It was the wrong place for a spare piece of rail — 13 feet long, more than 400 pounds and lying, unsecured, in the center of a busy stretch of subway track.
It migrated slowly during the tremorous morning hours, inching across the stained ties and grimy track bed with the vibration of each passing car until it lay atop the track, directly in the path of oncoming trains.
Just before 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday, June 27, the tunnels at 125th Street in Harlem were illuminated by a southbound A train — eight cars carrying hundreds of people.
What happened next felt like an explosion. The train struck the loose rail, and two cars, each weighing more than 90,000 pounds, left the tracks and hit the tunnel walls with enough force to gouge concrete and shear steel. Signal equipment dangled crazily from the ceiling as smoke filled the train cars. Subway riders choked back panic, crowded together and fought their way through the wreckage.
The car walls and the tunnel felt as if they were closing in on Gabriela Martinez, 27, who was on her way to an internship at NBC at Rockefeller Center and now found herself hugging a stranger for comfort. “I can’t control this,” she thought to herself, “and I think I’m going to die right now.”
Workers responsible for the rail that caused the derailment should have removed it, or at least bolted it down, officials said. It was an egregious lapse in basic subway maintenance. But it was far from the only one in June — the worst month for delays in the subway’s worst year since the transit crisis of the 1970s. To look closely at those 30 troubled days is to see how preventable maintenance problems cause commuter misery practically every hour.
Transit officials count any instance in which a train runs more than five minutes behind, or misses a scheduled stop, as a delay. Of the 82,000 delays recorded in June, more than a third were attributed to overcrowding. About 15,000 stemmed from planned work to repair the system’s failing signals and worn track.
There were about 10,800 delays caused by signal and track problems and about 2,200 delays created by car equipment trouble — the equivalent of 18 late trains every hour, every day, for 30 days straight.
The number of delays caused by maintenance problems could actually be higher — the transit authority’s records do not account for crowding delays on one line caused by maintenance failures on another.
To trace the causes of maintenance problems to their roots, The New York Times reviewed records from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the umbrella agency that runs the subways, for every delay that occurred in June and interviewed dozens of current and former transit employees. The examination showed that the transit authority’s own flawed policies and practices have led to preventable breakdowns.
As The Times reported last month, one source of the transit authority’s problems was decades of leadership by officials who prioritized flashy projects over basic upkeep of the subway’s infrastructure. The financial crisis of 2008 forced the authority to cut back on maintenance spending. And Hurricane Sandy put an enormous strain on the system’s already fragile tunnels, track and signals.
But transit authority leaders have also struggled to stanch turnover among the ranks of its signal maintainers — skilled workers with the arcane knowledge needed to inspect and repair the antiquated traffic lights of the subway — and offered new recruits little training in preventive maintenance. In recent months, they redeployed some signal maintainers to do menial tasks in support of contractors working on the subway’s electrical system.
Transit leaders also were slow to restore cuts that put off car inspections and overhauls to save money, even during good financial times.
They introduced major changes to the management structure of the New York City Transit Authority in 2009 and 2010, which according to current and former employees sowed confusion within the maintenance ranks and led to deterioration of tracks, tunnels and signals.
Transit leaders have acknowledged that at least part of the surge in delays this year stemmed from past policy decisions. After Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared on June 29 that the subway was in a state of emergency, they unveiled a plan that makes repairing signals, track and car equipment a top priority. The proposal calls for making repairs to the signals that break down the most frequently; reducing leaks that cause tracks to wear out more quickly and electrical equipment to malfunction; and cleaning tracks to cut down on fires and other hazards that could cause problems. It also includes staffing special teams at chronic trouble spots to make repairs more quickly, installing welded rail instead of rail with joints to cut down on track failures, and overhauling cars more frequently.
And in an interview with The Times earlier this month, Andy Byford, who spent five years as head of the Toronto Transit Commission and who will take over as president of the New York City Transit Authority next month, said he was considering closing entire lines for long periods to expedite repairs.
Keeping a 24-hour subway system up-to-date is a herculean task, and even the best-maintained signals, tracks and tunnels will fall victim to occasional maintenance problems. Adding to the complexities in New York City are the system’s age (the oldest lines opened 113 years ago), the fact that it runs constantly and its size: It has 665 miles of track and relies on 13,000 signals and 1,600 switches. It operates 6,400 subway cars, which are maintained at 14 facilities across the city.
John Samuelsen, a former track inspector and the former president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said rank-and-file workers do all they can just to keep up with the workload.
“You’re constantly trying to get tonight’s hot potato off your lap,” Mr. Samuelsen said. “Every single night there’s a scramble in order to get rush-hour service off without a hitch. That’s a stressful atmosphere. It’s this industrial ballet that goes on in the hole while everyone is sleeping.”
The loose-rail derailment of the A train was just one among June’s mishaps. A signal failure that struck the northbound D line at 34th Street-Herald Square on a busy Tuesday morning, a week earlier, was another glaring example of a maintenance breakdown that could have been avoided.
