Even 40 Inches of Snow Would Be No Problem for These Trains

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The Jan. 26 storm was historic all right: it became the first time New York City had ever completely shuttered its subway system due to a snowstorm.

The blowback was fierce, putting New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on the defensive. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Tom Prendergast, said a full shutdown was necessary because portions of nearly every subway line run outdoors. 

“Hiving off an underground portion of the system...we don’t have a plan to do that," he said.

So, since the MTA did not have a plan, WNYC came up with one.

We felt no similar compunction about carving away the above-ground segments of the subway system from the underground tracks. What would a map look like, we wondered, if we took the most vulnerable lines off the board and terminated service at locations where tracks and switches could handle a turnaround?

Here's the result of that thought experiment, with a detailed explanation below. (We call it the "Snowpiercer" Scenario after a 2013 science fiction film about a train that travels around the earth during a new ice age.) All in all, 238 of the system's 468 stations —more than half — would have service, including many of the busiest.

Caveat: this scenario provides a very conservative level of service, and it is likely that the agency could — and would — handle more.

"You're kind of running a worst-case scenario snowstorm," said Bob Previdi, a former spokesman and planner with the MTA. "In your eyes, you're imagining a 40-inch snowfall."

The MTA already maintains very detailed winter weather plans. Its Plan V lays out how the system should run in a snow emergency, and it was in effect until Gov. Cuomo cancelled subway service the afternoon of Jan. 26. So let's call WNYC's plan 'Plan VI' — the plan that could be put into effect for the next snowfall-of-the-century. (Monday's commute was expected to be messy, but nothing beyond what the MTA could reasonably handle, with a few minor changes here and there.)

Under the parameters of this scenario, the elevated and so-called open-cut lines are removed from service. This, of course, eliminates huge chunks of service in the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn. It also affects trains that go over the East River bridges. But still, large portions of the city would be served -- as far east as Jamaica, as far south as Bay Ridge, and as far north as Norwood in the Bronx.

We did, however, make the call to retain the D train on the Manhattan Bridge. The thinking: the tracks are covered by the elevated roadway and so protected from the worst snowfall.

(Some transit experts make the case that elevated lines are less vulnerable than the open-cut lines, because snow just passes through the structure instead of piling up in trenches. No matter! For simplicity's sake, they are both gone in our map.)

WNYC also followed normal MTA winter weather practice and envisioned local service only, because the agency stores trains on underground express tracks in snow and extreme temperatures. Also: expect longer headways (waits between trains). And we eliminated some portions of lines even though they ran underground if they would not provide substantial amounts of service: the J/Z could run in Lower Manhattan, but largely replicates several other lines. Same with the N train.

Could it work? Possibly. The transit system generally tries to maintain regular service as long as possible, no matter how severe the weather. 

"In the blizzard of '96, I recall being overnight at the Office of Emergency Management," Previdi said. "And service kept running all night long."

During that storm, the city received more than 20 inches of snow — making it, at the time, the second-largest snowstorm in New York City's recorded history. Previdi said there were no serious problems, though segments of the system stopped running temporarily so snow could be cleared from tracks. But once tracks were plowed, trains began running again.

"The thing that I remember about the blizzard of '96 is getting out at 6 in the morning, and walking across Chambers Street," he said. "Anybody who was out was walking literally down the middle of the street. But the subway was still running that day. And to me, that's a very New York thing."

Previdi added: "That's flexibility. It's resiliency. It's redundancy. And it's something we should celebrate and take full advantage of."

Even though WNYC sought external input on this map, we are transit riders and aficionados not transit professionals. So we took our concept to the MTA to get its reaction. 

Spokesman Kevin Ortiz declined to comment specifically on the map. 

"We’ve already started an internal review of the last storm," he said. "And we'll look at the possibility of amending plans moving forward."

He added that it is hard to come up with a blueprint for exactly how things should run, especially in a storm where conditions on the ground change rapidly.

"You need to use discretion," he said. "No one storm is the same. No one size fits all."