Incompetence, Malice and Underground Trains
March 14, 2018 9:25 AM   Subscribe

The Trains Are Slower Because They Slowed the Trains Down — in which Aaron Gordon, writer of Signal Problems, the best newsletter on the subway, and Village Voice MTA reporter finds a report from 2014 and the best facebook group ever, and gets to the heart of what really be slowing down the trains in New York.
posted by dame (74 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
 
Gordon's entire blog is great. I first found it from the Voice website, and it's been in my bookmarks ever since.

The tug of war between the state (who doesn't want to fund the MTA) and the city (whose residents absolutely rely on it) is painful to watch.
posted by rokusan at 9:29 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Having recently moved back to the area and using the subway, I know two things:

1) yeah, it's slower than I remember
2) I'm almost glad, because even with a cane, I almost have to use it as a club to get a seat during my commute from Penn Station to Jay Street, so that means a little (very little) less pain.
posted by mephron at 9:31 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


Slower train speeds reduce capacity and make you less likely to get a seat.
posted by dame at 9:38 AM on March 14 [13 favorites]


Also, the age of privatised public transport held to heel by punctuality-related penalties has led to another scam: routes being timetabled with unnaturally slow final segments, effectively stealing time from the passengers to allow the operator to catch up and avoid penalties in almost all cases.
posted by acb at 10:03 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


Someone just told me about Signal Problems yesterday, and I immediately subscribed and sent him a 'subway detective' question.

Funny thing about this article - I first heard about this specific issue at the December 2017 TransitSlam, where a bunch of NYC transit nerds gave entertaining/informative timed PowerPoint presentations to the audience. The winner was a kid from an elite high school who presented about the bridge crash and subsequent slowdowns, and I remember a lot of people in the room going "oooooh..." as if they hadn't heard of it before. I wonder if the author of this piece was at that same TransitSlam event, and then went and did the independent public records research described in this article.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:07 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, in Japan, the Metropolitan Intercity Railway Company issues a formal apology when one of their trains leaves 20 seconds before scheduled.
posted by rokusan at 10:09 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


This is a great article and an important follow-up to the New York Times' recent reports on the subway.

I also recently moved to NYC and the attitudes with respect to changing this city are baffling. People will defend the status-quo to the death, despite there being, to my eyes, hundreds of things that are obviously wrong.

Off the top of my head: Trash everywhere, dog shit everywhere, broken sidewalks, obstructed sidewalks, too-narrow sidewalks, police cars parked on the sidewalk, police cars parked in the bike lane, taxis in the bike lane, delivery vans in the bike lane, concrete "security barriers" in the bike lane, no bike lane, "mixing zones", never-driven parked cars everywhere, semi-trucks unsuitable for the city's streets everywhere, insane pot holes, warped road surfaces, completely filthy subway stations, stations inaccessible to the disabled, no elevators at many subway stations, physically crumbling stations, unintelligible subway announcements, "signal problems" all of the time, poor communication about delays, incorrect 'estimated next train' times, hot/cold platforms, terrible subway signage, cars exceeding the speed limit, cars running red lights, nonexistent police traffic enforcement, insufficient drainage during snow leading to ponds of icy water at crosswalks, snow pushed into bike lanes, lax building code enforcement, terrible building standards, landlord unresponsiveness, landlord harassment, too-slow bureaucracy for e.g. people covered by loft law, private carters driving around at 4am & breaking traffic laws & running over cyclists, a complete L train shutdown, insufficient bicycle parking, slow buses, cars in central park, the community board sideshow, oh and a mayor driving to the gym to ride a stationary bike and taking a helicopter around town.

On the upside: the subways are relatively clean and people on them are not terrible most of the time.
posted by beerbajay at 10:15 AM on March 14 [22 favorites]


On the upside: the subways are relatively clean

Compared to Paris and SF I'd say it's about the same to slightly worse.

Relative to Hong Kong, Seoul, Dubai and London it's disgusting.
posted by like_neon at 10:19 AM on March 14 [10 favorites]


People will defend the status-quo to the death, despite there being, to my eyes, hundreds of things that are obviously wrong.

.....I'm a bit confused, because I've seen pushback on nearly every single thing you go on to list.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:20 AM on March 14 [7 favorites]


beerbajay, it's not that New Yorkers don't find everything in your (very extensive) list aggravating, but that it is SO HARD to get anything done about any of it that most people, dealing with the everpresent timesuck that is conducting a life, just don't have the time to devote to the Herculean task of getting: City Council, the mayor, the governor, the state Assembly, the state Senate, the community boards, etc to do their fucking jobs (or in the case of the community boards not be reactionary assholes) and make the city habitable.

