No writer knew the New York City subway system like Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for New York Newsday, The New York Times, the Daily News, and other newspapers.
Dwyer, who died on Thursday of complications from lung cancer, was a moral and thoughtful journalistic voice on issues far beyond transit, from wrongful convictions in our flawed justice system to the horror of the 9/11 terror attacks. Across subject areas, he was a lyrical writer, a barking watchdog, and a legendary repository of New York history, among the last generation of the great Golden Age Gotham columnists. But all of those traits were crystallized in the subway columns he wrote for New York Newsday between the late 1980s and early 1990s – leading to the 1995 Pulitzer win for commentary.
On that canvas he was a bard of all the small and large dramas that take place underground, from a train crash to a station kiss. And he tried to stand up for riders in the face of politicians and administrators in defending New York’s life-giving, never motionless public square.
Read a selection of Dwyer’s Newsday subway columns here. -- Mark Chiusano
Memories Of a Boy, A Subway
October 10, 1989
On his first big trip to New York City, Eamon Kelly quickly mastered the subways.
"But when I was flush with money, in those days, I'd call a taxicab to go downtown, and you'd be able to say, 'Take me through the park,' " said Kelly. "Then I'd sit back and riding past the foliage, if it was the time of year for it, I'd sit back and think about my enemies."
Kelly, 75, is said to be the best storyteller in Ireland, a country where the greater the liar, the greater the hero. For the last few weeks, he has been lifting the roof at the Irish Repertory Theater in Chelsea, starring in a one-man show of yarns that he picked up on his travels through Ireland, listening to the "seanachies" - master entertainers and oral historians who performed in front of hearths.
He listened and he remembered.
"I was much younger then, and the gum in the brain was sticky and things stayed in there," Kelly explains. He appears in this space today with an old story - one that comes not from an Irish fireside, but from the New York subways.
About 25 years ago, he came to New York with an Abbey Theater show, leaving his family at home.
"When you put on a play, nobody knows whether it's going to run or not. Some plays, I believe, haven't even run to the third act, never mind a full year. My wife and children were living in Dublin, so after about two months here, and when it looked like the play was going to run, I sent for them. She's here with me now, my wife. She came out then with the three children. They were very young at the time - about two and four and a half, and six. Those kind of ages.
"I met them at Kennedy Airport and our cousin brought us to the Excelsior Hotel, which is on 81st Street. We had living apartment there for $ 400 a month. Now, it's $ 205 a day. Things have changed a big lot.
"A baby carriage was misplaced in the luggage and we weren't able to collect it. So I had a phone call from the airline the next morning: the baby carriage was here now and would I come out and collect it. I could have gone out by bus, I could have gone out by cab.
"I thought it would be a delightful opportunity, and a wonderful treat, for the two young lads at four and a half and six to come in the subway.
"So we went up to the station there at 81st Street and Central Park and we sat in, and we got our directions. I was fairly accustomed to using the subway by this time. We had to change now - you might know the name of the place - we had to change before we got the final subway to Kennedy. Well.
"They were delighted with all the excitement of trains going and people getting in and out. I explained to them, now when we change, we have to get out quick. The doors just open and they close again. So when it came to the place that we had to change, I took each, Eoin and Brian, by the hand, you know, and walked out the exit.
"But Eoin, Eoin was a very independent sort of chap. For some reason, Eoin slipped his hand from mine and said, 'I can do it myself, Dad.' He wants to go out the other door.
"I went through the thing because they close so quickly and God bless us, just as I turned around when I got out, the door was closing and he was inside.
"And the train went off and my heart just missed a beat. And I looked at the train and I pointed, and somebody must have noticed. There was a colored man standing at the door, I remember that distinctly. I remember his face. I pointed, you see, that the kid was left behind.
"I must have looked so demented that a lady came over to me, and thinking I was from some very foreign place, she began speaking very slow, in English. " 'IF - YOU - STAND - IN - THIS - PLACE - I - WILL -GO - TO - THE - NEXT - STATION - AND - SEE - WHAT - I- CAN - DO,' so I said thank you very much. She went off. It was an eternity, an absolute eternity, of waiting and pacing up and down. Not moving from the spot in case anything would happen, and hoping that she would remember the spot again.
