Home View from Underground Underground, progress by any other name

Underground, progress by any other name

by Benjamin Kabak

Earlier this week, I featured a piece I wrote a few years ago about brining air conditioning to the subway. It was not easy, unsurprisingly, for New York City Transit to usher in something like air conditioning, and the subways were even worse in the summer 30 years ago than they were today. In fact, a 1983 study found that just 50 percent of buses and 33 percent of subway cars were air conditioned. Considering how we respond to un-air conditioned subways today, it’s hard to believe New Yorkers suffered through such brutal summers barely 30 years ago.

In the comments to that post, SAS regular Phantom said something I’ve often thought over the years. “The subways,” he said, “are off the charts better than they were in the past. We forget that sometimes.” As we fight for better transit planning, more political support and sounder financial investments, we certainly do forget that. We forget what it was like to ride around in graffiti-covered cars that were un-air conditioned, poorly lit and prone to breakdowns. We forget what it was like to avoid subway stations over concerns for personal security or only ride during certain hours. We forget how far we’ve come over the last three decades.

Now and the, while researching a post on subway history, I come across glimpses of the subway past. I wasn’t alive when things were really bad in the 1970s and my memory of the 1980s is sparse. By the time I was old enough to ride the subways alone, the system was on the upswing with better rolling stock, safer environments and stations undergoing renovations. I remember the days of rampant graffiti, and I remember all that graffiti vanishing. I pin I have from a late-1980s street fair proclaims a new “Wipe out graffit” campaign, and it was successful.

But while graffiti became a visible symbol of the system’s decay, the state of the subways went well beyond vandalism. Track fires, such as one from September of 1979 that shut down the West Side IRT for three hours, were common occurrences. This one led to the evacuation of thousands of passengers as subway service from Manhattan to the Bronx shut down, and it was hardly an isolated event. From the DeKalb Ave. bottleneck to the Bronx and Queens, the system suffered from minor delays all the time. It was just a fact of travel.

Meanwhile, the rolling stock was in a terrible state. We look back in wonder at a time without air conditioning, but the train sets from the late 1970s and early 1980s were old. Cars broke down regularly; doors wouldn’t open; lights weren’t on. Stainless steel with FIND displays these cars were not.

By the standards of 35 years ago, today’s subway system is downright luxurious. Stations are in much better state; the rolling stock is mostly newer; switches and signals have been upgraded; technology has made its way underground. Today, minor delays as treated as major inconveniences, and four decades ago, those delays would have been just another part of the daily ride. No matter how much better we want subway service to be, it’s hard to deny the progress the city has made since the state began investing more in transit.

So where do we go from here? One of the reasons why I’ve called for more investment is because we can’t relive that era. The subways and buses were losing 5-10 percent of their ridership annually due to the state of the system and the state of the city’s economy. Right now, though, the subways power New York City, and the powers that be must ensure that it can continue to do so for another 110 years. We have to remember the past or else we may be doomed to repeat it. No one wants to relive that subway experience again.

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Alex C August 9, 2012 - 12:29 am

This has been talked about before in the comments, and I don’t think much has change. The powers that be quite frankly don’t give a damn. They don’t have to use the subways.

pete August 9, 2012 - 12:53 am

In the 1980s subways were faster than today. No grade timers, and no overweight MTA engineered train cars. Unless its rush hour, the car will always beat the subway. They barely break 30 mph on express runs. Todays subway is competitive with a horse.

Spendmore Wastemore August 9, 2012 - 1:53 am

“Todays subway is competitive with a horse.”

Not at all.
It moves as fast as a starved, three-legged horse

Roxie August 9, 2012 - 7:58 am

I’d like to see you beat the 2 train from 96th Street to Chambers Street in a car, with all the traffic that clogs the city.

Erik August 9, 2012 - 9:54 am

Cut through Central Park. See also: Die Hard with a Vengeance.

Jason B. August 9, 2012 - 1:55 pm

I agree with you. But, I think it might be unique to the IRT. The IRT, both east side and west side, are quite fast on express tracks, most certainly breaking 30mph. (unless it’s rush hour on the Lex, then sometimes the local is faster.)

Spendmore Wastemore August 9, 2012 - 11:50 pm

Well, the trains run in a tunnel, on welded tracks, with gradual, banked turns and with each lane carrying one train every few minutes.