So, New York trudges along, just as New York always trudges along.
posted by Automocar at 10:23 AM on March 14 [9 favorites]


.....I'm a bit confused, because I've seen pushback on nearly every single thing you go on to list.

There's pushback, but those things are all still the status quo and there are many people committed to maintaining it, for a galaxy of different reasons. (Of course "nonexistent police traffic enforcement" covers like 60% of the list and is a blight on our city which de Blasio is unable or unwilling to address in any way whatsoever)
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:23 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


There's pushback, but those things are all still the status quo and there are many people committed to maintaining it, for a galaxy of different reasons.

This is true. It is also different from the implication that nobody seems to care and people are actively trying to preserve things as they are. On the contrary - the straphangers' association seems to be ramping activity up nicely - announcements of subway problems are now a regular feature of the news in the morning, and I can remember when that definitely wasn't the case; I can only assume that's due to the straphangers' association pressuring them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:28 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Off the top of my head:...

It's the water. You just can't get good profound public infrastructure collapse without that NYC water. They try other places but they never get it just right.
posted by griphus at 10:33 AM on March 14 [66 favorites]


I wonder if the author of this piece was at that same TransitSlam event, and then went and did the independent public records research described in this article.

I just emailed and asked him! He told me that he wasn't at the presentation and had already been working on the piece at the time, but that the theory has been floating around in transit circles for a while without sufficient proof of what a big deal it was.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:35 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I also recently moved to NYC and the attitudes with respect to changing this city are baffling. People will defend the status-quo to the death, despite there being, to my eyes, hundreds of things that are obviously wrong.

Well, there couldn't possibly be anything in the way you are airing your newbie list of grievances that provokes a defensive response, I suppose.

Had not previously been aware of Signal Problems, thanks for drawing it to my attention, OP.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


I can only assume that's due to the straphangers' association pressuring them.

Not just Straphangers! Signal Problems' Subway Knowledge Base page lists some of the major transit activist groups in NYC:

How can I get involved in advocating for NYC transit issues?

Thankfully, NYC has a vibrant transit activism community. Here are a few organizations to consider:

TransitCenter: “We’re united in the belief that the greatest challenges facing transit and better, more sustainable cities are not technological but rather human.”
Riders Alliance, a grassroots movement on public transit
Transportation Alternatives: “Transportation Alternatives’ mission is to reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking, and public transit for all New Yorkers.”
Straphangers Campaign

posted by showbiz_liz at 10:46 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Relative to Hong Kong, Seoul, Dubai and London it's disgusting.

The seats on the London Underground (with their lovely fabric coverings) were found to contain, on average(!!!), 9 different body fluids.
posted by sexyrobot at 10:48 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


From the same person!

Damn it, Derek!
posted by pracowity at 10:50 AM on March 14 [10 favorites]


The seats on the London Underground (with their lovely fabric coverings) were found to contain, on average(!!!), 9 different body fluids.


... I ... what ... does this mean body fluids from 9 different people, or 9 different types of body fluid? Like uhhh am I missing a bunch of kinds of fluid or something??
posted by alleycat01 at 10:51 AM on March 14 [11 favorites]


Yeah, fabric seats are unsanitary and should be banned.
posted by dame at 10:52 AM on March 14


... I ... what ... does this mean body fluids from 9 different people, or 9 different types of body fluid? Like uhhh am I missing a bunch of kinds of fluid or something??

You can get to nine. (Well, you plus one person with complementary equipment.) It's all of them, pretty much.
I'm mad at you.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:55 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


uhhh am I missing a bunch of kinds of fluid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_fluid
Amniotic fluid, Aqueous humour and vitreous humour, Bile, Blood, Blood plasma, Blood serum, Breast milk, Cerebrospinal fluid, Cerumen (earwax), Chyle, Chyme, Endolymph and erilymph, Exudates, Feces - see diarrhea (lol), Female ejaculate, Gastric acid, Gastric juice, Lymph Mucus (including nasal drainage and phlegm), Pericardial fluid, Peritoneal fluid, Pleural fluid, Pus, Rheum, Saliva, Sebum (skin oil), Serous fluid, Semen, Smegma, Sputum, Synovial fluid, Sweat, Tears, Urine, Vaginal secretion, Vomit
probably sweat, snot, sebum, spit, blood, poop, urine, and a lil bit o vomit

and that's just 8, lol, take your pick from the rest
posted by runt at 10:56 AM on March 14 [13 favorites]