"The other boy, Brian, he was four and a half, he was laughing a lot. He was so young that the real import never got really to him. Even to this day, it doesn't get to him. He just laughs at the other fellow for getting into such a mixup.
"Finally she appeared. With Eoin. And when Eoin saw me, his first move was to slink back. Knowing that he made a mistake, he just slinks back. He was more than surprised when I ran over to him and lifted him up in my arms and embraced him. When I looked around, the lady was gone.
"There you are now. Who did I want to thank more than anything else in the world, only this lady. And there she is, she's gone.
"Now I was telling one of the actors in the dressing room about it. And he mentioned it to the press officer. And naturally [Producer David] Merrick saw it as a publicity thing. So word was put out in all the media, and they had a description in the papers and various things. And finally the lady was located. I forget her name now. She was a physician's wife and she was from somewhere in Long Island. The theater gave a special dinner for Eoin and myself and her and the press officer in such a place - Rainbow, Rainbow Room. Is there such a place now?"
There is, he is assured, and for the price of a meal there today, he could probably spend a night in the Excelsior Hotel. "Ah well," said Kelly, "I'm glad we got there when it was cheaper."
Neighborhood Clings to Life Through Its Subway Station
December 10, 1989
Clean and cold came the execution warrant for the fire-blasted Intervale Avenue train station:
"The area in the immediate vicinity of the station is a relatively sparsely populated neighborhood with very limited commercial, industrial or institutional activity," said a report signed by Transit Authority President David Gunn and made public last Thursday.
Crummy station, crummy neighborhood, with too much transit service anyway, is what they mean to say. Nine months after hoodlums torched the South Bronx station in a holdup, the first words uttered by the government about the charred remains are: Close it.
But around Intervale Avenue, the city rises, most courageously. Homes are reopening. Schools are thriving. Businesses are starting. Developers - government-sponsored and private - are sinking money into rubble.
And until last March, you could thank the subway:The 1988 patronage at that stop was its highest in a decade, 24 percent more than in 1985, a sign that the buildings, once burned to their gaping roofs, are now again homes to people who get up in the morning and go to work.
That has been the history of New York in the 20th century. The subways arrived, and the city followed, tenements and apartment buildings rising in clusters around stations. When the South Bronx died, in full flame on network television during the 1977 World Series, the trains kept rolling beneath and above the quiet, empty avenues.
Now many of those streets ring with life once more. Eleven years ago, Bronx Regional High School opened at 1010 Rev. James A. Polite Ave., a block and a half from the Intervale Avenue station, a school of nearly last resort. Today, it graduates about 75 of its 350 students every year, and has been nationally recognized for rescuing dropouts. It is one of the safest schools in the city.
"This school here, they treat you like family," said Anthony Graves, 18, for whom Bronx Regional has been his third, and final stop. He is to graduate next month and is planning college in the fall. "They really ought to open that station - especially for the students with children."
Oh yes, the children: In the building with Bronx Regional is the Eleanor Roosevelt Life Center, where care and love are given to 40 toddlers and infants whose mothers are students.
On the same site is the Martha Nielson School for Pregnant and Parenting Teens, a chance at a diploma and the company of other young mothers-to-be for 175 pregnant girls whose lifes won't end with early pregnancy.
"Of course, for them, the most accessible subway line is important," said Mark Weiss, principal of Bronx Regional.
Another operation on the premises is the Satellite Academy High School, attended by 175 kids from all over the Bronx who take special courses, and the James Baldwin Literacy Center, where 140 students are tutored in reading and writing so they might catch up with the rest of society.
Down another block, other lives belie the grim assessment of Intervale by the Transit Authority.
"The whole community shouldn't have to pay for the people who burned the station," said Henry Rendon, the baker at La Princesa Bakery, who leaves his home in Elmhurst, Queens, at 4:30 in the morning to fill the glass cases of his Intervale Avenue shop with sweets and cakes. "We are down by 50 percent since the station closed."
