Generations of Transit Disaster—the New York City Subways.
Part V, Government Subways Start to Collapse.

The private management companies, which had built the first lines and earned the admiration of many in their first decades, were gone in the post World War II era. The Goos-Goos, who always wanted perpetual government control, had won. However, ironically, the descendants of the Goos-Goos, all supported government running the trains.

They said private transportation systems could never be effective, forgetting the years when the subways had been proclaimed “an engineering marvel.” They argued that the government must always run the trains, which has given New Yorkers an express train to disaster.

So now, over the past 75 years or so, the collapse of the system accelerated as we started to document in the previous segment. However, no student of history should have been surprised at what has happened to New York’s mass transit. It’s happened before.

Government Transportation Systems—A Checkered History

Given the history of government railroads—both urban and long-distance trains—these failures in the New York City subways should have been expected. Since many years before the New York politicians of the 1920s and 1930s, governments—either directly or through authorities–have tried to run railroads. The results have been awful.

Take the state of Michigan in the early nineteenth century. Many politicians wanted a say in how trains were run. The problems, as documented by one historian reviewing the Michigan experience of a state railroad, appear similar to the latter problems of the New York City subways.

“Overloaded locomotives were run at twice the recommended speed. Under the strain of continuous operation and jarring impact of high speed on strap-on rails, locomotives and cars were shaken to pieces, and the cost of operation mounted dramatically,” writes Burton Folsom. Other states also tried to run railroads and had bad experiences. Michigan, in a new constitution, ultimately banned state railroads.

Yet, there is a contradiction in the New York transit system. It is in how much an ostensibly pro-transit political ruling class distances itself for responsibility for the system while insisting that the government must always operate it. Indeed, even many city histories reflect this “trains are not important” view.

An authority on New York City municipal history is Governing New York City by Wallace S. Sayre and Herbert Kaufman. The book, published in the mid-1960s, devotes few pages to subway management. Mayor LaGuardia, who was one of the leaders of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s to oust the private management companies, has many political descendants today who have a similar approach to the subways. These modern Goos-Goos prefer to hand over the heavy lifting to a state agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), while taking credit whenever the authority breaks ground for new lines.

Unfortunately, while many new lines have been started or discussed or started, few have been finished since the 1940s.

Where Are the New Lines?

The MTA’s infamous and little-publicized history includes myriad cost overruns and several unfinished train lines. These are the infamous “subways to nowhere.” Some journalists have documented their woes. Taxpayers have paid numerous times for these lines, most of which have never operated. Stories of all the lines that were supposed to be built, but never were, could fill books.

These ill-fated projects included an unbuilt line from Jamaica, Queens, where the E and F trains now terminate, to Rosedale, Queens, at the city border with Nassau County, Long Island. That failure affects many riders to this day. Indeed, today, New Yorkers who live in eastern Queens ride the subway to the last stop, then transfer to a bus for the last leg home. (Curiously enough, given the problems of the MTA’s often poorly maintained buses—many of which rattle the bones of passengers—the great success of the region once was the privately, illegally operated, gypsy vans that riders tended to favor. These vans can often haul passengers short distances at lower fares—that is, if they could avoid the police.)

Other projects did not work out or were never started, despite much talk about the need for various new routes, included airport-rail connections. These include a direct subway line from Manhattan to Kennedy Airport and a subway line to LaGuardia Airport. Governor Rockefeller proposed the former airport train service when he was running for re-election in 1970.

As for the airport named after New York City’s patron saint mayor, a July 7, 2014, newspaper article in the New York Post documented that public transportation to LaGuardia is poor and Slow. The airport itself—a Port Authority facility— was once termed a “Third World” airport by Vice President Joe Biden.

Most riders take a subway and then a bus at Jackson Heights to get to the airport. The service is so bad that it is often faster to take a cab to the airport despite clogged highways. Still, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced plans for a train to LaGuardia.

But this line has at least one big problem as do so many other subway projects announced with a maximum of media fanfare and little historical reflection: There is no money to pay for it. And, even if money is raised through a new bond issue, history tells us that the money will likely be diverted to other projects or misspent.