Don't forget the DNA from 27 individual rats and several organisms of a species unknown to science.
posted by acb at 10:58 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Ooh, sebum is clutch. Hat's off. (Hazmat suit's on.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:59 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


I'd wager "breast milk," as when a baby "spits up," it's technically breast milk AND vomit!
posted by explosion at 11:02 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


Or gastric juice and/or bile.
posted by filthy_prescriptivist at 11:06 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Tears, surely.
posted by mochapickle at 11:12 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


Yeah I was just about to post that list.

Humans are just big bags of disgusting.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:13 AM on March 14 [6 favorites]


To be honest after I thought about it, it's not that I couldn't get to 9, it's just that after i got past the obvious 5* (sweat, tears, blood, phlegm, jizz) WHICH ARE BAD ENOUGH I started getting into the territory of PLEASE DON'T EXCRETE THAT IN PUBLIC MY GOD

*I should have thought of breastmilk and am somewhat ashamed it didn't even occur to me; I'm only kinda joking when I note that while babycat01 was BFing, my entire apt was covered in a fine mist of breastmilk
posted by alleycat01 at 11:14 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


Like if people are leaving cerebrospinal fluid on the seats of public transportation I reckon we have bigger problems
posted by alleycat01 at 11:15 AM on March 14 [48 favorites]


I also recently moved to NYC and the attitudes with respect to changing this city are baffling. People will defend the status-quo to the death, despite there being, to my eyes, hundreds of things that are obviously wrong.

Nothing about the way NYC functions impressed me until I moved to San Francisco
posted by mrmurbles at 11:15 AM on March 14 [12 favorites]


On the bright side, if you have unbalanced humours you can fix it just by sitting on the right seat in the Underground. If you're feeling melancholic, find one soaked in human blood to regain your sanguine composure.

One simple trick the chirurgeons don't want you to know!!
posted by griphus at 11:17 AM on March 14 [66 favorites]


Nothing about the way NYC functions impressed me until I moved to San Francisco

I'll add DC and Boston to that list. But of course New York is dealing with a population level that's fairly unique in the U.S.
posted by lalex at 11:19 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


MetaFilter: cerebrospinal fluid on the seats of public transportation
posted by Foosnark at 11:28 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


> Well, there couldn't possibly be anything in the way you are airing your newbie list of grievances that provokes a defensive response, I suppose.

Ha, point taken, though I meant systematic actors rather than normal folks. See as examples: plastic bag ban, speed limits on ocean parkway.

On another note: I've spent a bit of time going to waste-related sites/lectures and while impressive and improving, I've never heard anything resembling a vision that doesn't involve giant trucks driving around and people physically lifting all that trash into them.
posted by beerbajay at 11:31 AM on March 14


I live in NYC and try not to sit on our own hard subway seats. When I see those fabric covered London Tube seats I just shake my head in bewilderment and try no to get too close to them.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:33 AM on March 14


Man, reading this post over lunch was a bad call.
posted by Frayed Knot at 11:33 AM on March 14 [7 favorites]


plastic bag ban

iirc this was passed by City Council, signed by de Blasio, and then blocked by the state. It's complicated! But yeah, I think there's a renewed push and it can't come soon enough.
posted by lalex at 11:38 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I guess my feeling is that, if you're leaking pericardial fluid on the subway seats, you don't need me scolding you about it. You're going to stop really soon, regardless of my input.
posted by sourcequench at 11:38 AM on March 14 [14 favorites]


plastic bag ban

What's up with that styrofoam ban? We need it!
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:41 AM on March 14


What's up with that styrofoam ban? We need it!
I believe it's active but not enforced right now.
posted by mosst at 11:47 AM on March 14


What's up with that styrofoam ban? We need it!

Overturned by a judge in 2015, trying to implement it again, getting sued again.

Is the ban currently in place? I can't find anything more recent and it occurs to me I don't tend to buy stuff that would be packaged in foam.
posted by lalex at 11:48 AM on March 14


I'll take fabric covered seats and a train every 100 seconds on the Victoria Line over the NYC system anyday.

