They Vowed to Fix the Subway a Year Ago. On-Time Rates Are Still Terrible.

Passengers made their way through the Union Square subway station in Manhattan last week.

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.



Your Train Is Delayed. Why?

The New York City subway has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world. This is the story of how it ended up in a state of emergency.

“The city is awake. Across the length of its five boroughs, a vast stream of humanity will move.” This was what a New Yorker’s commute looked like in 1961. “— can be seen the daily miracle that is the New York City transit system.” But that was then. And this is now. [screaming] “Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” Subway riders demanding an end to their commuting nightmare.” “So fed up with all the delays and cancellations that they are suing the M.T.A.” The New York subway now has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world. And commuters are pissed. This woman’s commute has gotten so bad, she’s considering leaving a job she really likes. “No. I got a new job.” This rabbi was sent into a panic when his train stalled just before Shabbat. And then there’s this guy, who was stuck underground for so long, commuters sang to pass the time. “... Gonna make me lose my mind up in here ...” “It’s been two hours.” They ended up making a Facebook group. They’re still in touch. “Yeah.” “The mornings where every single line is delayed —” “It was like cruel or arbitrary.” But it really wasn’t that long ago that New Yorkers would laugh at other city subway systems. Four lines in Boston, two in L.A.? That’s cute. In New York our trains run 24/7. We have 665 miles of track, 472 stations, 27 subway lines, and almost six million riders every single day. “Does it really have to be this way?” “Also, has it always been this bad?” Turns out the M.T.A. has recovered from a transit crisis before. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.” These were the trains in the 1970s. “Poor maintenance, high crime and widespread graffiti.” “It was kind of scary.” And that’s Jim. He’s been reporting on the subway since before I was born. “He wrote the book about the subway, literally. In the ’70s, it was really, really bad.” “Maintenance really had suffered.” So officials poured money into the system, and it improved. [cheering] “They are working on it. They’re doing the best they can.” “They’re fixing the tracks. Well, they’re fixing the track. They put in a new escalator downstairs.” “They improve it in the ’80s. “Today we got better equipment, better parts and better tools.” “In the ’90s it gets to be the best it’s ever been.” The 1990s were the golden era of subway functionality. “So if you want to prove to someone that New York has it all, just show them your MetroCard Gold.” New York’s governor at the time, George Pataki, called it a transit renaissance. But then, that city that has it all started taking the system for granted, starting with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. “Cut down the size of city government.” Just a year into his first term, the mayor cut the city’s contribution to the M.T.A.’s budget by millions of dollars. Then, Governor Pataki followed Giuliani’s lead. And so began a trend of mayors and governors diverting part of their budgets away from the M.T.A. and toward their own priorities. And then blaming one another for the problems that followed. “Right.” So while the city and state contributions got smaller and smaller and smaller, subway ridership went up, and so did the fares. But fares still weren’t enough to make up for the budget cuts. So a group of Wall Street executives came to the M.T.A. with a deal. [cash register ringing] These Wall Street execs, they went to the head of the M.T.A., also known as the governor, and said, give us your debt. We’ll pay you cash. Pay us back later. Pataki agreed to the deal to refinance the M.T.A.’s debt. “Basically, they used the Amex to pay off the MasterCard.” And these bankers, many of whom were donors to Governor Pataki’s campaign, walked away with $85 million in commissions and fees. And that debt lives on today — “... finally reaches its destination.” — even if some of the equipment we’re still paying for does not. “Great habitat enhancement for fish and shellfish.” Then — “It was a fiscal crisis globally.” “That was a really big turning point for the M.T.A.” “Maintenance was withdrawn.” “You’re checking the cars less frequently, you’re repairing the cars less frequently, then they’re going to break down more frequently.” “So basically —” “The trains became slightly less reliable.” But there were millions of dollars draining from the M.T.A.’s budget that could have been used for maintenance. “So what happened was —” This summer Governor Cuomo’s administration forced the M.T.A. to bail out some upstate ski resorts after an unusually warm winter. “So we set out to try