Using surface transport in Manhattan during business hours is like using a boat to cross Kansas. The whole point of an underground subway is to bypass surface traffic.

boerumhillscott August 9, 2012 - 8:17 am

How much time do the timers and slower trains really add to an average trip?
Is there any data out ther regarding average speed over time?

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 9:01 am

Not that I know of. Most people who bring this up point to historical schedules. I’ve seen them before, but I don’t have a source handy right now.

Al D August 9, 2012 - 9:41 am

When the first few R44s came out, you could see the speedometer from the RF window. D from 34 St to W 4, 55mph top speed. I doubt that it goes past 40 today.

boerumhillscott August 9, 2012 - 9:59 am

I found a 1977 D Brighton Express – 6th Ave Express – CPW Express map at http://www.thejoekorner.com/br.....rain-1977/

Travel time from Brighton Beach to 59-Columbus Circle is listed as 43 mintes.
The current MTA schedule for the B over the same route is 44 to 49 minutes depending on time of day, with morning rush being the slowest.

From the same timeteble, the travel time from Grand to 145 is listed as 24 minutes.
The D is currently scheduled to that in 25-28 minutes, with evening rush being the slowest.

Not a huge difference, I would guess it is partially made up by more reliable service.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 10:16 am

Funny, I was just looking at his site too. Joe Korman has shitloads of resources, but the site is brutal to navigate. :-O

Well, anyway, 6 train local, 1977: 49m running time. Today that seems closer to 57 minutes (maybe 55 late nights). That’s a pretty big difference.

I was hoping to find the 7 or L, two others that haven’t really changed in decades.

boerumhillscott August 9, 2012 - 10:31 am

Interesting. Most of the timer complaints I see are about long express runs like CPW and the bridges, but looks like the local 6 has taken a bigger hit.

I wonder how much of that is due to buffer built in for crowding conditions at stations.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 10:40 am

Buffer? Probably none of it. Crowding is most easily reduced by picking people up and getting them where they’re going as quickly as possible. Kinda makes you wonder if the timers even increase safety, eh?

The J would have been interesting, but I didn’t see a schedule listed. It crawls south of Myrtle and across the Williamsburg Bridge.

boerumhillscott August 9, 2012 - 10:49 am

There comes a certain point where not matter how many trains you try to run or how fast they go between stations, crowding will take it’s toll on loading speed, unless you take measures to contol the number of people on the platform at a time.

The 6 during rush hour is at that point, and the only real solution is to build another line.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 11:02 am

Agreed, but the 6 is pulling off about 22TPH at peak, which I don’t think is its limit.

And the slowed trains suspiciously dovetails with many of the other inefficiencies of the MTA. More trains mean higher labor costs.

al August 9, 2012 - 11:36 am

The 7 averages 24tph during AM peak. It does run 2 min headways for a short stretch, but nothing close to the 36tph during the 60’s.

Lhota needs to reach an agreement with the transit union to increase workforce flexibility and productivity. Prior to the fiscal emergency in the 70’s, the TA used to run far more frequent service. We need to get back to that service level to serve a NYC with 9 million residents, and 2 million more during the day.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 11:55 am

Good for him if he pulls it off, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Those things usually end in binding arbitration, which is usually not favorable to the riding public.

It’d be nice if pols just grew some balls and passed legislation to ban the most blatant featherbedding. OPTO should be a given most of the day.

nycpat August 9, 2012 - 12:59 pm

They had 11 car trains in the 60s? I guess the larger workforce and stronger more militant TWU turned trains faster.

Henry August 9, 2012 - 1:37 pm

Theoretically, CBTC on the Flushing Lin should solve that problem (and hopefully they don’t do what they did with the L and buy a minimum amount of compatible train cars based on future projections).

When exactly is CBTC preparation supposed to wrap up, anyways?

al August 9, 2012 - 1:47 pm

Its more than rank and file. Supervisors and Management have to get their game together too. They tried to run a sustained 30tph in a simulated AM peak service on the Flushing Line over a weekend but ran into problems with train and personnel dispatching and staging.

Benjamin Kabak August 9, 2012 - 10:43 am

Slowdowns on the Lexington Ave. lines make sense simply because the timers were put in as a response to the Union Square crash on the 4.

I’m most annoyed by the timers between Grand Army Plaza and Bergen St. heading toward Manhattan and between De Kalb and Atlantic Ave. on the B/Q in both directions.

Spendmore Wastemore August 10, 2012 - 12:03 am

Yes, but the Union Square crash was not an unavoidable mistake, like a car crash from misjudging an unfamiliar road.

