didn’t have the chance to unveil the latest episode of “The Next Stop Is…”, the one and only podcast for Second Ave. Sagas. So now that everything’s back to normal along the Park Avenue Viaduct, let’s dive in.

We start out with a reminder of my upcoming Problem Solvers session on the future of fare payment. Get your tickets now as the Transit Museum tells me they’re going fast. Then, Eric and I tackle a few hot-button issues from the past few weeks. We discuss the Brooklyn and Queens launch of BusTime and the way it can improve bus travel in the area. Then we delve into the problems and political popularity of ferries, and we explore how air rights could affect future development of Moynihan Station.

This week’s recording checks in at just over 19 minutes — a perfect running time for your morning ride when you don’t really want to think about it anyway. You can grab the podcast right here on iTunes or pull the raw MP3 file. If you enjoy what you hear, subscribe to updates on iTunes as well and consider leaving us a review. If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle, leave ‘em in the comments below. I’ll be back with more in the morning.

Categories : The Next Stop Is
Comments (1)

Update 4:45 p.m.: All Metro-North service to and from Grand Central has been restored, the MTA has announced. The Park Avenue viaduct is safe and sound, and service on all four tracks and all three Metro-North lines is running. The agency notes, however, that “trains will run at reduced speeds through the collapse zone to protect nearby employees and reduce vibrations as rescue and recovery work continues.” Expect crowding and delays during the evening rush hour.

* * *
Posted (3:55 p.m.): The latest and greatest from the MTA, as of shortly before 4 p.m. on Wednesday:

MTA Metro-North Railroad is restoring some New Haven and Harlem line service from Grand Central Terminal after an explosion and building collapse next to Metro-North’s tracks running above Park Avenue. Customers who use the Hudson Line should take the B, D or 4 subway lines to 161 St and walk to Metro-North’s Yankees – East 153rd Street station.

Metro-North structural engineers have verified the integrity of the Park Avenue elevated structure. Two of the four tracks on the structure – the two farthest from the explosion site – have been restored to service after being cleared of debris, inspected for track and third rail integrity and approved for operations by Metro-North and the New York City Fire Department.

As more tracks are restored, the level of train service will increase. Train speeds may also be reduced to protect nearby railroad workers and to limit vibrations at the explosion site.

New Haven Line and Harlem Line customers should expect crowding and delays due to track limitations, with some local and express trains combined. The track configuration does not allow Hudson Line service to operate to and from Grand Central until more tracks are restored to service. Customers are urged to delay travel until later if possible.

The subway system is cross-honoring Metro-North tickets, and the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley Lines are cross-honoring Hudson Line tickets. More as service is restored.

Comments (2)

Information boards at Grand Central display current Metro-North updates. Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

As first responders and rescue crews continue to work at the site of an explosion and subsequent building collapse next to the Metro-North tracks at 116th St. in Manhattan, the MTA has announced service plans in effect until further notice. Essentially, the agency is urging riders attempting to reach points north to take the subway to the Bronx and transfer at nearby stations where Metro-North tickets will be cross-honored. Here’s the overview:

Harlem Line & New Haven Line
Southbound customers from the New Haven Line and Harlem Line will get off at the Harlem Line stations or Wakefield or Woodlawn for a short walk to the No. 2 for service to Manhattan. Customers can transfer to the No. 5 at E. 180th Street for East Side destinations.

Northbound customers for all Harlem and New Haven Line stations should take the No. 5 subway to East 180th Street and transfer to the No. 2 subway north to the 233rd Street Station, where they can walk a short distance to the Metro-North’s Woodlawn Station.

Hudson Line
Hudson Line customers should take the No. 4 to 161st Street Station (Yankee Stadium) and walk west to Metro-North’s Yankees – East 153rd Street station for service to points north. The D subway also goes to 161st Street.

Southbound Hudson Line customers will go to Yankees-East 153rd Street and transfer to the No. 4 or D subways, or to Marble Hill and transfer to the No. 1 subway at 225th Street, an elevated station.

According to the MTA, there are currently no stranded trains, but power has been cut to the third rails of all four tracks near the explosion. The MTA urges customers to “consider limiting travel today if they can,” but as the explosion occurred at the tail end of rush hour, most commuters were already in the city this evening. It’s not clear that this situation will be resolved by the evening rush, and I’ll update this post as more information becomes available.

Comments (10)

Whenever I read another report about the state of New York City’s infrastructure, I think both of the boy who cried wolf and of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. As the trains continue to run everyday, the average New Yorker who pays no attention to these sorts of things must think we’re all crying wolf while the politicians who are aware of the problem but do nothing seem to be the ones fiddling while New York City slowly crumbles around them. The ultimate outcomes — spend lots of money or watch the city lose its global status — aren’t alluring, but something has to give.

