For the past week, we’ve seen photo after photo of flooded tunnels, wrecked stations and eroded trainbeds. Yet, somehow, when we all leave work today, most of the city’s subway lines will be running, and service will be sufficient enough to get us all home. Considering the Governor and MTA officials were warning of historic destruction in the subway system just seven days ago, many subway riders are probably wondering how everything got fixed so quickly.
To answer just that question, New York Magazine’s Robert Kolker went underground to profile the service restoration efforts. In a way, it’s a story of how everything went right shortly after everything had gone horribly wrong. I’ll excerpt, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.
Half of the subway system’s fourteen under-river tubes flooded. A few filled up end to end, much like the MTA’s Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. They couldn’t even send workers out to assess them until after the second surge at the next high tide Tuesday morning.
Pumping began soon after — or “dewatering,” as the pumping industry calls it. Other city agencies had to rely on outside contractors to pump their tunnels. But it happens that the subway system already had its own toys. Each of the system’s under-river tunnels has a sump to deal with everyday seepage, and each also has a tube fixed to the side called a discharge line. Starting Tuesday, the system sent in its “pump trains” — diesel powered trains with five or six cars, run by just five or six workers. Underneath the trains are pumps, moving hundreds of gallons of water back into the river every minute. “You take the pump train and you bury the first car up to the floor level so it’s underwater,” Prendergast says, “and you hook it up to the discharge line and you start pumping the tunnel dry.”
The only problem was the MTA had seven flooded tunnels and just three pump trains. It can take up to 100 hours to pump the largest tubes, fully loaded with water, or as little as five or six hours for those that are smaller or less fully flooded. It was time to prioritize. “If you let the size of the effort overcome you, you can’t get started,” Prendergast says. “So you just take on the most important tunnels first. It’s like the old story: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The highest priority was the 4, 5, and 6 Lexington line — the highest capacity line in the United States in terms of customers carried — which connects to the Joraleman Street tunnel. Then there was Clark Street tunnel, which connects to the West Side IRT 2 and 3 trains. Those lines were luckily not completely flooded. The Army Corps of Engineers helped out with some crucial work on the Montague Street tunnel, but Prendergast says the MTA handled the majority of the effort.
After pumping, the MTA had to inspect the tunnels and begin the desalination process. With the power out in Lower Manhattan, they enjoyed something of a grace period where they could work uninterrupted and without as much pressure from above. Until ConEd turned the juice on, after all, the MTA couldn’t run trains.
We know the endings: Services are coming back where damage was not too severe, and other sections will be waiting a while longer. Meanwhile, as NYC Transit President Tom Prendergast said of the MTA’s remedial measures, “If the bus bridge did anything, it helped underscore for people how our rail system has a lot more utility than our bus system.” Will we carry these lessons onward into the future?