The Right Time to Fix New York’s Subways

On Tuesday morning at approximately 9:48 a.m., a derailment on a southbound A train at West 128th Street caused nearly 40 injuries and disrupted service for the rest of the day.

The incident shook up the passengers — literally and figuratively — as well as the MTA and the city in general. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt and the damage to infrastructure was not extensive.

New Yorkers behaved admirably. Both the 500 passengers who had to escape through a smoky tunnel and the hundreds of firefighters, police officers and MTA workers who came to their rescue, remained calm, and the evacuation was accomplished as smoothly as could be expected.

But there is no doubt it was a harrowing experience.

“We were on the express track from 145th to 125th … All of a sudden it was like the train just started like banging against the walls of the tunnel,” one passenger told CBS2’s Emily Smith. “It was going up and down. It was sort of like a runaway roller coaster — like a bucking horse.”

“It started rocking all over the place. People started falling off their chairs. It was crazy, like a movie,” Edgar Gonzalez said.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, I just got into an accident on the train.’ I was pretty shaken up, I was scared,” one woman said. “I had to brace myself on a pole so my head wouldn’t slam into the pole,” she added.

An initial MTA assessment said that the derailment was probably due to “human error … an inadequately secured piece of replacement rail that was stored on the tracks.” The practice, which is done to facilitate rail repairs, is accepted around the country, providing the equipment is properly secured, which apparently was not the case.

While an investigation continues, New York officialdom was vaguely reassuring. Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared the accident “an unacceptable manifestation of the system’s current state. New Yorkers deserve better. We are grateful to the first responders for their able assistance. It is my expectation that with new leadership brought by Joe Lhota, the MTA will address the fundamental issues plaguing the transit system and overhaul the organizational structure of the MTA,” he said. “As I have told Joe, any support the MTA needs to get through this crisis will be provided.”

It’s nice to know that the governor has MTA Chairman Lhota’s back. Lhota himself promised a full review of the system. His intention, he said, is to “get the Transit Authority and railroad in a state where people feel comfortable.& I want everyone to feel comfortable that they will get to work on time, get to school on time, get to their appointments on time.”

The public’s comfort level would be somewhat more elevated if Cuomo or Lhota had said something about funding new infrastructure. “Organizational overhaul” may also be needed, but we doubt that the problems with New York’s subways can be solved by revising the table of organization, or by moving the corner office to a different corner.

Tuesday’s incident has been attributed, albeit tentatively, to human error. That suggests an isolated case, a worker who forgot to bolt down the auxiliary piece of rail. Something that could happen anywhere, anytime, not a systemic problem. A little stricter supervision, spiffing up the protocols, might be enough to take care of it, and to ensure a much safer and more “comfortable” experience.

However, the governor’s own remarks indicate that whether it was a case of human error or not, the problems are system-wide, involving “fundamental issues.” This, of course, could mean a serious operational review and greater funding for renovations — or it could mean nothing at all.

New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris was more on track, reflecting both public sentiment and the kind of solutions needed, when he said in response:

“Last week, it was people jumping off. Today, it’s a derailment. Tomorrow, it will be something worse, because we haven’t fundamentally addressed the MTA crisis, which is the fact that they’ve been neglected and underfunded.”

Unless there is pressure on New York’s leaders to take the situation seriously and make the necessary political and financial commitments, it is all too likely that what happened on Tuesday will be quickly forgotten. Until, that is, the next accident, and the people raise their voices more insistently.

There is no reason to wait for that next time. Now is the time to fix the subways. Doing so will be expensive, but not doing so is far more costly.