(Yes, it is currently operating with severe delays, but I'm in a pub, so I can deal.)
posted by knapah at 11:50 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]



Don't forget the DNA from 27 individual rats and several organisms of a species unknown to science.


Wait, really? I need to know more about this.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:51 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


As Subway Crisis Takes Up ‘So Much Oxygen,’ the Buses Drag Along

All the native new yorkers I know, know their local buses as fluently as the subway. All the less-acquainted do not. Just saying.
posted by mosst at 11:52 AM on March 14 [5 favorites]


Wait, really? I need to know more about this.

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers!
posted by pracowity at 11:57 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Famously some scientists sequenced the genes of bacteria in subway cars and found bubonic plague, although the result is disputed (it's likely that there were many other bacteria sharing different parts of the plague genome).
posted by vogon_poet at 12:01 PM on March 14


On another note: I've spent a bit of time going to waste-related sites/lectures and while impressive and improving, I've never heard anything resembling a vision that doesn't involve giant trucks driving around and people physically lifting all that trash into them.

Consider visiting Roosevelt Island, newb. 😆
posted by dame at 12:13 PM on March 14 [10 favorites]


This sounds exactly like Toronto's subway problems. An accident (train re-ended the one in front of it) lead to revised signal and speed rules. The idea of using signals to control when a train is allowed onto a certain section of track is fine and good, but the signals in question are so old that the gaps they create between trains is huge and the new, more conservative post-accident rules make those gaps and stops and backups even bigger. The expense to install modern signal systems (ATC - automatic train control) means that successive governments pushed the upgrades off - and now that they're finally working on the system it's leading to years of weekend closures on sections of the line so that they can do the installation work sometime other than the 3 hour window every night when trains are not running. But once the ATC is in place the entire system will be automated and the trains can run as fast and close together as technically possible, not humanly possible.

The other speed complaints from operators in the article seem similar - slow-down due to track work. Slow-down due to faulty speedometers. Slow-down due to old signals. It's about speed, but it's really about aging infrastructure. So yes, technically, the delay is due to the trains being slower. But that's like doing construction on an aging highway, removing half of the lanes, and then an article comes out that the newly posted construction zone speed line is what's extending everyone's morning commute. Not the fact that the highway HAD to get fixed now or collapse. The speed limits are a symptom, not a cause.
posted by thecjm at 12:14 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]


dame: Or Walt Disney World. The only two places in the US that have a vacuum collection system for waste.
posted by SansPoint at 12:18 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


beerbajay, it's not that New Yorkers don't find everything in your (very extensive) list aggravating, but that it is SO HARD to get anything done about any of it

Also just, some of the things you list are just really tough problems to solve. frex, it's true that the subway platforms can be too hot/cold. Newer platforms are ostensibly temperature-controlled, but retrofitting older ones is an enormously difficult, some say impossible problem.
posted by lalex at 12:26 PM on March 14


(Also, welcome to New York, beerjabay! Come to a meetup!)
posted by lalex at 12:37 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Also just, some of the things you list are just really tough problems to solve.

Fair enough, but I've been a NYC subway rider my entire life -- 50 years, from "total hell" to "hey, not bad!" to "meh" -- and I still find that, every now and then, the MTA does something totally incomprehensible. I mean, totally, utterly, inexplicably insane.
posted by The Bellman at 12:45 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]


Also just, some of the things you list are just really tough problems to solve.

Yeah there was a "this is why we can't have nice things" comment about the subway system some time back and one of the nice things was safety railings between the platform and the train. Simple right? Well the subway system here is apparently so old that there's no way to reliably predict where the doors will be when the train pulls in, so there's no way to appropriately space the railings.

Also hell yeah Revival meetup.
posted by griphus at 12:49 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


I mean, totally, utterly, inexplicably insane.

My head just exploded. Can't argue against better signage and information, can't argue that at all.
posted by lalex at 12:52 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


All the native new yorkers I know, know their local buses as fluently as the subway. All the less-acquainted do not. Just saying.

Pfft. If you’re gonna be outside anyway, just walk.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:06 PM on March 14


My head just exploded.

My wife and I believe this is some kind of enrichment program, like when they give the polar bears big blocks of ice with fish in them at the Bronx Zoo -- so they don't get bored.