Officials had known for years that the station’s signal interlocking — the mechanism that sorts trains among tracks where multiple lines come together — needed attention. The M.T.A. approved a plan to modernize the 1930s-era machinery in 2010. It was not finished by 5:59 a.m. on that Tuesday, June 20, when a failing cable caused a short circuit. That set off transit pandemonium in Midtown Manhattan at the start of the morning rush.
According to M.T.A. officials, the electrical failure tripped a fuse and caused the system that moves trains among intersecting tracks to freeze up. Suddenly, every signal was glowing red, which prevented trains on three of four tracks from moving past the station until M.T.A. workers physically got on the tracks and started waving them through.
As tens of thousands of people poured through the turnstiles on their commutes that morning, the B, D, F and M lines, as well as portions of the E and R lines, all were stricken by delays in both directions.
Michael Posso, a 36-year-old web developer, was on his way from Queens to his office on Delancey Street when his usual commute on the F train halted abruptly. The delay meant he would lose time working with collaborators in Berlin, where the day ends six hours earlier than it does in New York City. In frustration, he pulled out his phone and started tweeting: “Another morning another hellish commute for New Yorkers. Where is the plan to fix the mess?”
Meanwhile, about 50 transit employees worked frantically. Some directed trains through at a crawl, a job that requires signal maintainers to hand-crank rail switches into position and then guide each passing train on its way.
Others began the painstaking work of searching along every inch of thousands of feet of cable for the fault.
At last, they narrowed the problem down to a 1,000-foot length of cable and then disabled circuitry so that only two signals were offline.
By the time regular service resumed, it was 10:35 a.m., and all that commuters like Mr. Posso knew was that some nameless part of the aging subway system had failed yet again. “We are one of the richest cities in the country, in the world, and we have decaying subway systems,” Mr. Posso said.
In all, the signal malfunctions at 34th Street-Herald Square directly caused at least 623 train delays, records show — the most delays caused by a maintenance breakdown of any kind in June. And that number does not count crowding delays resulting from frustrated passengers jamming onto other subway lines.
During the overnight hours, transit workers replaced the entire 1,000-foot length of problem cable, M.T.A. officials said.
Problems such as the short-circuited interlocking system will be eliminated when the replacement work is finished at 34th Street-Herald Square, said M.T.A. spokesman Jon Weinstein. The estimated completion date is June 2018. That interlocking is one of 183 across the entire subway system, and one of at least 17 the M.T.A. has identified in recent years as needing work.
Signal problems happened every day in June. In recent years, union officials and transit workers say, the authority has struggled with the basics of keeping the system in good repair. But at least one effort to ease the problem resulted in unintended consequences.
When Mr. Cuomo declared a state of emergency, he also directed the state Public Service Commission to oversee Consolidated Edison’s efforts to shore up the subway’s power supply. The process required hiring contractors to inspect and repair relay equipment, signals, cables, track circuits and other key parts.
Because work cannot be done on or near the tracks without transit employees acting as “flaggers,” essentially lookouts for oncoming trains, and because there is a shortage of lower-level workers to act as flaggers, skilled signal maintainers were pressed into this task, current and former employees said.
John Chiarello, a subway signal maintainer and representative in Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said about 10 percent of the transit authority’s signal maintainers, who are specially trained to take apart and put back together some of the most complex pieces of the subway, were working as support for contractors in November.
Mr. Weinstein said the M.T.A.’s subway action plan is “accelerating signal inspection, maintenance and upgrade projects throughout the system” and added that even if maintainers were acting as flaggers, critical work was being done. “What matters is that more qualified people than ever before are now working to inspect and maintain signal and power components in the subway,” he said.
Not long before the June 20 electrical breakdown, the M.T.A. cut more than $400 million from its proposed signal funding and added money to pay for station enhancements and other improvements that are priorities of Governor Cuomo.
Mr. Weinstein said the reduction had nothing to do with the governor and resulted from changes in planned signal work.
It was the most recent instance of transit leaders focusing on expenditures such as new subway stations, countdown clocks and Wi-Fi, which improve the rider experience but are small solace to those trapped in stopped trains.
Peter S. Kalikow, a former M.T.A. chairman, said keeping the subway in good condition required constant vigilance, though that work receives less attention.
“If you dedicate the Hoyt-Schermerhorn pump room,” Mr. Kalikow said, “you think you get a press conference and anybody shows up?”
Records show that the authority’s signal maintainer work force also has not kept pace with the subway’s demands.
The number of signal problems rose from 2012 to 2016, but the transit authority added just 57 signal maintainers during that period.
Transit leaders also began requiring less frequent inspections of signals in the late 1990s because of a worker shortage, and they never restored the cuts, according to the transit union. Twenty years ago, workers had to inspect signals, many of which date to World War II, every 30 days. Today signals are inspected every 90 days.
The authority also, until recently, offered no standard guidance in how to perform preventive maintenance on the antiquated equipment — and instead left new maintainers to learn on the job, the transit union said. Mr. Weinstein denied that the M.T.A. was not training its workers in basic skills. But current and former signal workers said it was the case.
