subways

Work Train Delays Could Add to Pain on the L

An L train pulls into Union Square, April 12, 2019.
An L train pulls into Union Square, April 12, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

L train riders who were spared one massive headache earlier this year might now have to deal with a lot of little ones, if recent after-hours repair-related delays are any guide.

Subway riders have encountered more service snags caused by work trains since extensive overnight repairs began in July 2017, as part of New York City Transit’s nearly $840 million Subway Action Plan.

L commuters escaped a 15-month complete shutdown along a key stretch, thanks to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Now straphangers are girding to contend with rides spoiled by slow-moving or stalled work trains during upcoming planned overnight and weekend repairs.

“This is my biggest fear, that I’ll wake up in the morning without a way to get to work,” said Chris O’Leary, 36, who commutes to Manhattan from the L’s Jefferson Street stop in Bushwick. “If there’s essentially no L train service because of a stalled work train, that’s going to seriously impact my commute.”

A review of MTA service advisories posted to Twitter shows that work trains — which move materials in and out of subway work zones — have been flagged citywide in nearly 1,100 public notices about delays since crews began flooding the system for overnight work on tracks and signals.

A Friday night work train at the 36 Street Station in Sunset Park on April 12, 2019.
A Friday night work train at the 36 Street Station in Sunset Park on April 12, 2019. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

Internal MTA incident reports obtained by THE CITY show that in January alone, about 215 disruptions were classified as “delayed by work train” — including some delays during the morning rush, because work trains weren’t cleared from the tracks in time. In February, about 100 reports pinned delays on work trains.

An MTA spokesperson said such delays have accounted for fewer than 1% of subway slowdowns since 2017, and that steps have been taken to troubleshoot the potential for problems with work trains. They include increasing maintenance, shortening work-train trips and posting car-equipment inspectors near the L line should a train run into trouble.

“We’re executing an improved L Project that avoids a total shutdown and keeps service exactly the same for more than 90% of our 275,000 customers that use the tunnel,” said the spokesperson, Shams Tarek. “And any suggestion that work trains pose a risk to good service is simply untrue.”

It Helps to Have Options

Meanwhile, officials are encouraging L train riders in Manhattan and Brooklyn to rely on other subway lines.

“The whole point is to give people choices,” Ronnie Hakim, the MTA’s managing director, said last week. “That is the beauty of the New York City subway system, which is that it’s very redundant, there are lots of intersecting lines.”

An MTA webpage on the project states that, “We’ll be enhancing M, G, 7, and bus service to provide alternatives in addition to the L.”

Those who stick with the L will have to hope they don’t encounter delays from work trains that didn’t clear off the tracks before the morning rush.

Some examples of slowdowns caused by work trains:.

”Delays to southbound F and E service due to a work train in transit from picking up a stock rail at 179,” reads a 5:40 am report from January 24.

“(Work Train #04) caused delays to Southbound ‘N’ ‘R’ and ‘Q’ train service,” while en route to a subway yard in Sunset Park, Brooklyn just after 6 a.m. on Jan. 3.

In early January, Cuomo upended years of planning when he announced that repairs to the L’s Canarsie Tunnel would no longer require a full-time shutdown of the line from Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg to 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Chelsea.

Construction at the MTA’s Linden Yard in Brownsville. It is scheduled to be completed before the L Project begins.
Construction at the MTA’s Linden Yard in Brownsville. It is scheduled to be completed before the L Project begins. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA

The major repairs were deemed necessary after the tunnel’s equipment was damaged when the tube took on more than 7 million gallons of saltwater during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Starting at 8 p.m. nightly on the weekend of April 26, service frequency will be reduced so work trains coming from several MTA yards can be positioned for repairs on a single track inside the tunnel. And by 5 a.m., when full service resumes, the work trains have to be off the line.

“If there is a rush to finish [by 5 a.m.], I have to believe something will be compromised,” said Philip Leff, a 34-year-old Williamsburg resident and Transportation Alternatives activist. “Obviously, the subway is in real need of repair, but will there be debris left on the tracks? Will there be an obstruction?”

To reduce how much time work trains for the L project spend on the tracks, the MTA will be loading and unloading those trains at subway yards in Brownsville and Canarsie closer to the work zone, officials said. The MTA says the work train trips from those yards to the Canarsie Tunnel -– about 45 minutes – will be more than cut in half than if they were operating out of another yard in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

But with the clock ticking toward the start of the long-feared service changes, the MTA is facing skepticism on how its “L Project” will pan out.

“Moving work trains into place is going to be the downfall of this questionable train plan,” said Benjamin Kabak, who writes the 2nd Ave. Sagas transit blog.

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