"We had two nationally recognized retail chains - a clothing store and a shoe store - who were on the verge of signing leases when the fire hit," said Bob Fruhling, a developer who rebuilt the shell of a commercial building beneath the station. Those companies backed out when the fire hit.
If Intervale closes permanently, it will be the first station since 1962 to be shut down. It is almost certainly the first in the city's history to be closed by vandals.
The TA's staff summary makes the following case for closing the station.
1. Ridership is low - 1,588 a day, although officials were unable to say Friday if this included students who have passes and don't use turnstiles.
(There is no mention that ridership has risen 24 percent since 1985, while the rest of the subwaysystem went up just 2 percent or 3 percent. And the document asserts that the construction of 550 new housing units in the area "will not substantially increase the ridership base." That's about 3,000 new people.)
2. If Intervale is closed, it's still just a half mile between the adjacent stops of Prospect and Simpson, which is within the TA's Station Planning Guidelines.
(No one can produce a piece of paper with "Station Planning Guidelines" since they are now being drawn up and have not been adopted by the board, which supposedly represents the public and is in charge of the TA staff and policy. There are stops on the Brighton, Astoria, Lexington and Broadway lines that are much closer - although they're in the kinds of neighborhoods where no one would dare shut them.
By the way, the distance between Prospect and Simpson stops appears to have shrunk since 1984. A transit diagram distributed on Thursday with the summary states that the distance between the two surviving stations is 2,675 feet; in 1984, TA planners listed the distance between them as six-tenths of a mile - or 3,168 feet. And it's a hard trudge up hill to both stations, since Intervale is in a little valley, which apparently is why it was constructed so close to the other stops, according to subway historians.)
3. It will cost $ 5.2 million to repair and the money can only come from other projects.
(The estimate is down $ 800,000 from a $ 6-million price tag the TA put on the project in October; the cost now is about $ 2,600 a square foot for what is essentially a 2,000-square-foot shack on stilts, or 17 times more expensive than the cost of building the average luxury condominium.
About seven years ago, a previous transit administration sought to close the Franklin Avenue shuttle in Brooklyn by devising outrageously inflated cost estimates for repairing stations on the line. In keeping with a TA policy of death by gilding, the Intervale estimate includes $ 500,000 for an escalator that hadn't worked for most of two years, and a public-address system that has not worked since the station opened. It includes a $ 250,000 estimate for a six-foot-by-eight-foot token booth that, immediately after the fire in March, was listed by transit officials as costing $ 30,000. Unknown thousands are included for wiring for the automatic fare collection, a monthly pass system that will not be put into effect until 1996.)
"The purpose of this staff summary is to request that a public hearing be authorized to consider the proposal to permanently close the Intervale Avenue station," said the papers presented to the MTA board on Thursday.
Without a grunt of assent or dissent, the board voted to call the hearing, as yet unscheduled, for January.
"Don't we talk about neighborhoods?" asks Mark Weiss of Bronx Regional. "Is the word neighborhood in any of these studies about the station?"
The short answer is yes, but only to say that this one stinks.
The true answer is that New York and its neighborhoods are most enduring around train stations, thanks to the subway - the battered and battering, neighborhood-saving subway, cursed accomplice of daily life.
Treasure Map to Transit Expertise
December 17, 1989
I am just back from Doubleday bookstore with a shopping bag full of maps about the subways and the bad news is that most of them are expensive and wrong.
The good news is that several new maps and guides - cheap or free - make getting around town easier for the disabled, for natives, and for tourists.
First, the freebies.
There are two new guides on mass transit accessible to the disabled. Did you know that anyone who has difficulty using bus stairs - in a wheelchair or not - is entitled to board through the lift at the rear-door? Or that if you find that bus drivers don't have the key to operate the lift, you can get one of your own? "The Guide To Riding Wheelchair Accessible Buses in New York City" gives this and plenty of other good advice about getting on the buses.
A similar guide will be published soon about the 15 elevated and subway train stations that have been equipped with elevators. Most of the work has been finished by the Transit Authority in the last few months, though word has not spread about them.