That crash happened after multiple _willful_ failures and with ample warning. I’m sure you know more about it than me; even a casual observer knows that the skunk drunk T/O was noticed when he checked in to work and waved through on the buddy code. He overshot _multiple stations, opened the doors over empty space on the elevated sections and alternated moving at a crawl with speeding. The conductor also covered for the T/O, deliberately trying to cover for the T/O.

I don’t call that an accident.

Even at that, the thing only derailed because it had to cross a low speed switch between local and express tracks, at least as I understand it. So the timers are not needed about 90% of the time.

al August 10, 2012 - 12:45 pm

The low speed on the DeKalb-Atlantic Ave stretch is largely due to multiple low speed curves and switches.

The Grand Army Plaza-Bergen on 2/3 is more mysterious. I have 2 theories, the first more likely than the second.
1) It might be due to grade going down towards Atlantic Ave. The track is level, then travels downhill, then levels out as a train departs Grand Army Plaza towards Bergen. A train can pick up quite a bit of speed on that stretch. That might limit field of vision for the motorman momentarily. This might be where the grade timers are for reducing wear and tear from braking as well as safety. There is something similar on the G down heading downhill towards Fulton St from Clinton Washington. The G used to hit 42MPH coming into Fulton St. Now, they don’t.
2) The tracks for the 2/3 are on the outside and close to the basements of the adjacent brownstones and Co-Ops. The property owners and residents might have enough political clout to push the MTA to limit speeds to reduce vibration and noise.

Al D August 9, 2012 - 3:20 pm

The other things about the L back then, infrequent, wholly unreliable, ran older cars (for:that time) and ran a 4 car train set (60′ cars) non-rush hours.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 8:56 am

Even if there is some truth to that, you have to consider that rush hour is something that goes on for several hours twice per day. And traffic can be paralyzing all day, and well into the evening. For millions of potential trips, the subway beats taking a car hands down most of the day. And then, it only needs to be more reliable for one half of a round trip. Not knowing whether you’ll be in a car for 30 minutes or 2-hours is a show-stopper too.

That said, I think the slow speeds really do say a lot for the contempt planners have for transit riders. The amount of safety lost by speeding things up still leaves the subway considerably safer than driving a private automobile.

Spendmore Wastemore August 10, 2012 - 12:21 am

“the contempt planners have for transit riders. ”

Thank you, you’ve hit it. When I’m stuck in a crawling train, the message I get is “scr3w you, if your time is worth dirt”. The fact that surface travel by car is effectively impossible during much of the day just digs it in further.

Even if it’s only costing me 10 minutes on a particular trip compared to possible speeds the message is still grating. Multiply the time drain by the number of trips per week, then figure your lost time for year.

Now multiply by the number of riders. I’d hazard a guess that the subway wastes between 20 and 200 million person hours per year.

al August 10, 2012 - 12:52 pm

There is another thing to consider. Wear and Tear. Tracks on curves and downgrades wear out faster than straight sections. Reduce the speed and you reduce the wear on tracks and wheels. The MTA might be trying to reduce maintenance and replacement bills (service disruptions for track work) by reducing wear.

There are other ways to reduce wear, but they are more expensive to deploy and maintain than adjusting signals. These include more track grease units and self steering axle trucks to reduce wear on curve tracks and wheels, and lightweight subway cars for wear on braking.

Bolwerk August 10, 2012 - 4:32 pm

I rather doubt wear and tear is what they’re considering. They seem downright ambivalent about it in most cases, or they wouldn’t be getting the heavy rolling stock they do.

Anyway, it’d be tough to make the case that more wear and tear is more expensive than more operating crews/trainsets. If a 6 Train makes does 22TPH on an hour-long run, shaving ten minutes off the trip is the equivalent of adding four trains/hr – without spending another dime on more rolling stock or crews. Assuming four 2-man crews at $60k/year/person (yes, I’m lowballing big time) to employ each crew member, that saves $480k/year PLUS the costs of maintaining/amortizing four additional trainsets.*

* easily in the mid-five figures each year for decades for each car you save

al August 13, 2012 - 1:59 pm

Actually, with heavier trains, wear and tear on tracks and wheels become even more of an issue.

As I commented above, neighbors are also an issue if they have enough political clout.

Bolwerk August 15, 2012 - 11:18 am

No kidding, that was my point. But they aren’t considering that. And if they are, the calculation almost seems to be that it just means more work for them if they get heavier trainsets.

