In the annals of MTA press releases, the one the MTA sent out late last week is certainly one of the stranger ones. The MTA, the press release noted, is going to clean subway tracks. You might think this would come with the territory, but track cleanliness — and resulting fires — has beguiled the MTA for decades. These fires aren’t the problems they once were in the 1970s and early 1980s, but we’ve all seen piles of garbage growing in the tracks.
The MTA is calling this effort MTA Track Sweep, and the video above gives an introduction to the program. It is, MTA head Tom Prendergast said, part of a renewed focus on the station environment. “Operation Track Sweep is a critically important part of our overall effort to create a transit system that’s faster, more efficient, and more customer-friendly,” he said. “There’s no question that a concerted and sustained effort to limit trash on subway tracks will have a significant impact on the efficiency of subway service…Just as importantly, this initiative will also have a positive effect on how people feel about their daily commute. When there’s less debris, the entire station looks and feels cleaner, and the ride is more enjoyable.”
So what are they doing? First, the agency expanding its cleaning schedule. The number of station tracks that are cleaned every two weeks jumped from 34 to 94. Second, in mid-September, the MTA will being a two-week system-wide blitz involving 500 workers who will remove trash from tracks at every station. This is an effort that involves cleaning more than 10 miles of track, and the work will take place largely at night. The crews will post signs at each station noting when the clean-up efforts were completed. It’s not clear though when the MTA will again engage in such a concerted clean-up effort.
On a long-term basis, the agency is working to procure two more portable vacuum systems that can quickly scoop up garbage along the tracks near stations. These systems are expected to arrive before the year is over. Finally, the MTA will procure three new vacuum trains that will arrive in 2017 and early 2018. These trains can hold up to 14 cubic yards of trash — a mole hill compared with the volume of trash the MTA has to remove from its system.
It’s not entirely clear what’s pushing this effort. A few politicians have called upon the MTA to improve its trash-collection practices over the past few years as concerns about rodents and general cleanliness have taken center stage, and a Comptroller’s report last year highlighted the MTA’s trash collection failures. The MTA, Scott Stringer’s report found, simply could not keep up with the volume of trash that built up on subway tracks or its aggressive collection schedule.
So this new effort is a response to constant criticism, and it’s supposed to improve the passenger experience. It is notably not an effort to clear or beautify stations but rather is focused on tracks which should improve train service. We’ll see in a few months how it plays out, but as one MTA official noted, riders bear some responsibility too. “We’re approaching this as a sustained effort to get the tracks clean, and keep them as clean as possible over the long haul,” NYC Transit President Ronnie Hakim said. “Even as we redouble our efforts, it’s important for everyone to realize that riders have a critically important role to play as well – keeping the tracks clean means that everyone has to pitch in by disposing of trash properly.”