"There has been no marketing by anyone, at all, of the fact that there are accessible stations on the system," said Terry Moakley of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. As a result, his organization has compiled the two guides, and will give them free of charge to anyone who calls 1-800-444-0120, or writes to the EPVA at 75-20 Astoria Blvd., Jackson Heights, N.Y. 11370.
The best subway map is free - the one published by the TA, and handed out at most token booths. It's usually pretty accurate and nearly current, like myself.
The official subway map's most important virtue is that it covers all four boroughs served by the subway- unlike most commercial maps - and has the latest information about route changes or new names for the trains. These change every six months and there's no way for commercial publishers to keep up.
If you spend $ 10.95 for the Michelin guide, you will puzzle over the K train, now vanished. Michelin doesn't know that you can transfer at 51st Street from the No. 6 to the E or the F. Besides being outdated, the most grievous flaw is the lack of geography - there's no city connected to Michelin's subway spaghetti.
In the last decade or so, the official maps have improved dramatically. In the early 1970s' version, subway lines also were drawn over gray masses of nothingness, without geography. There was no way to tell, for instance, where Prospect Park was in relation to the F train. Now the maps are on target.
Every once in a while, the MTA stirs itself and produces a subway and bus map that shows special attractions.
Currently, there is one good "specialty" map available from the MTA, listing theaters. I got mine at a cocktail party from someone at the MTA who had it in his briefcase.
How can anyone else get them?
"Write to us," said the someone from the MTA.
Is that any way to give out good maps? MTA, 347 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y., 10017.
Now, for the commercial stuff.
The positively ingenious "Manhattan SubwayFinder," is a fast way to find the subway stop near most Manhattan addresses. It's put together like a 36-page phone book that lists every street in Manhattan and the train station nearest it.
For instance: To get to 136 Varick St., I'd look in the book under Varick Street, find 136 and see there's a listing for the A, C, E or No. 1 trains to Canal Street.
Going to 80 St. Nicholas Ave.? Ride the 2 or 3 to 110th Street.
The "Subway Finder" also lists attractions such as nightclubs, bookstores and movie theaters and the stops near them. The Transit Authority has bought 1,200 of them for use by its clerks and put them in token booths.
It's $ 2.95, available in the big bookstores, or by contacting Stanhope Press, P.O. Box 1177 Grand Central Station, N.Y. 10163, 718-721-3530.
The man who made a better map for the MTA a decade ago has done it again - this time, privately.
John Tauranac, who created the current official subway map, has just published three new maps, all of them based on getting around Manhattan with mass transit.
The biggest of these is only slightly larger than the size of ordinary typing paper, but manages to cover every major attraction in Manhattan, along with clear, legible maps for the subway system and the bus routes. (I happen to think all buses in the city are in an horrendous tailspin and far too aggravating to wait for.) But at $ 2.95, "The Manhattan Traveller" is an essential and economical piece of equipment for visitors.
Among the sensible details in this map - and what else is a map, but a collection of sensible details? - the compass star at the bottom shows north and south - and also uptown and downtown, east side and west, which is the way people give directions in this town.
In conjunction with the Transit Center (which is some kind of weird private appendage to the Port Authority, don't ask), Tauranac also has put out two wallet-sized maps of the subways and buses. These are $ 1.50, and, along with "The Manhattan Traveller," are available at the tourist bookstores in the South Street Seaport and elsewhere, or by contacting Tauranac Ltd., 900 West End Ave., New York, N.Y. 10025.
Another good set of wallet-sized Manhattan maps has been issued by Streetwise, makers of laminated maps. New Yorkers may not recognize the colors used for the lines, but they are consistent and the stops are well-marked. These cost $ 1.75. The company also has put out "Transitwise," a laminated, folding four-borough subway map that flips over to give routes for the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North and New Jersey Transit, making it a genuine, and rare, regional transit map, that costs $ 3.50. Streetwise maps are widely distributed in city bookstores.
Math Doesn't Figure
November 30, 1990
Recently, some papers of the late Joseph F. X. Cully Jr. came into my possession. Mr. Cully went to work for the Independent Subway System upon its opening in 1932 and retired 44 honorable years later. His papers are a little piece of history that taunt our present.
