A 2005 fire at Chambers St. relay room threatened to derail service on the 8th Ave. line for years. (Photo by flickr user Remon Rijper)
As the Long Island Rail Road struggles to overcome a fire that has knocked out much of its service, the fragile state of the city’s transit infrastructure has again come under the microscope. The signal tower that burned on Monday dated from 1913 and was scheduled to modernized next year, and while it’s amazing to think that 100-year-old technology can still run the nation’s busiest commuter rail, that the system hasn’t been updated since Woodrow Wilson’s first term as president is a sad commentary on transit investment.
This isn’t the first time in recent that part of the MTA’s signal technology has been taken out by the fire. The last high-profile incendiary incident came in January 2005 when a homeless man at Chambers St. searching for warmth amidst a snowstorm started a fire that destroyed a key relay room for the 8th Ave. IND. Initial reports featured tales of a subway system in chaos. C service was suspended as the V ran to Euclid Ave., and the A train had to run local and at slow speeds while drivers relied on the subway equivalent of manual transmission.
Reports from Transit were just as dire. “This is a very significant problem, and it’s going to go on for quite a while,” Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, said. He said that would cost millions of dollars to restore the signal system and that service along the A and C lines would be slowed for three to five years. Could damage to 70-year-old technology really cause such inconvenience?
The impact was immediate. Transit had to cut rush hour service from 26 trains in each direction to just eight in the aftermath of the fire, and the 600,000 commuters who relied upon the A and C trains were struggling to find faster ways around town. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the signal modernization project: The MTA’s timeframe for restored service grew shorter and shorter.
Just a few days after the fire brought dire predictions of five-year service outages, Reuter had to admit that he vastly overstated the importance of the burned relay room, and less than two weeks later, full service along 8th Ave. had nearly been restored. Reuter changed his story after the fire and claimed he meant to say that the signal repairs would take 3-5 years, Service, he maintained, would always be restored quickly. “I must have misspoke or didn’t clarify myself very well on that, he said. “I am sorry.” In fact, repair work on the burnt-out signal room did not commence for over a year after the fire.
But in the aftermath of the incident, the TA’s overall point remained: It would take a very long time to modernize the subway’s signals. At a City Council hearing a few days after the fire, then-Senior Vice President for Subways Michael A. Lombardi said it would take 45 years and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the system up to date. While City Council members at the time called it “inadequate,” “inefficient and irresponsible,” no developments over the last five years have changed that outlook. The $88 million project to restore and modernize signal service at Chambers St. wrapped this May, five years and three months after the 2005 fire, but the rest of the system remains without a timeframe for these badly-needed upgrades.
Meanwhile, as Long Island-based commuters struggle to get into the city today, we see the importance of keeping technology up to date. Currently signal systems have built-in redundancies and better fireproofing technology, traits absent from those towers built in 1913. Without investment, the infrastructure ages to the point where one fire at the wrong point in the system can knock out an entire rail network, and that’s a problem for New York.