New York City Transit suffered its third derailment in six months on October 24, when two train cars on the 6 train jumped the tracks near the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall Station. That's the kind of major breakdown that tends to make riders wonder, could the subway be sliding backward toward the dark days of the 1970s? That's when crime and train breakdowns, among other ills, were common. That was before a major investment in repairs and construction rescued it from the brink.
Amber Morgan, 42, has been riding the subway for 37 years. Standing on a platform at Union Square Station, she talked about how she'd seen the subway improve after a stretch of very lean years.
"It's better than it was in the ‘70s," she said. "I have memories of the subway when it was covered with graffiti and it was not safe. It's a different subway then when I was a kid."
But Morgan acknowledged she'd moved from Williamsburg to Manhattan because she and her husband didn't want to rely on the L train any more. And she worried it could get worse. "If they keep cutting the budget and keep raising the fare, less people will be able to ride it and it won't be as reliable," she said.
Budget cuts have made some things worse. Recent MTA data show a 20 percent increase in trains arriving more than five minutes late at the end of their runs. But New York City Transit President Tom Prendergast said major service disruptions — like those caused by derailments — are not worsening because of belt-tightening
"We do not think it's in any way related to budget issues or financial issues," he said. "We treat every derailment very seriously. I mean, I was here at a point in time twenty years ago, when we had 27 derailments a year."
Surprisingly, Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign agrees with Prendergast. He said the MTA's average of less than two derailments per year over the last five years is not bad. But Russianoff he added delays and overcrowding are other matters.
"You know, it's not the bad old days yet," he said. "But you have to worry about going down the slippery slope."
There's reason for that concern. One big cause for weekday delays is overcrowding. Ridership is up since last year, when the MTA cut costs by eliminating and combining lines, and putting many trains on less frequent schedules.
Joe Sirefman, 81, was about to catch an uptown 1 train in the West Village. He's a native New Yorker who's ridden the subway his whole life. The increased crowding reminds him of what it was like to squeeze into a packed 6 train as a kid.
"I remember in the summertime hearing, 'Another shove, Madame, and I'll have to marry you,’" he said.
The MTA used to schedule its weekend and overnight trains to run often enough for every rider to have a seat. But with cutbacks, one in five riders is now expected to stand. Factor in delays and cars can get crowded.
Still, there are bright spots. A 1 train IRT rider named Carol said things aren't as bad as before. "It's gotten better," she said. "The information that's given to us — the countdown clocks, the signs and all of that."
It seems that, if riders must be delayed, it helps to know for how long.