Larry Littlefield August 9, 2012 - 9:08 am

“Todays subway is competitive with a horse.”

You mean a bike, which I now ride most days. I went over the schedules for all the lines back when I worked at NYCT, and including stops the mphs varied from 11 to 18. That doesn’t include the wait for the train. And the connecting train.

From where I live, the fastest way to get places is to walk up to 1/4 mile, because it takes time to get out and lock up a bike.

The bike is fastest up to about 5 miles, unless something is located right on the F train so I don’t have to transfer and don’t have to walk much at my destination.

On a weekday the subway is fastest up to 10 miles, thanks to traffic and the time required to park.

The car is fastest beyond 10 miles. If going somewhere in the evening, the subway is generally better for getting there, the car for getting home.

The bus? Never beats a bike for shorter trips and the subway for longer trips.

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 9:53 am

Well, in all fairness, speed is far from the only consideration. I may bash our crappy bus system, but even local buses have their uses. They’re not bad for going 10-12 blocks when you’re carrying a lot of groceries, for instance. Almost all other modes have their impracticalites in that case: cars are too expensive/difficult to park, subways require going up stairs, and bikes can only be used to carry so much.

John-2 August 9, 2012 - 1:20 am

The first 15 years of MTA management of the subways were the real nightmare period, though there were problems with the system even before the state takeover in the spring of 1968. Failure to take the increasing graffiti problem seriously — Bill Ronan’s MTA squandered millions just to keep restoring the silver-and-blue corporate color scheme over the spray paint, instead of taking action to stop the graffiti in the first place — and a continued shortfall on preventive maintenance were the rule, not the exception, until things got so bad Cuomo brought in the Kiley-Gunn team after he was elected governor, the legislature appropriated more money for the system and the root problems finally began to be addressed seriously.

I suppose the positive side is the memory of the track fires, graffiti, dark cars, high crime and non-working AC units is so burned into veteran New Yorkers’ brains (i.e., anyone 45 or older) that we haven’t yet gotten to the point where people take the current system for granted and begin to think when there’s a budget shortfall they can again cut corners on maintaining the system. But eventually people and politicians forget what happens when you skimp on the small details because they’re not out on the platforms for the riders to see. The further away we get from the 1970s and early 80s the more likely people will forget the lessons of that period.

Larry Littlefield August 9, 2012 - 6:26 am

“Meanwhile, the rolling stock was in a terrible state. We look back in wonder at a time without air conditioning, but the train sets from the late 1970s and early 1980s were old.”

Not that old, actually. That wasn’t the problem. They invested in trainsets because that’s what people could see, but the rest of the system collapsed and the trainsets were not maintained.

“The further away we get from the 1970s and early 80s the more likely people will forget the lessons of that period.”

Generation Greed has learned the lesson of what they can get away with. There have been the same kind of retroactive pension enhancements and run up in debt that wrecked the system in the 1970s, although 20/50 was not repeated for the TWU. The Lindsay pension deal WAS repeated and in fact exceeded for NYC teachers.

Erik August 9, 2012 - 10:01 am

Still, if they want to waste money on visible assets, I’d rather it be rolling stock than the latest generation of vanity projects: starchitechture. Give me something that improves the system. It doesn’t need to be designed by Santiago Calatrava. In fact, the use of unique designs and materials absolutely guarantees cost overruns (not that they wouldn’t happen anyway). Plus, it’s not as if these expenditures are being made on buildings that are likely to stand as classics for hundreds of years, like, say, Grand Central. Starchitecture has a way of looking dated really quickly. But everybody loves cutting ribbons!

John-2 August 9, 2012 - 10:24 am

In the case of the 9/11 funds, the MTA was locked into putting the cash into the downtown area. But there were certainly other projects they could have dedicated the funds to (Chambers on the J/Z anyone?) than to build what in essence is going to be the World’s Most Expensive Food Court at Fulton and Broadway.