At random, I picked from the pile an orange soft-covered book with the title, "Time Table No. 149, In Effect Sunday, December 15th, 1940."
This dealt with the train schedule for the Queens Brooklyn local, known today as the G train. Here is the list of trains leaving Continental Avenue in Queens on Sunday mornings:
And so on, a train every six minutes, until 10 in the morning, when they appear every five minutes and continue all day Sunday.
This schedule was issued in 1940, a landmark year in the history of rapid transit in New York City. We are well advised to see what has happened in the 50 years since.
In 1940, construction of the physical subway routes was essentially completed, and the city acquired and unified what had been the three divergent systems of the IRT, the BMT and the IND. The records indicate a total of approximately 25,885 people worked for those three operations before the city took over.
While the government may have stopped building tracks and tunnels that year, it did start laying the first bricks of a colossal bureaucracy. At the time, the organization was called the Board of Transportation.
By 1953, the name had changed to the Transit Authority, and the number of employees had increased by about 10,000, slightly less than 40 percent, to 35,606. (This doesn't count 9,500 in the bus system.) Some of this may be attributed to the 40-hour work week won by the Transport Workers Union.
That same year, a new building at 370 Jay St. was opened to hold the bureaucrats, few of whom were unionized. And why would they need unions? A bureaucracy takes care of itself like nothing else. The Transit Authority building was designed for 1,500. Today, 3,000 sit there and draw paychecks. And they are putting up a new place in Brooklyn called Livingston Plaza. That will hold 2,500 more people who are now scattered in rentals around town.
Not one of these 5,500 at Jay Street or Livingston Plaza will move a train, drive a bus or sell a token.
Time went by. People stopped working six-day weeks and ridership declined. Train service was reduced as the riding public moved to the suburbs. In March, 1968, a new transit bureaucracy was formed, and christened the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The MTA did not replace the Transit Authority, which at this date was only 15 years old; it had the following purposes beyond the scope of the existing bureaucracy:
1. Take power away from a man named Robert Moses, now dead.
2. Build 21 new subway lines, all now merely dead plans and the money gone.
3. Coordinate regional transit, a dead issue because of the dead subway lines mentioned in Item 2.
4. Fill in papers and send them to Washington for federal grants, under programs now all but dead.
5. Take money from people driving cars and give it to people in subways, a mission accomplished.
Whatever good has been accomplished in the MTA in its 22 years of existence has been the entirely accidental accomplishment of the brains and drive of a few individuals. The institution itself does nothing from dawn to dusk. It lacks a single person who can argue that the system needs more rebuilding, which is the only possible argument for the MTA's existence.
That's not for a shortage of warm bodies.
The MTA started in 1968 with zero employees and no office space. By 1970, it had a staff of 83.
By 1982, it had 295. Today, it has 465 employees, who completely fill a 20-story building at 347 Madison Ave., and seven more floors at 345 Madison Ave., one of two buildings the MTA has bought this year. This is 1 1/2 office buildings of people who only transfer money between bank accounts.
I guarantee that the entire MTA could be wiped out tomorrow and no one would miss it in this decade or any other. Nobody there has anything to do with moving a bus or subway train.
And all this time, its cousin-fungus, the Transit Authority, has been growing in its own dark cave.
Not, you can be sure, in numbers of train operators and conductors and bus drivers. As ridership declined, the schedule, regretfully, sensibly, was shrunk. But the bureaucracy swelled. Today, the work done in 1940 by 25,885 is done by 38,178.
Half a century after the city began operating the subway system, you must wait 15 minutes at Continental Avenue on a Sunday morning for a G train to come - instead of every six minutes, as Joseph Cully's ancient schedule showed.
Fifty years down the road, we have half the subway.
And half again as many people to run it.
TA Fans Flames of Tragedy
December 29, 1990
It is a very simple matter to figure out how a man died in a billowing cloud of subway smoke yesterday. The death was expected and predicted. The reason can be summed up in a word: Fans.
And not just mechanical fans, either, but also the political fans, which were the only ones capable of blowing smoke yesterday.