Promises Broken: The Train to the Plane and the Second Avenue Subway

The Kennedy Airport line now finally operates, but not as originally intended and promised for decades going back to Governor Rockefeller. It is not a one ride train to the plane service. Riders must go to Jamaica, then carry their bags to another train terminal and pay another fare for a separate service to Kennedy or take a subway to Howard Beach, then get the air train to the airport.

However, the most infamous of the unfinished lines is the Second Avenue subway. Mayor LaGuardia, whose last administration concluded just after World War II, promised a Second Avenue subway. In the 1940s, the IRT’s Second and Third Avenue elevated lines (els) on the East Side were, as part of the 1940 takeover, designated for dismantlement. There were also els on the West Side on Sixth and Ninth Avenues. These were private lines regulated by the state that preceded the subways. They were built in the 1870s and were eventually unified under the IRT.

As the elevated lines—els—went down on the East Side in the 1940s and 1950s, several generations of the city’s politicians repeatedly and disingenuously assured New Yorkers that a better replacement for the two els was coming soon—a new Second Avenue Subway. That projected line is now more than seventy years or more behind schedule. And it is not as though New Yorkers have not paid higher taxes for it.

The voters in 1951 approved a Second Avenue bond issue. The voters also approved another one in 1967 and a third one recently. After the second one in 1967, the MTA, with much fanfare, started work on the Second Avenue subway.

But in what was possibly bad karma, at a 1972 groundbreaking ceremony for the Second Avenue subway, various elected officials, including U.S. Senator Jacob Javits and Mayor John Lindsay, were unable to break ground with a jackhammer. Owing to later fiscal problems, the project ceased for decades.

What happened to the Second Avenue money borrowed through the bonds in the 1950s and 1960s?

Second Avenue Subway bond money, in a kind of Social Security trust fund accounting practice, was spent on other things. The system in the 1950s and ‘60s, as today, ran huge deficits almost every year and always seemed to be on the verge of fiscal disaster as it is today. So bond money went just to keeping the system going. Indeed, the subway system sometimes could not even generate enough money for routine maintenance as in the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

Decades after the 1967 transit bond issue, city and state politicians, betting on the historical illiteracy of the voters, sold them on yet another transit bond issue in 2005 to build the Second Avenue subway. I remember voting against it.

Still, most Republicans and Democrats elected officials backed the new bond issue. Republican governor George Pataki supported it, and it easily passed.

What politician running for election could oppose the idea of promising more subways, even if the truth was they would be delayed by decades or possibly never built?

We’re Coming! Or Are We?

Still, by 2009, the MTA was plastering ads throughout the system promising that the Second Avenue line, once again, was about to start running. Here’s the MTA announcement I saw one morning when I looked up as I was stuck between stations on an F-train that had suddenly become an E train: “Starting in 2015, the new Second Avenue Subway will help relieve overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue Lines. Overdue, but excellent news.”

Unfortunately for long-suffering East Side riders, the Second Avenue line did not come, as promised, in 2015. Once again, the MTA is running behind schedule. The new line is now years behind schedule, over budget, running into construction problems, and wreaking havoc with businesses on the East Side.

The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway is now slated to open at the end of December 2016, according to the MTA. Will the government and its authorities ever meet its much revised schedule on the Second Avenue Subway?

They never have before. “You could look up it,” a keen observer of the national pastime once said.

And there’s a reason for its perpetual tardiness. While the MTA and its political allies and enablers constantly talk about new lines, there is perhaps a more important issue: The system continues having problems maintaining its existing lines.

Trains Go Off the Rails under State Ownership

New Yorkers today often ride in trains that are shaking or ones in which the wheels are squealing and over tracks that haven’t been properly maintained, as New York magazine discovered a few years ago. My wife, Suzanne Hall, a Delta Airlines mechanic with two certifications, can point out numerous problems whenever we ride the trains.

“Throughout there is the constant grinding of wheels,” wrote Clive Thompson in New York magazine in 2005. The grinding leads to sparks that trigger numerous track fires. The communication system is outdated. Motormen often can’t talk to the base because there are numerous dead spots throughout the system.

