In every city, topics of discussion among locals tend to focus on features of life specific to that particular locale.  In New York City, no two topics of general interest abound more than neighborhoods and the transit options for those neighborhoods.  One specific example of a transit talking point among Big Apple residents is the unpredictability of subway service.  Trains may run express but suddenly be switched to local service, without warning, stopping at all stops.  Or vice-versa, one may find oneself having to get off a train quickly in order to get onto another train that will make local stops.  Trains may creep and crawl, only to lurch forward and return to normal speed.  Or go into a nerve-wracking run of high-speed only to end up being held for minutes at the next station by the dispatcher.  In this, the world’s largest subway system, passenger experiences range from the routine or mundane all the way to the ridiculous or bizarre.

The 2 Train Service Suddenly Ends

In the six months of daily subway use by this author, an “expat” Californian, I have seen almost every type of railroading incident I might have thought possible.  But an event last night was so sudden and annoying, yet typical in the life of the New York City subway network, that it deserves a dishonorable mention here!  I was traveling from West 72ndStreet and Broadway to Brooklyn just after midnight and had decided to take the 2 train, an express line, to 14thStreet, where I would catch an L train.  Both of these lines are among the most frequent and reliable in the subway system and are a virtual joy to depend on compared to some of the other, clunkier train lines.  When I descended to the 72ndStreet station platform, I had just missed the 2 train so I elected to hop onto a 1 train just arriving, gambling that I could always jump over to a 2 train at a subsequent, transfer station.  When my local train pulled into the 42ndStreet station, a 2 express train was also arriving, so I naturally did what most savvy New Yorkers would do and hastily exited my 1 train to jaunt over to the 2 train across the platform to take advantage of the express service.

Stranded on a Platform, Waiting for a Train, Weighing Options

Easy, done; and I would eliminate just a couple of local stops but add a sense of speed to my trip.  Once seated on the 2 at 42ndStreet, the conductor’s voice blared over the p.a. that the “next stop is 34thStreet/Penn Station”.  Then came the customary “stand clear of the closing doors” and the cascading, closing door tone.  The doors closed, and then opened as though a passenger in another car had blocked the doors. Then nothing for a moment.  Then came the night’s jarring surprise when the brusque conductor strutted into my car and announced that THIS would be the last stop.  He repeated himself as the other passengers slowly stood up to leave or, as I did, continue to sit – shell shocked by the sudden, unscheduled termination of this train.  To add to the drama, the local train across the platform from which I had just “jumped ship” was now departing, leaving me and the other passengers stranded.  “But what about your announcement that 34thStreet is the next stop?” I sung out to the train man.  The obtuse reply was that “this is 42ndStreet and the last stop”. 

Service Disruptions: Fixing a Century-old System

Schedule disparities and service disruptions are a daily occurrence in New York City and largely out of the hands of the public operator.  In another article, New York’s Aging Subway System, I wrote how the antiquated design of the urban rail network, which began operating in 1904, hamstrings the system from operating at anything close to peak efficiency.  Many incidents causing delays to thousands of passengers at a time, including tracks fires, switching problems, station overcrowding, could be eliminated by overhauling the 469-station subway system.  One of the most inspired urban transit designs in the world is the Metro in Copenhagen, which operates automated trains – necessitating the walling off of track wells with Plexiglas, enabling super-frequent train service.  New York City is a beacon of hope to the masses and a world innovation leader and, as such, owes itself a streamlined subway system that would facilitate economic expansion and renewal to carry it through the 21stcentury.