Not a single ventilation device was working in the Clark Street tunnel, eight stories down, when it was filled with clouds of poisonous smoke from an electrical short.
For 13 years, eight powerful new fans that are supposed to be installed in that tunnel and others have been sitting in a warehouse in Ohio, transit sources say.
It was 1977 when the city and the Transit Authority first set out to install fans on the Brooklyn side of the Clark Street tunnel, but there is no sign of them there yet. The contract slid into a maw of litigation and disinterest from which it has yet to emerge.
By 1988, John Pritchard, the inspector general of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was warning that fans in that tunnel and others were broken or dangerously unreliable.
The other kind of fan, the political fan, is typified by the governor, Cuomo, who has 12,000 people in the state Department of Transportation and has found exactly 16 whose jobs he no longer needs: the 16 people who investigate mass transit accidents and who have raised the alarm, repeatedly, about faulty ventilation in the subways.
But in a great billow of smoke, Cuomo operatives say that the TA and the Long Island Rail Road and all the others are now so good that they can police their own safety operations.
For the last six years, reports in the press, by the state Legislature, by Pritchard and by the state Public Transportation Safety Board have warned, urgently, of the dangers in unventilated tunnels.
Studies show the leading cause of death in subwayaccidents is suffocation from smoke.
Here are just a few items from the files:
August 1988: New York Newsday reports that nearly one-quarter of all subway system fans were not working. The MTA board demands monthly reports from the staff on the status of the fans. They get the reports and go right back to their naps.
November, 1988: 31 people are killed by smoke in a London subway station. "Can't happen here," say TA officials.
December, 1988: Pritchard issues a report on emergency preparedness and warns that in the Clark Street tunnel, where yesterday's fire took place, "only two of the six fans . . . work. There are none on the Brooklyn side."
January, 1989: Two state Assembly Democrats, Cathy Nolan of Queens and Mark Alan Siegel of Manhattan, hold hearings at which the Clark Street fans were specifically mentioned as being very dangerous.
July, 1989: A badly maintained train traps 2,000 people underground for more than two hours in stifling heat. The fans are not switched on because a person in the command center can't find the button.
New York Newsday reports that the fans being installed around the subway system under a TA contract turn themselves on and off.
September, 1990: A hearing is held by the state Public Transportation Safety Board to acquaint the new TA president, Alan Kiepper, with items that the board was worried about. Among the concerns: fans. Kiepper and another transit executive assured the board that they were a "high priority."
While all these warnings were being sounded, no one of power in government pressed the Transit Authority on its safety problems. The governor and last mayor were fans of the agency and its executives. They applauded new cars and new tiles on the walls, which were nice, and didn't have much to say about the ventilation, which is dull but keeps the taxpayers alive.
"It's incredible to say that fans are a priority and then that you can't get it done for four years," says Ed Plasberg, chief of rail operations for the state safety board.
"It's horse - - - . The rhetoric from the TA was that it was a high-priority item. It was a bunch of gibberish and no real actions that were being taken.
"Everything is a high priority for them when they have to talk about it in public."
'Buck' Stops at Cuomo
January 4, 1991
Mario Cuomo now runs the subway system all by himself. His MTA chairman, Robert Kiley, skipped quietly out the door on Wednesday, and Cuomo has yet to hire a new one.
That means Cuomo has to start answering questions about why two people were suffocated in a subwaylast week, apparently the first time in the 50 years of government operation that riders were killed in a fire.
Now, also for the first time, the governor has ordered the state Public Transportation Safety Board - an investigative panel that he is trying to kill - to send him a hurry-up report on the accident. Cuomo also has sent for an internal MTA report. Both are due in Albany today.
And people familiar with the details say the state safety board investigators have identified five trouble spots:
The delay in getting the train out of the smoky area.
Emergency rescuers not being told about the problem quickly.
The breakdown in coordination of the rescue.
The shortage of ventilation fans.
Problems with the electrical cables.
At the Transit Authority, an internal investigation has found that there probably was a crack in the electrical cable where the fire started, a high-ranking source said yesterday. "The snow alone didn't cause this - it was a contributing factor, at most," said the source.