New York magazine also documented how fragile the system is. When it rains or snows, the system often breaks down, as it did during one September 2004 rush hour because of heavy rain.

The MTA has called these incidents “acts of God.” It has blamed the National Weather Service for not giving ample warnings; climate change for bringing severe and erratic weather; and city officials for not doing more to fix the aging sewer system.

These are examples of the aging system’s inability to handle unexpected problems. Indeed, according to the MTA Office of Inspector General, an oversight arm, said that, in some parts of the system, pumps haven’t been updated for as many as 75 years. The subway system’s woes extend beyond flooding.

On January 23, 2005, a fire destroyed a signal relay room at the Chambers Street station in lower Manhattan. While many control rooms had been modernized to improve their resistance to fires, the one at Chambers Street had not. These problems all lead to delays and mean trips take longer.

Trains Are Delayed—-Again

A childhood friend of mine who became a subway motorman—explaining to me why a familiar Manhattan to Queens trip on the E-train seemed to take longer than when we were teenagers back in the1960s—told me my suspicions about the length of rides were correct. There are many “go slow” places in the system, he explained. The subway also has an outdated signaling system that leads to endless delays.

My friend the motorman also cautioned me to avoid the system during off-peak periods. He said it is a bad time to ride because old equipment is often used.

Latter Day Goos-Goos Start Complaining

A riders’ advocacy group called the Straphangers Campaign started analyzing the electronic alerts sent by the MTA to subway riders. The MTA sends out alerts warning straphangers of “significant” delays when something happens that it believes will delay a train for more than eight to ten minutes.

The problem of delays is likely worse. The MTA keeps its own score, and since there are no posted schedules, it’s a strange kind of scoring. The MTA is like a golfer who never counts all the strokes he takes and gives himself plenty of mulligans. That is easy to do when one keeps one’s own score.

Still, the state agency has been criticized for not counting all the trains that are actually late. “In 2011,” the Straphangers Campaign continued, “the agency sent out those sorts of alerts for “controllable” incidents (those not involving circumstances like sick passengers and police investigations) 2,967 times. In 2013, the agency sent out such alerts 3,998 times.

That’s a 35 percent jump. The increase in alerts is a troubling sign that subway service is deteriorating,” said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, in a May 2012 statement.

That was no surprise to most veteran riders. Many passengers can see the service breakdowns. They gird themselves for the worst whenever they ride. Trains again are becoming dirty. Riders are bothered by various problems.

Subway Follies

For example, kids, trying to cage money from passengers in narrow cars that are often sealed between stops, turn up boom boxes and scream, “It’s showtime.”

They have a captive audience until the next stop, which could take a while if the train is delayed or going between express stops. The kids put on acrobatic shows and sometimes are flying through the air, spooking riders who are afraid kids will crash into them.

The mayor recently and incorrectly said the police had put a stop to these dangerous shows. It should be noted that the mayor, the same as most city and state officials, rarely rides the subways.

Most demoralized riders try to ignore such performances, as well as the frequent delays, which are often the result of bad equipment, such as outdated signals.

Some ten years ago, an annual MTA report announced that reverse signaling was on the way. The ten years have passed. Reverse signaling, like the Second Avenue Subway, hasn’t arrived. Reverse signaling provides maximum utilization of a system’s tracks during high-usage periods.

Say you have a four-track system. The signals arenormally set as two tracks going west and two going east. In the morning, more traffic is going east. Reverse signaling allows you to have trains going east use three tracks.

The process is reversed at night when most traffic is headed west. A major transit system not having reverse signaling is tantamount to a writer today not having email. Subway problems continue in part because the system’s technology is decades behind. These are just a few of the reasons why the 1940 government takeover hasn’t and likely will never work.

Even if the system received every cent it requested of the state and the federal government, or if the ridership numbers boomed, the basic problem of government transportation systems is inherent. We will discuss this in our next segment.


Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of a scholarly essay entitled “Generations of Transit Disaster: The New York City Subways” that is appearing in the fall issue of “The Journal of Private Enterprise.”)

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Gregory Bresiger
Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent financial journalist from Queens, New York. His articles have appeared in publications such as Financial Planner Magazine and The New York Post.