A series of meltdowns and accidents on New York City’s subway last summer led to a startling admission: The system was in crisis and in desperate need of immediate repairs.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, after declaring the subway to be in a state of emergency, promised that a rescue plan by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would deliver results. The authority’s chairman, Joseph J. Lhota, said subway riders would see improvements “relatively quickly.”
But one year later, subway service remains in many ways the same — dismal.
Long delays continue to upend New Yorkers’ lives. Trains are still breaking down at an aggravating pace. Signal equipment dating to the Great Depression repeatedly wreaks havoc across the system, which sprawls across 665 miles of track and 472 stations — the most stations of any subway in the world. With a daily ridership of more than 5.5 million, New York’s subway is the most heavily used rail system in the country.
The authority’s own statistics are a mixed bag: They show minor progress in some areas, but no major boost in reliability, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on repairs. The on-time rate for trains hovers near 65 percent on weekdays — about the same as a year ago and the lowest rate since the transit crisis of the 1970s, when graffiti, breakdowns and violence plagued the system.
“All I see is the construction, but I don’t see the extra improvement,” Chance Shealey said on a recent afternoon as he rode a D train through the Bronx.
Despite the constant problems and outcry from riders, subway leaders say the rescue plan, known as the subway action plan, is gradually improving service. There have been no major derailments like last summer, when an A train crashed in Harlem in June, injuring more than two dozen people.
Andy Byford, the subway’s new leader who arrived in January, said that the rescue effort was focused on making the existing system more reliable and that a separate long-term overhaul plan would provide the larger and sustained benefits that riders are anxious to see.
“The subway action plan was designed to arrest a decline in performance and to stabilize the system,” Mr. Byford said in an interview.
The subway action plan is expected to pour $836 million into fixing the system. So far, officials have spent about $333 million on repairs and hired an additional 1,100 workers. About $253 million has gone toward operating costs and $79 million for capital spending. Mr. Lhota called for 2,700 new workers, but it is unclear how many the agency will hire.
The effort has been massive: Workers have repaired more than 10,000 track defects and 1,000 signal components, subway leaders say. More than 240 miles of drains have been cleared of debris and 1,500 leaks grouted. Subway doors on more than 6,000 cars have been inspected.
Still, subway leaders have acknowledged that major weekday incidents, which delay 50 or more trains, remain “stubbornly high.” There were 85 major subway incidents in May, compared with 75 in May 2017. In June, however, major incidents did drop to 62.
The key to any significant transformation, transportation advocates said, is a willingness by elected officials to finance Mr. Byford’s ambitious and expensive long-term blueprint.
“The service level may have improved from torturous to merely terrible, but everyone is still waiting for the funding plan that will bring it up to acceptable or even remarkable,” said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who controls the subway, has faced a torrent of criticism over his handling of the crisis. When the rescue plan was announced last July, Mr. Cuomo said that he understood that the subway was essential to people’s lives. “I am all about getting results,” Mr. Cuomo said.
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo, Peter Ajemian, said the measures had helped to stabilize the system, but added that some work had been delayed because Mayor Bill de Blasio had for months refused to pay for it.
“Riders are rightly frustrated and the governor won’t be satisfied until the M.T.A. accelerates repairs,” Mr. Ajemian said.
Mr. de Blasio also faced criticism for failing to meet with Mr. Byford until this month — nearly six months after Mr. Byford arrived. Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said that last year’s “summer of hell” on the subway had become an “all-season disaster.”
“The mayor is supporting and rooting for Andy Byford, but at this point it feels like the governor and M.T.A. are digging out of a ditch with a teaspoon,” Mr. Phillips said.
Last summer, Mr. Cuomo agreed to pay for half of the subway rescue plan. Mr. de Blasio resisted paying for the other half, though he agreed to it in March after Mr. Cuomo forced his hand.
One rider, Kyana Palmer, described the all-too-common experience of being swept up in a painful delay this month. She had taken an Uber from her home in Brooklyn to the Franklin Avenue station, hoping one of its four lines would be running to take her to work. Instead, she found hundreds of frustrated riders waiting on a sweltering platform for more than half an hour.
“You’d think people would be out protesting in the streets,” Ms. Palmer said, adding, “They’ve been doing so many changes and I’m like, ‘Is it helping?’ It’s still the same.”
Subway officials said the culprit that morning was a train with mechanical problems that happened to get stuck on a switch that is used by all four subway lines. It caused a ripple effect of delays that continued into the evening rush.
Ms. Palmer said the subway had become so erratic that she wanted to move.
“I’m trying to move closer into downtown because there are more train options,” she said.
Mr. Byford has moved quickly to try to restore the agency’s credibility. He promoted Sally Librera, the first woman to lead the subways department, and hired Sarah Meyer as “chief customer officer” to focus on communicating with riders.
Major weekday incidents dropped by about 11 percent in the last year, compared to the six months before the subway action plan began, Mr. Byford said. He pointed to another positive sign: June’s weekday on-time rate rose to 68 percent, from about 62 percent last June.
Trains are breaking down less frequently — the distance that subway cars traveled between breakdowns was about 120,000 miles on average over the last year, up from about 116,000 miles last year. Workers are responding to problems on the tracks more quickly and addressing safety concerns, Mr. Byford said.
“Lessons have been learned from those incidents that occurred last year,” Mr. Byford said. “A huge amount of effort has gone into rolling stock overhauls, keeping tracks free of obstructions and clearing garbage to prevent track fires.”
Mr. Byford said he planned to provide an update on the rescue plan to the authority’s board in September. Last July, Mr. Lhota told reporters that the rescue plan would reduce delays. But about 62,000 weekday trains are still delayed each month — about the same as a year earlier.
“Hold me accountable,” Mr. Lhota told reporters about the subway rescue plan.
Mr. Lhota and Mr. Byford are lobbying state and city leaders to finance the long-term subway overhaul plan, which could cost $37 billion over a decade. Mr. Cuomo has said he wants to pay for the plan by convincing state lawmakers to approve congestion pricing, a proposal to toll drivers entering Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods.
Subway riders are desperate for relief. Davianny Medina recently got stuck on a train for an hour and arrived late to her job at the salad shop Sweetgreen. Like many New Yorkers who have been forced to alter their schedules to account for subway failures, she said she leaves home an hour early to try to avoid being late.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” she said. “The trains should be reliable.”
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