The cable supposedly was inspected in October and found to be in good condition.
"Would you mind telling me," a senior transit vice president asked yesterday, "why there is so much interest in this?"
Because it's never happened before. Not here. Because a man named Peter Hagen started his day on a train in Smithtown, L.I., and died under the banks of the East River. Because a woman named Dorene Blumenthal from Massapequa Park, L.I., never made it to work. The day starts and ends on the subways.They are to New York what water is to the West: irrigation for skyscrapers.
And the truth is, if New York City is going to have a future, it will ride the subways. They'd better be safe and they'd better be taken care of.
But the politicians have not paid attention when the dress rehearsals were held for last week's deaths in the Clark Street Tunnel. For two decades, more and more people have been trapped in tunnels with no fresh air, without quick help, and left to climb the rope of their own panic. The accidents were shot on the flares of news headlines, then vanished from the consciousness of all but those who were hurt or blamed.
The state safety board has issued a score of reports on derailments and collisions and stalled trains. If the recommendations in any one of them had been heeded, the chaos that prevailed last week during the smoky fire probably could have been avoided.
The system of running subways with an MTA board made up mostly of political hacks doesn't work. They are not allowed to take profits in public. Rather than have a hack or two sneaking around doing deals with vendors and consultants, and a dozen others sitting on their hands, why not lease out the management?
Set up a contract that makes the operators of the subways rich if they do a good job, and sends them out to pasture if they don't. For example, a good job would not be defined as letting life-saving ventillation fans sit in a warehouse in Ohio for 13 years.
Maybe the Transport Workers Union would make a bid to run the place. Maybe General Motors would. In either case, the thousands of smart people who work in the subways and care about them would not be snuffed out by a bureaucracy that sees a threat, and not profit, in change.
Yesterday afternoon, I called my friend Al O'Leary at the Transit Police Department. Sitting with him were a room full of emergency service cops.
"They're about to go see the chief, who wants to know what they need," said O'Leary.
Yes. On Friday morning, four of their five rescue trucks were in garages, out of service. The fifth was in another borough. The replacement wagons had a total of two bottles of oxygen, which weren't much help to 180 people with smoke inhalation. That made news in this paper on Monday - and, with luck, there will be oxygen and stretchers and working trucks the next time there's smoke in the subways.
This morning, the Transit Authority is going to present a report on what it thinks went wrong. The place is under siege. The mayor has sent all the blame to the TA and absolved himself. And, no doubt, Cuomo will end up doing that, too. That is why the Transit Authority exists: to protect the people who are truly responsible. So that when 3.5 million people are moved safely, they, the politicians, can bow, and when the riders are damaged, they can duck behind a pillar, out of sight.
I suppose the governor will name a new MTA chairman very quickly.
But running the subways ought to mean more to Mario Cuomo than just protecting himself from problems. To care for and feed them means to care for and feed the city. The country is staring down the barrel of a war right now that has entirely to do with gasoline for cars.
But New Yorkers use less energy than the people of any other state in the country. Thank the subways for that. And the next time a Saddam Hussein rises in the Middle East, his finger on a button to blow gasoline prices sky high, New Yorkers will still be able to go to work and drink in the life of their city.
"Would you mind telling me," a senior transit vice president was asking yesterday, "why there is so much interest in this?"
Now he knows. Because we live here.
Hopes, Dreams Dashed Forever
August 29, 1991
Meet Victor Lewis, dead yesterday on the train, as alive all his 36 years in New York as anyone ever has been. He dies and with him must go the idea that the subway at night belongs only to the scummy and the broken.
Lewis lived on 119th Street in Harlem and had the second and third winds of the striving, unbowed New Yorker: three jobs, not counting the Army Reserve, and of course subway rides to all of them. At midnight yesterday, he was on the way to his third job as a security guard.
This is your chance, sorry to say, to make the acquaintance of Delores Pryce, age 37, who did nurse's aide work in Flushing and made the midnight train out of Grand Central all the way to East New York. She came here from Jamaica four years ago, left the children behind and worked the 3-to-11 shift for the fare to bring them up to New York, so that in their own shoes they could stand on their toes, stretching to feel on the tips of their fingers all the frayed chances, and more, that she had found.
