When the MTA released its revised capital plan earlier this fall, a few tidbits caught my eye. Although I mentioned them via the Second Ave. Sagas Twitter account, I failed to write the follow-up posts. So let’s revisit these items, starting today with the promise open gangways.
The concept of rolling stock with open gangways — articulated train sets — is one of those not-in-New York ideas we’ve come to know and warily examine over the years. The MTA has issued numerous excuses — tight curves, safety concerns that were valid 25 or 30 years ago — that seem to ring hollow, and every now and then, the agency nods at the idea of five-car sets with open walkways. The last serious consideration came in 2013 when the MTA’s 20-year needs document acknowledged the benefits of rolling stock with open gangways.
For the MTA, a design with open gangways is a long overdue need. It’s an easy way to boost subway capacity by, as we explored earlier this year, around 8-10 percent per subway train without increasing the frequency of a line, and as anyone who’s ridden the rails at rush hour lately can attest to, any capacity increase would help. So what’s the plan? It is, of course, a pilot.
According to the revised MTA 2015-2019 capital plan, the agency would purchase 10 open-gangway prototype cars with the $52.4 million expenditure allocated for 2016. For now, these prototypes are lumped in with the R-211 order that is supposed to start replacing the R46s over the next few years. It’s not yet clear where the MTA would run the open gangway prototype cars, how these cars would be designed or what the future holds for open gangways. When I last asked MTA officials about such a design, they told me that certain curves in Lower Manhattan may preclude running rolling stock with open gangways on all lines but that the MTA is committed to testing and, if possible, implementing a design with open gangways in the future.
Whenever this topic comes up, the usual complaints and critiques arise. In a Times article in 2013, the generation that remembers the Bad Old Days worried about crime. “Remember the time when we were in the high-crime era and gangs were roaming through the trains?” MTA Board member Andrew Albert said to Matt Flegenheimer. “Everybody loved the locked end doors.” Subway crime, of course, is at all-time lows and shows no signs of any meaningful increase. It ain’t the 1980s any longer.
Meanwhile, others have complained about disruptive buskers and the odors from homeless subway residents rendering half a train inhospitable rather than just one subway car. To this, I say it is New York exceptionalism at its finest, and we are not the special butterflies some would have us believe we are. These open gangways were standard operating procedure on the train lines I experienced in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris this past summer, and they worked great. Passengers could spread out through multiple subway cars, and the buskers moved on. Solving the homeless problem also shouldn’t prevent us from solving the more important capacity crunch, and as rolling stock comes up for replacement, eking out additional space via efficient design should be a priority.
So do we dare get our hopes up? Only 10 of the next 950 cars the MTA plans to order through the next capital plan will feature open gangways, and those that come online over the next few years will be expected to last another four or five decades. In other words, it’ll be a while before articulated train sets become standard. But this is a start, and a start is more than what we’ve had in the past.