Let me tell you a story about my ride home from Bowling Green on Tuesday night and the MTA’s ability to bring new technology into the fold. The story begins at around 10:30 p.m. when I alighted from the Staten Island ferry and made my way to the 4 train. I was riding a familiar route — from Bowling Green to Nevins St. on the 4 and then from Nevins to Grand Army Plaza on the 2 or 3 — that should take 15-20 minutes. Instead, it took 40.
I didn’t have to wait long at Bowling Green tonight, and after a minute, the 4 arrived. We sped through the Joralemon St. tunnel and left Borough Hall quickly. Right before pulling into Nevins St., though, the train came to a stop, and I saw the red taillights of a 3 pulling into the station on the local tracks. Barring a kind conductor, I knew we’d miss the 3, and as the 4 finally pulled into Nevins St., the 3 was pulling away.
It was 10:43, and I wasn’t happy to miss the 3. I wanted to get home, but I assumed the next local train wouldn’t be far behind. After all, trains run frequently down the 7th Avenue line. When I glanced at the countdown clocks, I knew we were in trouble because the next local train wasn’t due to arrive for 20 minutes.
So I waited, and I stewed. While I understand the culture of on-time performance that pervades the MTA is a strong one, customer service should, as I’ve written before, be a priority. Customer service means that, at 10:45 when no local will be arriving until after 11 p.m., the 3 should be wait an extra 30 seconds for a connecting express train at a popular transfer point.
As I sat for 20 minutes, I had ample opportunity to reflect on how utterly in the dark those of us waiting were. Because Nevins St. is a leak spot for cell service, I could check Twitter but saw no reports of problems along the West Side IRT routes. Instead, six 4 express trains, including the one I was on, passed us in 20 minutes. Transit opted to make none of those trains run local, and we the customers were left sitting on a platform for far longer than we should been.
While I waited, I took note of how utterly devoid of information the brand-new, $171-million Public Address/Customer Information Screens were. Instead of announcing why the trains were delayed or telling us that the first local train to arrive would in fact run express from Atlantic Ave. to Franklin St., the PA/CIS signs were generally stuck on this screen:
As the picture makes clear, nothing about the sign is helpful. On the one hand, there’s a train in the station, but the sign says the next train is two minutes away. On the other, it’s simply scrolling the same rote message about suspicious activity in the subway system that gets rammed down our ears every five minutes. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed the PA/CIS system stuck on this message. A few weeks ago, the signs at Grand Army Plaza sufferd from the same fate; it was stuck on the police message and neglected to note that trains were entering, leaving or approaching the station.
When not stuck on the train message, the information given by the boards was simply inaccurate. Take a look at this shot I grabbed as a train pulled into the station:
Unfortunately, for those of us waiting, the 2 train was indeed 17 minutes away, but the next 4 was much closer. In fact, three 4 trains filed by during the 10 minutes seen here. The PA/CIS board last night had nary a clue, and again, this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed these problems. On July 31, the signs at Nevins St. were frozen. The top line read “1. Woodlawn 4 0 min.” while the bottom line said, “System Under Test.” Even as trains entered and left the station, the sign wouldn’t display the correct train information. Sometimes, it would flash to the correct information but would again cycle back to the frozen frame even as a 4 was note zero minutes away.
For now, Transit can and has claimed that the system is still undergoing tests. When I asked a few weeks ago during the July heat wave about countdown clocks that had been turned off, Transit officials told me that the extreme underground heat had them worried about potential damage to equipment. Shutting them down seems to be a makeshift solution at best, and that doesn’t explain away the buggy behavior.
Across the globe, transit systems as old or older than New York City’s have used countdown clocks for decades, but the MTA is still struggling to get its PA/CIS project in order. Still, the customers seem like an afterthought, and tonight, as I waited for a Brooklyn local train and then waited some more and then finally got home 45 minutes after swiping in at Bowling Green, I understood why people don’t think the MTA is truly going their way.