The F gets bored, so the let it run on the D line for a little while; the D gets bored so they let it pretend to be the F.
posted by The Bellman at 1:22 PM on March 14 [21 favorites]


Like if people are leaving cerebrospinal fluid on the seats of public transportation I reckon we have bigger problems

I'd like to tell you about a little thing called trepanning
posted by runt at 1:37 PM on March 14


runt: "That would have worked, if you hadn't stopped me."
posted by SansPoint at 1:40 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Well, F runs local (at least in Manhattan), D runs express, and they run a different car, so...maybe...for some reason...they needed the different size car on one of the tracks or at one of the local stops.....? I dunno.
posted by praemunire at 1:42 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


RE: The F and D thing, there's a junction at DeKalb Avenue that, if they're working on it, might explain the otherwise inexplicable rerouting there.
posted by SansPoint at 2:00 PM on March 14


All the native new yorkers I know, know their local buses as fluently as the subway. All the less-acquainted do not. Just saying.

Hard to get to know them when they never come around. I'm pretty sure the Q103 has gone into hiding under an assumed name somewhere in the Florida Keys. (My favorite pastime is watching the allegedly-live bus tracker countdown approach 0, then jump back to 30 minutes—because 30 minute headways in themselves aren't enough of a fuck-you—with no bus having shown itself. Perhaps they are ghost buses, carrying the souls of the dead to the next plane.)
posted by enn at 3:19 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]


i remember for a while they would switch the 1 and the 2/3 trains in Manhattan on some weekends, which was naturally extremely confusing for all the non-English-speaking tourists trying to get back to their hotels near Times Square. it sounds similar. i still have no idea what it accomplished.
posted by vogon_poet at 3:31 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


vogon_poet: My theory is that the rerouting around these junctions is that it lets crews work on the signaling and switching mechanisms without having to get out of the way of trains passing through... as much.

No way to know for sure, though.
posted by SansPoint at 5:09 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I mean, totally, utterly, inexplicably insane.

This used to make my head explode, but now I’ve solved the problem by never going anywhere.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:54 PM on March 14


More's the pity, the cerebrospinal fluid was helping form a natural patina on the seats.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:38 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


The 2/3 has not run normally on weekends for the past two years. Ask me how I know.
posted by praemunire at 11:02 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


New York is the best, most special city in the world, where nothing can be improved because all problems are the best, most special problems in the world.
posted by romanb at 12:20 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


The seats on the London Underground (with their lovely fabric coverings) were found to contain, on average(!!!), 9 different body fluids.

Also, anecdote from a behind-the-scenes tour of the entomology department at the Natural History Museum, London: Pest controller en route to a suspected bedbug infestation takes the Tube. His bedbug-sniffing dog alerts at all the seats...

I'm so happy that my commute now involves the Tube. So happy.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:47 AM on March 15 [4 favorites]


I have a theory about the D/F. If you look at the sign, you see the Coney Island–bound D is running local (as a C) from 145th to W4, which means it is not running through midtown (Rockefeller Center, Bryant, Herald). At West 4th it "becomes" and F, which is to say it stays on the local track, going from the C upstairs to the F downstairs.

My suspicion is there is no track to go from an upstairs local to a downstairs express — or if there is, going through it was problematic. So the D still starts in the Bronx and the F in Queens, but they take one another's routes to Stillwelll to get around the W4 thing.
posted by dame at 11:15 AM on March 15 [2 favorites]


dame: That also makes sense. No B service, reroute the D over the C so you can work on that track on 6th Ave, then adjust the DeKalb Ave junction so the F runs over the D's usual route.
posted by SansPoint at 11:17 AM on March 15


I mean, totally, utterly, inexplicably insane.

Some of those F train reroutings truly break my brain. Especially when F, A, and D all get in on the action, like some kind of unholy ménage à trois. One time, the E train found a way to get involved and I about flipped my shit. I was all like, “Just because the A is coming doesn’t mean you get to join the party!”

Honestly, I don’t know why they don’t just draw us a diagram. Would be a lot easier to understand than five different “X train on the Y line between A and B stop” directives.
posted by panama joe at 12:36 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


Nothing about the way NYC functions impressed me until I moved to San Francisco

After I moved to SF I immediately took back everything bad I ever said about the G train. Come to SF, G train! You can even do that thing where you stop halfway through and make everyone change to another G train. I won't mind.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:07 PM on March 15 [4 favorites]


If you think the F and the D switching is confusing, the 5 and 2 switching is even more confusing. At least to me.
posted by starlybri at 9:25 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


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