The latest warning comes to us from the Center for Urban Future and focuses on the $50 billion in outstanding investments needed to bring our infrastructure up to par. It includes sentences such as this: “LaGuardia’s main terminal is 50 years old and in terrible condition, while two of JFK’s six terminals have stood for over four decades.” In essence, the CUF report doesn’t sugar-coat anything, and the city’s key pieces are, by and large, in terrible shape.

While the state controls most of the transit spending, the report (available here as a PDF) spends some time focusing on the subway. The picture it paints of key systems we don’t usually see or appreciate on a daily basis is grim. According to the report, 37 percent of the system’s signals have exceeded their 50-year useful lifespan, and yet, they keep on ticking.

The MTA’s signaling system is old and obsolete. Of the 728 miles of mainline signals, 269 have exceeded their 50-year useful life. Twenty- six percent are more than 70 years old and 11 percent are between 50 and 69 years old. The equipment is no longer manufactured, forcing the Transit Authority to build and replace parts at its own signal shop…Expediting signal modernization would require a tremendous infusion of money or a significant redistribution of capital dollars among MTA subsidiaries. Even with unlimited funds, replacing signals would be exceedingly difficult and disruptive…

In addition to funding and track access is- sues, the MTA is hobbled by a dearth of qualified contractors. At the moment, only three to four contractors are available to perform signal installation and modernization work. This limits com- petition, increases expenses and caps the amount of signal work that can be performed at any one time. To address this constraint, the MTA recently began a mentoring program for training contractors.

The problem isn’t limited to signal systems. The report takes on station conditions as well.

New York’s subway stations are chaotic and beleaguered. Trash is sometimes strewn across the platform and between the tracks. Leaking ceilings and water-damaged walls are pervasive. Paint peels from the ceiling. Columns rust. Bottlenecks form at narrow stairwells, choking the circulation of foot traffic. “New York’s subway stations are terrible,” says Paaswell of the University Transportation Research Center. “They’re dirty. They’re dingy. They need painting. They need new architecture. They need better lighting.”

While MTA officials recognize these deficien-cies, in recent years they have scaled down their approach to rehabilitation. “In stations, the MTA has basically conceded that you will never get to a state of good repair,” says Jeremy Soffin, the for- mer MTA spokesperson. “It’s simply not possible. There are so many tens of billions of dollars of repair needs.” Since 2010, the MTA has opted to replace individual components in stations rather than perform comprehensive renovations. According to officials, the old strategy proved too slow and too costly.

And what about maintenance shops?

Like the system they service, subway shops and yards are old. The 13 facilities opened nearly 90 years ago on average. Two buildings at the Concourse Yard were recently placed on the Na- tional Register of Historic Places. The East New York facility, originally built in 1880 as a horse and carriage depot, still relies completely on hand- thrown switches. The narrow aisles at the Livonia and 240th Street facilities are ill configured for modern maintenance and repair practices.

In a recent survey of each of its capital asset categories, the MTA found its yards and shops were in the worst state of repair. Fifty-four per- cent of the components at these facilities exceed their useful life. Thirty-eight percent of lighting is in poor condition and does not meet current standards. The MTA has not increased investment to address the decay at its critical maintenance facilities. Instead, capital outlays have fallen from $455 million in the 2000-2004 capital budget to $263 million43 in the current five-year budget. If greater attention is not paid to rehabbing these facilities, subway car maintenance will suffer and train delays will become more common.

Beyond the subway system, you can read about the sorry state of the city’s airports, the rough condition of the roads, and the structural deficiencies that will impact bridges, utilities and schools in the coming years. With at least $50 billion investment pending, this report hardly paints the picture of a city on the rise.

What’s the answer? How do we find a solution? We’ll need leadership and money. Infrastructure upgrades can spur on job creation and economic growth, but neither Andrew Cuomo nor Bill de Blasio has embraced spending on capital projects. The MTA, on the other hand, has proposed a five-year capital plan worth over $20 billion that would address exactly the issues named in this report — at least on the signaling front. They can’t do much beyond that without an infusion of dollars.

Still, this need for investment will require leadership to make uncomfortable and unpopular decisions. It’s not likely to happen soon, but I wonder how long New York can thrive without it. The situation sounds needlessly dire, but that’s because soon it will be. Invest. Fund. Grow.

Comments (38)
Looking for the B41? BusTime has you covered.

Looking for the B41? BusTime has you covered.

