Why the L Train Broke Monday... And Why It Might Keep Happening

Monday, June 17, 2013 - 04:45 PM

Scene on the platform during Monday morning's rush hour delay on the L line. (Tumblr)

A sight you do not want to see in the morning as you're walking down Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn toward the L train subway stop is a long line of commuters outside the local livery cab dispatch station. It can only mean one thing: the trains aren't moving. That's what happened Monday morning. Now the question is: will it keep happening? 

Multiple L trains, filled beyond capacity from picking up passengers on city-bound runs through a wide swath of Brooklyn, couldn't leave the borough because nothing was moving on the Manhattan side of the tunnel. Those passengers were disgorged onto a dangerously overcrowded platform at the Bedford Avenue Station, where they absorbed conflicting messages from an overtaxed public address system. Most gave up and left. ("Officially changed my major to complaining about the #Ltrain," Tweeted rider Madeline Erlich.) 

MTA spokesman Charles Seaton explained that signal problems around the First Avenue station resulted in "three trains with brakes in emergency."

A subway train's emergency brakes are tripped when it moves through a red signal. Seaton wouldn't say whether that is what caused the major delay, which drove commuters above ground in search of cabs, ferries or, after nearly a mile walk, the closest alternative subway station. He did say that, "There is a problem with a track circuit affecting the signals."

In other words, an electrical malfunction messed up the signals and that stopped three trains in their tracks, blocking the tunnel and stranding half of Brooklyn on the wrong side of the East River during rush hour. But the electrical nature of the problem raises the question of whether Storm Sandy, seven-and-a-half months after it blew through New York, was at the root of the turmoil.

It took 11 days to restore service to The Canarsie tube, used by the L train, after Sandy flooded it from track to ceiling. MTA interim executive director Tom Prendergast has repeatedly warned since then that electrical components exposed to salt water are less reliable and operating on a shorter life span. For example, the R train has been seeing a 120 percent increase in delays since Sandy flooded its Montague tunnel.

The R train will soon be shut down for a year of Sandy-related repairs. Could a similar fate await the L train? It would be a hard blow for its riders because there are fewer alternative lines than exist for the R train. And the L train's ridership is growing: by 141 percent between 1998 and 2012, largely because of a population boom in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Seaton wouldn't comment on whether damage from Sandy contributed to Monday's L train delay--only that "the cause is under investigation." 


Comments [6]

Dog of Tears from Beamed from Outer Space

@Jim, you can get to the story by Googling the headline + financial times. Bypasses the paywall.

Jun. 18 2013 08:04 PM
Michael from NYC

I remember when the L train barely ran and Beford St station was littered with crack viles and you didn't want to wait for a train during the day there, let alone at night. So interesting how the media coverage changes when the nabe demographics change.

Jun. 18 2013 10:38 AM
Gregory Bruce

May I just say in all fairness that this is a problem that had been on-going since way before SS Sandy. The L has been horrible for years. And here's my take: Nobody noticed until the 'gentry' started moving in the the neighborhoods. Now that 'they' are here, now el L is news. Just saying. Nobody hears the tree falling in the woods until they need some nice wainscoting.

Jun. 18 2013 10:29 AM

Ride a bike, problem solved.

Jun. 18 2013 10:03 AM
Jim O'Grady

Robert, I couldn't read your story because of the pay wall but you raise a good point. Still, I'm not sure why a CBTC system would be more vulnerable than a traditional signal system. The R train uses a traditional system in the Montague Tunnel and it's been seeing lots of signal-related delays since Sandy.

Jun. 17 2013 06:26 PM
Robert Wright from Brooklyn

I wrote a few weeks ago about the potential for future flooding to hit subway lines with Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) signalling even harder than traditional subway lines: The L Train is the only line that currently has such signalling.

At the time, the MTA insisted to me that the L Train was no worse affected than others as a result of Sandy. The MTA says that it will remove signalling systems from tunnels with CBTC signalling ahead of any future threatened flooding. I don't know what happened to the L Train's signalling during Sandy.

This morning's crisis certainly sounds, nevertheless, like precisely the kind of big mess that a not-working CBTC system can produce. Whether it failed because of Sandy or just because these systems do sometimes fail is another question.

Jun. 17 2013 05:24 PM

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