and find out if there were a lot of other examples of the M.T.A. being forced by the state to spend money on things that had nothing to do with the subway. And we found out about these bond issuance fees.” Bond issuance fees may sound a little boring. So I hired a busker to write a song about it. “Let me put it this way — the M.T.A. brings in a lot of money. The state has used that money as a piggy bank for other priorities.” “The next stop is Fulton Street.” “Fulton Street was the pet project of a guy named Sheldon Silver.” He wanted Fulton Street to be the Grand Central Station of downtown Manhattan. So construction started, the years went by, and the day of the grand opening arrived. “Oh, that’s way over budget.” At this point, the M.T.A. board wants to scale things back. And one of the board members — “Nancy Shevell, wife of Paul McCartney, said, we’re not building cathedrals here.” But the next day, Sheldon Silver demanded — ”You’re going to build this thing the way it was originally supposed to be built, or else I’m going to veto your capital budget.” So the M.T.A. complied. “A billion and a half dollars on one station. It didn’t get an extra subway car, an extra foot of track, nothing. Did I say it was in his district?” Fulton Street was just one example. “These politicians really wanted to be able to have a big project they could champion, mosaics and artwork and everything is brand new.” “Clean, shiny subway stations. This is exciting, right?” I did this for you. Here is my gift to you. “Yeah. And I feel good about that.” “Of course you should.” “You can’t really do that with replacing some ancient subway signal system that people don’t even know exists.” “No one wants to talk about the signals.” “I don’t think I understand how the signals even work.” And neither did I. So I watched a documentary released by the M.T.A. to learn more. “People know that the system is old, but I don’t think they realize just how old it is. It’s not just the architecture that’s 100 years old. It’s a lot of the basic technology as well. We never really know where the train is.” “Um —” “Yeah.” “The workers don’t actually know where the trains are exactly, precisely, on the tracks. They know what section they are in. So they have to keep them a safe distance apart as they go through the system. You can’t just go to Best Buy and pick up something to replace this 1930s piece of equipment.” New signals would mean more trains running more efficiently and closer together. But it’s been two decades since the M.T.A. first began its push to upgrade its signals. And so far, they’ve completed just one line. “If you don’t focus on the core needs of the system, bad things can happen.” “So the trains were not as well taken care of, the signal system deteriorated, and there was very little margin for error.” And then that margin gets even smaller with Hurricane Sandy. “The worst disaster in the history of the subway system.” So this is the part of the story where all of those bad decisions of the past really start wreaking havoc. “The M.T.A. is openly violating its own safety directives.” A tunnel wall in Brooklyn collapses onto the track. “We just boarded the rescue train.” “There have been 22 derailments.” Overcrowding is definitely a problem, but the M.T.A. can’t blame everything on overcrowding. “The issue is there’s not one person to blame.” There’s been a lot of back and forth between the governor and the mayor. “Blame everybody who has been in power in New York in the past 25 years.” A train careens off the tracks in Harlem, injuring 34 people. And in summer of 2017, the waiting and crowding and derailments reach a breaking point. And at long last, Governor Cuomo declares a state of emergency. “I mean there is some light at the end of the tunnel. No pun intended. I actually did not intend that pun. There are some signs that politicians are now taking the maintenance of the subway system seriously.” “Elected leaders are finally expected to come out with a plan to pay for the M.T.A. And I think there’s a consensus they can’t just rely on debt anymore.” “I believe in you, subway. But you’ve got to get it together.” “We want to do this. We need to do this. We will do this.” “I think delay is, in a messed up way, our way to bring people together.” “There’s no New York City without the subways. I regard it as the great public commons of New York.” “Yeah, it’s good.” “Nice meeting all of you.” “They ride together. And in this journey can be seen the daily miracle that is the New York City transit system, upon which the very existence of the city and its people, depend.”

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The New York City subway has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit system in the world. This is the story of how it ended up in a state of emergency.

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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