Home New York City Transit Link: Repairing the subways quickly

Link: Repairing the subways quickly

by Benjamin Kabak

Yesterday afternoon, one of the MTA’s pump trains worked on the L train’s 14th St. tunnel. (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

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?

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R. Graham November 6, 2012 - 3:47 pm

Absolutely correct when it comes to Con Ed. If not for the power being down in all of these sections for the amount of time they were down all the focus would have glared on the MTA and the return of service. Proof is how outraged everyone is regarding G and L services right now.

Marc Shepherd November 6, 2012 - 4:42 pm

It’s true that some people are outraged. They have no right to be. The MTA has 3 pump trains. That strikes me as a lot, given the rarity of what occurred (i.e., it was unprecedented).

I haven’t seen any evidence that MTA errors or misjudgments led to the system, or any part of it, being closed longer than it needed to be. Whatever order they attacked the 7 or 8 flooded tunnels, someone was going to be unhappy.

R. Graham November 6, 2012 - 6:40 pm

So true. What most people also don’t know or understand is the maneuvers needed to get those pump trains from one section of the system to the other and ironically in a very close area of affected region. 14th and Lower Manhattan are typically the same backyard but the IRT to BMT maneuvering is no walk in the park.

Slightly OT but related, the delay in the running of the 7 extension to West Midtown is in part to the amount of time it takes to move several of those lengthy and heavy rail from a yard where they are delivered in one section of the city to the other.

Nathanael November 7, 2012 - 12:36 pm

How *do* you get a train from the IRT to the BMT? I can’t actually figure out where the connections are.

Also, I see how you get a train onto the Canarsie (L), but I don’t see how you transfer *anything* onto the #7 line — where’s the connection?

R. Graham November 7, 2012 - 11:39 pm

The connection for the 7 Line is just East of Queensboro Plaza where the switch just past the station links the two divisions.

There’s also a connection at Bedford Park Yard.

Spendmore Wastemore November 6, 2012 - 5:14 pm

Spoiled, entitled twits.

Most of the people complaining wouldn’t last 15 minutes on the hurricane repair track crew. They’re now working double shifts, sleeping in trailers, then going back into the tunnel.

Rest of the time, they could practice how to sleep standing up, but that’s another matter.

Anon256 November 6, 2012 - 3:53 pm

I posted this already in another thread, but here is a timeline of maps showing the progress of subway service restoration so far. I will continue to update it as more reopenings are announced.

W. K. Lis November 6, 2012 - 5:14 pm

Not mentioned was that most of the water in the tunnels was salt water, not rain water, not river water, but water from the surge that was pushed in from the ocean. The salt water will escalate rusting and is also more conduct to electricity (if left behind).

Even after flushing the tunnels with fresh water, the damage is done. Replacing of parts will have to be done, sooner than later.

Henry November 6, 2012 - 6:25 pm

“If the bus bridge did anything, it helped underscore for people how our rail system has a lot more utility than our bus system.”

I have serious qualms with this – he’s implying that bus services are inherently inferior to rail services (and sort of crapping on his own agency’s operations). This is currently true, because the existing bus system mostly feeds into the subway system, and the amount of buses required to carry subway loads is ridiculous. If you look even closer, though, you’ll notice that there’s a lack of frequent (headways of 15 minutes) interborough bus services.

The ones from the Bronx to Manhattan only connect to the subways and stay uptown. There are only three frequent bus routes between Queens and Manhattan, and other routes don’t connect easily to it. There are no frequent bus routes between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and the same goes for Staten Island.

Outer-borough connections especially suck – there are two interborough services between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and they both terminate in Bay Ridge. The routes between Queens and Brooklyn don’t go very far into the other boroughs – the three Queens bus routes end in either Ridgewood or Broadway Junction, and the one route from Brooklyn only goes to Long Island City. There’s also only one frequent route from the Bronx to Queens, and it stops at the Bronx Zoo. And forget about crossing more than one borough in an outer-borough trip – it’s impossible to do on a single bus ride under the current setup.
I found this out the hard way last week – I almost had to make a trip to Southern Brooklyn from Eastern Queens on short notice, and I don’t own a car. Because I couldn’t make transfers through Manhattan, it would’ve either required four trains (due to the lack of good connections to other Brooklyn lines from the A) or a confusing amount of buses, and in the end it was far too complicated for me to manage.
This will matter less once full subway service is restored and we can make connections in Manhattan once again, but to make a very long rant short, the bus network is not designed for inter-borough travel, and this isn’t an apples to apples comparison. If you want to see maps of the “frequent” bus services I was talking about earlier, just check out my posts on http://queenstransit.wordpress.com – I have maps for every borough except Manhattan.

Alex B. November 6, 2012 - 6:53 pm

I think he is saying that the rail system has inherently more capacity than buses do – which is, indeed, a geometric fact.

Nathanael November 7, 2012 - 12:37 pm

Yep. He’s saying that you just cannot carry as many people on buses as you can on rail. And that’s just a fact.

Anon November 6, 2012 - 7:02 pm

BK – disappointed – no tunnel plug coverage???????

Larry Littlefield November 8, 2012 - 8:41 am

What’s a tunnel plug? What I want to know is, did NYCT successfully direct the flooding into the tunnels and away from the interlockings at Chambers and Canal? If so, that’s a huge success. If they just got lucky, it’s a worry.

Kai B November 6, 2012 - 7:40 pm

Here’s a little original research I did tonight regarding “subway shuttle” busses running between Long Island City and Queens:

I had seen a few tweets about “elusive” shuttle busses running, so I decided to take the E-Train to Court Square after work and see what this was about.

I waited at the corner of Jackson Ave / 23rd St (the B62 stop that’s usually used for G-Train shuttle buses). When I got there there were around 20 people waiting. This swelled to about 50 by the time the first bus showed up about 12 minutes later (no B62 showed up in the meantime).

Bus signs read “Subway Shuttle” and there already a good number of people on it (presumably from Queens Plaza). This bus filled to capacity.

Another bus passed without stopping. Its sign just read “NYCT Transit” and was pretty full.

A third bus showed up with signage “Subway Shuttle”. I got on this one. There was no fare collection.

The bus stopped at both ends of the Greenpoint Ave stop and both ends of the Nassau Ave stop. The Nassau Ave end of Nassau was the final stop. The bus looped around the block (using Driggs, Lorimer, Bedford).

There was a lot of confusion by people waiting at the intermittent stops about how far the bus was going. Many assumed that the bus labelled “subway shuttle” heading down Manhattan would continue to Metropolitan and other stops down the line.

When asked, the driver said that it runs from Long Island City to Nassau Avenue, every ten minutes. In total I saw four busses on the route.

Kai B November 6, 2012 - 7:41 pm

*My intro sentence should read “regarding “subway shuttle” busses running between Long Island City and Greenpoint:”

Kai B November 6, 2012 - 7:51 pm

Oh, and a photo at Court Square: http://mediacdn.disqus.com/upl.....iginal.jpg

AlexB November 7, 2012 - 9:55 am

Does anyone know why Coney Island still doesn’t have service? I’d think that because Surf St is elevated and the F and Q are elevated to it, there should be service. Is it because Coney is still evacuated?

Nathanael November 7, 2012 - 12:38 pm

Don’t know, but the F just got extended to Coney Island, so it has some service now. Debris? Signals? Perhaps they had to inspect the El structures.


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