The idea of simplifying and at the same time expanding the Fulton area underground connections and transfer was sound. But you get the feeling the politicians involved only did it because they had their planned gleaming egg monument above ground that was the original crowning cap on the Transit Center, just as the Port Authority’s restored PATH station (and the cash involved) was more about Calatrava’s design than it was about what was going to go underneath it.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines August 9, 2012 - 9:00 am

[…] But Don’t Forget: Trains Are WAAAY Better Now Than They Were 30 Years Ago (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

Bolwerk August 9, 2012 - 9:29 am

Rather than just look at where we’ve been, we should also look at where others have been and are going. The state of the art in rail and transit is in places like Japan, Germany, and France. Even their smaller cities were actually growing their systems in the decades we spent neglecting ours. Even our recent improvements are sometimes a little laughable in comparison: the SAS or ESA are overpriced and overbuilt for the amount of capacity they provide, while the SelectBus implementations are crude substitutes for what would be surface rail even in a second rate German city.

We’re doing helluva better, yes, but now ain’t the time for complacency.

Hank August 9, 2012 - 12:14 pm

completely agree. nonetheless, Ben makes an excellent point that we often forget how truly awful things got in the 70s and 80s. I still remember getting yelled at by a friend’s mother for riding the subway after dark in the 80s and the horrid graffitti that covered every surface. this is not an excuse for the the MTA to rest on its laurels, but more of a collective caution that we should all remember when we consider the transit system’s future

Al D August 9, 2012 - 9:48 am

A few more gems from the bad old days:

R40M, R42, R44, R46 threw heat in the Summer time because the a/c wasn’t maintained. So not only was there no a/c, quite the reverse, the units threw heat!

Trains were shortened mostly on the weekend, but sometimes during any non-peak hours. The F ran 6 car train sets of 60′ cars, or 4 cars of the 75′ cars (like the G today). Some B division trains, the AA for example ran only 4 cars trains sets of 60′ cars. The A was 6 car trains sets of the R-10.

Trains were regularly taken out of service for ‘no indication’. There were countless door problems and often times, only 1 door on a pair would open. Over time, passengers refused to get off the train and it became a big deal. I think that was one of the catalysts for change.

John-2 August 9, 2012 - 10:14 am

I still have the memory of when 1575 pulled into First Avenue on the LL sometime in the early 1970s and neither of the door leaves at the spot I was standing opened up. Try imagining that with today’s passenger loads on the Canarsie line.

Eastern Division riders had it particularly bad in the early MTA period, because other than the handful of late-production R-42s that were tossed East New York’s way, the most decrepit of the system’s rolling stock (complete with those painful wicker-replacement plastic seats) was dumped there in order to hide it from the main trunk lines. They’d sneak up there on the KK/K during rush hours, and the only equalizing factor was by the time that service ended, the graffiti and ‘dark car’ problem was so pronounced all but the newest and/or just-out-of-the-car-wash of the system’s rolling stock looked menacing or decrepit.

Wayne's World August 9, 2012 - 10:34 am

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”–George Santayana.

“There’s no education in the second kick of a mule”–Often attributed to Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings

Subways, roads, bridges, tunnels–our society (especially,the Republican sector) is clueless about the need for investment . If prior generations acted like ours, we’d still be riding horses and buggies on dirt roads (and only being able to leave Manhattan by boat).

petey August 9, 2012 - 2:24 pm

i was alive in the 70s and 80s and the subways were every bit as bad as you’ve read, ben. but i also want to echo what pete (who is not me, btw) said above about speed. i need sometimes to go from 86th street in manhattan to atlantic ave in bklyn on the 4/5. i cannot be sure that i will get there even if i give myself a full hour. the unreliability is extremely frustrating. this one area was better in the bad old days.

bill b August 9, 2012 - 5:51 pm

The subway was faster in the 60’s. I would sit in the first car of the IND next to motormen who always had their door open on a hot day. They would crank up the speed, and blow their whistle in Queens between Queens Plaza and 179st . What a ride !
Remember on a hot day people would not sit on the rear seats over the engine on the bus. The buses in the 50’s were real hot in the summer because of the smaller windows. How about the bus fumes coming in from the open rear windows of the bus or from the bus rear floor.How about the times when the bus had heat in the summer but no heat in the winter.

Fred August 9, 2012 - 6:27 pm

Swipe again at this turnstile Swipe again at this turnstile Swipe again at this turnstile Swipe again at this turnstile Swipe again at this turnstile…

Matthias August 13, 2012 - 11:03 am


steve August 9, 2012 - 9:19 pm

You don’t need to go back to the old days. Just look at the No1 stop at 191 Street and the Broadway tunnel. It hasn’t been swept in months and the lighting is almost non-existant. Unsafe, creepy and filthy just like old times.

Larry Littlefield August 11, 2012 - 9:34 am

They should open that unused platform at Chambers Street for tours, as a warning.


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