I’m a few days late posting this to the site (thought if you follow me on Twitter, you would have seen the news on Saturday, but BusTime is officially live in Brooklyn and Queens. With the weekend debut in the city’s two most populous boroughs, the MTA’s in-house real-time bus tracking system is now available on all MTA buses throughout the five boroughs.

While the service isn’t perfect as designed, knowing where every bus is certainly has its benefits and makes travel on an unreliable mode of transit far easier. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said, “customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”

BusTime is available on the MTA’s website right here, and the information is accessible via mobile apps and a code-based text message service as well. Unfortunately, the limits of the in-house system mean that waiting times are displayed in distance rather than time. Allan Rosen at Sheepshead Bites seems to view this flaw as something close to a fatal one, but I’m a bit more forgiving.

It’s not ideal, and the concept of distance as time takes some trial and error. But two weeks ago, we had no idea where any buses in Brooklyn were, and today, I can pull up every route in the city from the comfort of my computer. Advocates, meanwhile, are continuing to press for countdown timers at major bus stops. It is, as with everything, a matter of funding.

Categories : Buses, MTA Technology
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Remembering the token

By · Comments (37) ·

It’s hard to believe, on one side of the coin or the other, that the MetroCard as we know it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. While the pilot launched in 1993, the first stations equipped with fare card readers opened in early 1994. Three years later, every subway station and bus were equipped with MetroCard readers, and four years later, Straphangers could take advantage of the promise of an unlimited fare card, thus ushering in a new era in booming transit ridership.

These days, we’re waiting impatiently for the end of the MetroCard era. It was not exactly a new technology when it was introduced, and the MTA has since been lapped by nearly all of its competitors when it comes to some form of contact-less fare payment. Since 2006, the agency has spun its wheels with a variety of pilot programs but has now committed to finding a replacement by 2019. We still don’t quite know what form that next-gen fare payment technology will take, and hopefully, we’ll know more after my Problem Solvers session on that topic next Wednesday. (RSPV now. Seats are going fast.)

I’ll spend some time looking forward next week. Tonight, I wanted to look back. For fifty years, the token reigned supreme, but these days it is only a memory. Many New Yorkers — those who moved to the city over the past 10 years — now the token only in the abstract. It was a thing some may remember as tourists as the keys to the subway while others hear of it only in city lore.

For me, tokens were a part of my youth. I could flash my transit pass to the token booth clerk to gain entrance to the subway, but my parents weren’t so lucky. They kept piles of ten-packs of tokens in a shoe box in our linen closet, stockpiling them right before fare hikes. Tokens required planning and attention to the number of rides one might make during a day, and their brothers in arms — the flimsy paper transit for the bus system — always come with a pesky time limit.

For all their symbolism, by the time of its death, the token was around for only half of the subway system’s life. For fifty years, so long as the fare remained the same as a Treasury Department coin, the city’s transit agencies could collect nickels and then dimes, but as soon as the fare went up to 15 cents, collecting coins become impractical. The first hints of a New York City subway token came in the early 1940s when the IRT purchased a bunch of tokens in the late 1920s in anticipation of a fare hike that never came. The company eventually ditched those plans, and the token would not emerge as a potential discussion piece until 1947.

By then, the city knew it had a financial problem on its hands. The subways were bleeding money, and the various agencies discussed a token in conjunction with a fare hike. The transit deficit at the time was $84 million — or over $850 million in today’s money — and the proposals on the table ranged from 7-10 cents. Anything requiring multiple coins would have led the debut of a token.

The Board of Transportation was not easily swayed. In an extensive July 1947 article discussing the looming transit referendum, The Times mentioned that BOT objected to tokens on that grounds that they can be “easy to counterfeit and bulky to handle.” In fact, the BOT was so concerned with slugs that many related to transit services planned to lobby the feds for an eight-cent coin in advance of the potential fare hike.

When the fare hike became a reality in 1953, the New York City Transit Authority had to turn to tokens because some turnstiles were not equipped to handle multiple coins. Nearly immediately, the TA had to deal with the issue of slugs, fake tokens that would be a thorn in the agency’s side for fifty years. Furthermore, token clerks had to deal with surly, incommunicative customers and were instructed to avoid becoming “impatient, discourteous or abusive to the passenger.” By late 1953, one Times even urged the TA to sell tokens in bulk as little packages could make great birthday presents or stocking stuffers at Christmas.

Ultimately, the token settled in for 50 years of use, abuse and redesigns. Its departure earned an obit, and New Yorkers’ pockets were lighter for it. Now we carry around a flimsy piece of plastic that one day too will become part of New York City subway history. The MetroCard may live a lifespan half that of the token, but it won’t make it to the venerable old age of 50. Few symbols in New York City do.

Categories : Subway History
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