“The training aspect was limited to a book the manufacturer puts out, ‘Grease this, grease that, put oil here, put oil there,’” Mr. Chiarello said. “So you would get that, but there wasn’t anything formal. You weren’t trained to do maintenance.”
Now the authority is making a concerted effort to improve training, Mr. Chiarello said.
When the authority hires new maintainers, it often cannot keep them for long. Subway signal maintainers toil in dark, rat-infested tunnels, are often called on to work overtime and are paid far less than what they could earn in the private sector. They earn about $35 an hour; an electrician with similar skills can make $60 an hour elsewhere.
Even if the M.T.A. were to solve all its problems with signals and track, there would still be the trouble caused by failing subway cars.
The Times found that more than 300 car equipment breakdowns caused about 2,200 delays in June.
And the M.T.A. actually recorded more delay-causing incidents involving broken guard lights — the indicators on the sides of trains that tell conductors if doors fail to close or lock — than signal malfunctions.
The subway’s 6,400-car stable is perhaps the most intensely used rail fleet in the nation, yet car maintenance was one of the first places transit leaders looked to save money during the Great Recession.
They stretched the maintenance cycle for most subway cars from about once every 10,000 miles to about once every 11,000 miles, and began putting off major overhauls.
Soon after, breakdowns went on a steep rise — a startling development, after an era of major improvements when reliability increased for 20 consecutive years and doubled every five to seven years. Now, though, reliability — measured by how far a car travels between failures — has declined for five years in a row, and in 2016 was more than one-third lower than its peak in 2005, according to the state comptroller. The decline has been so sharp that even cars bought in the past 10 years are breaking down as often as some that went into service 25 years ago.
Inside the authority’s 14 maintenance centers and two major overhaul shops, the culture puts a premium on turning cars around quickly, former employees said.
Kevaughn Hammond, 26, a former subway car inspector who left New York City Transit last year, said he was often asked to cut corners.
“These trains run through the city, and they are filthy and caked with grease,” said Mr. Hammond, who became a pilot in the Army. “They just try to get it out to put it into service. When you’re not fixing everything you can, and you’re just trying to make numbers, when it actually breaks, it breaks. Then a train is out of service for a longer time.”
Mr. Weinstein denied that car equipment workers are encouraged to skimp on maintenance and said most of them take pride in their work.
No single event or choice plunged the subway system into disrepair. Today’s maintenance problems stem from a collision of bad luck and poor decision making.
The 2008 recession took a major hit to the authority’s finances, prompting officials to relax maintenance procedures and to cut hundreds of front-line workers. As the economy rebounded, leaders did not restore the cuts, even as train delays skyrocketed. The number of subway maintenance workers fell to 15,558 in 2010, from 16,497 in 2008, according to the authority’s financial documents. Mr. Weinstein called those numbers a “selective snapshot” and added that the M.T.A. has added maintenance workers since 2010.
Jay Walder, the M.T.A. chairman from 2009 to 2011, said in an interview that the cuts were necessary given the authority’s huge budget hole after the financial crisis. They were made as carefully as possible, he said, and should have been revisited when the economy bounced back.
“The difficult choices you make during a crisis aren’t necessarily the same choices you make when times are good,” Mr. Walder said.
Hurricane Sandy put an enormous strain on the system’s already fragile infrastructure, and the M.T.A.’s all-hands response to the storm saved critical pieces of the subway from damage — but it meant less time and resources for other, less pressing maintenance needs, current and former employees said.
There was also, in the midst of the financial crisis and just before the storm, a series of changes to the transit authority’s management structure that created confusion and needlessly set maintenance back, according to interviews with five former transit leaders.
In 2009, Howard H. Roberts Jr., then the president of the New York City Transit Authority, put a general manager in charge of operating and maintaining each subway line, essentially making lines their own stand-alone railroads. It was modeled after his reorganization of the authority’s bus system in the 1980s, a management structure that is still in use today.
Critics of the plan said it did not work as well on the subway because, unlike bus operators, subway operators are responsible for maintaining traffic signals and the tracks trains ride on. They said it caused confusion among maintenance workers in areas where multiple lines came together and that it sometimes led to arguments over whose line would pay for replacing key track parts.
They also said general managers prioritized running trains over interrupting service for time-consuming maintenance jobs.
“It was flawed from the beginning. It led to confusion for transit workers, but particularly for bosses about not only how to maintain the system but about how to procure supplies,” said Mr. Samuelsen, the former transit union president. “It blurred lines of responsibility.”
Mr. Weinstein downplayed the effects of the changes, calling them “a managerial reorganization with little impact upon maintainers and their day-to-day tasks.”
Mr. Roberts and his supporters denied that the new model caused maintenance problems and said the plan — which was discontinued after barely a year — was not given enough time to succeed.
And, offering a glimpse at the kinds of divisions and disagreements that can occur among the city’s transit managers, they countered that throwing out the general manager model contributed to this year’s problems with signals and track, not the other way around.
“You just put error on top of error on top of error, and you end up where we are today,” Mr. Roberts said. “And again, it’s going to get worse, much worse, as time goes on.”
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