By acclamation, the subway at night cups the worst nightmares of a city living in spreading shadows. When the people in government are inclined to cut night-train service, it is said most pointedly that a mere 4 percent of all subway rides are made between midnight and dawn.
They don't say that 4 percent of the rides on the New York subway comes to 160,000 or so and are more passengers than most other mass transit systems in this country carry on their brightest days.
And Audrey Pascal, one of those 4 percent, was in her 11th year at the Grand Hyatt Hotel where she worked in housekeeping. By day, she raised a daughter and flowers on Ashford Street in East New York; by early night, she turned down the covers on the beds of the glamorous in midtown Manhattan and started her way back to Brooklyn on the No. 4 train at the dot of midnight. It is a cold, hard day in August when the likes of Audrey Pascal don't make it home.
We know what a subway train looks like when its bad breath blows the sleep from our mornings, and hones the edge of our evenings. But we do not know how to see a subway car crushed and balled into heaps. We are six decades past an era when people were killed wholesale in trains.
On a November evening in 1918, a train ran from Park Place in Manhattan toward Prospect Park and then to Brighton Beach. The train never made it past a street called Malbone. Today it is called Empire Boulevard, renamed in a fit of conspicuous and intentional amnesia about the city's worst subwayaccident.
"Of 93 confirmed deaths, something like 17 or 18 were from foreign countries, Russia, Poland, England, France," says Brian Cudahy, a subway historian. "Two sisters from Michigan were visiting a sick sister in Sheepshead Bay. She was coming around, so they went into town and they got wiped out."
Among the dead, "You had a plain old husband, clerical job with a railroad in Manhattan. He sacrificed for the kids and was just getting ready to enjoy their departure from the house. You had a sailor from Charleston, S.C., who was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My mother had two cousins on the train who died. The family found out when they noticed the bed hadn't been slept in."
It is likely that, today, there are not more than a few hundred people in a city of 7 million who know of the Malbone Street wreck. But Victor Lewis, Delores Pryce and Audrey Pascal are just linear descendants of other security guards and nurse's aides and hotel maids who have always run in rich veins of decency above and below the streets of New York City.
If these three are nothing, then it is nothing to see subway cars balled and crumpled in heaps in the tropical tunnel below Union Square Park. But of course, to look on those cars was to feel a tremor behind the knees, to lose a breath or two.
Jutting out from one of those heaps was an arm that seemed to be connected only to a ton of ruined subway car. "We couldn't tell if he was alive or not - with all the noise, it was hard to recognize a moan," said Jonathan Pistilli, an EMS lieutenant. Out came the power tools, the metal crunchers, chewing and jawing against fate. A yard or so of the steel was budged aside. The fingers waved now to say life was down there.
They sweated and heaved, EMS and cops and firefighters and transit workers, burrowing into wreckage, buoying a little life each time. They worked in sputtering light to reach the person attached to the arm. All around them, stretchers were lifted by the dozens. Up from the filthy tunnel. Grease on the arms. Sweat rolling into the eyes. Feet stumbling on this or that bad step, but the stretchers never slipping.
In that crumpled car, they dug towards the body of the arm. They went on for three hours - while in the street above, the calculus of suspicion and failure was written and broadcast: a crack vial in the cab of a vanished motorman.
It is worth remembering, then, that in the bottom of that pile were the fractured bones but still-calm face of Steven Darden, another working person on his way home. A conductor, in fact, one of the thousands of transit workers who have moved New Yorkers by the billion all these decades without delicacy, for sure, but with a certain genius for getting the job done safely. When at last they had lifted him from the rubble, Darden raised his head.
"Goddamned subways," he grumbled, speaking on behalf of all of us about this, our cursed accomplice of daily life.
Nobody Rides First Class; Tracking a Day in the Life
November 3, 1991
Midnight, Brooklyn — So deep in the dark, the three men cannot qualify as shadows. They stoop through a hole in the fence border of Prospect Park, grunt past brambles and brush, and half slide down an embankment to the side of the tracks. Even on a moonless night the lights of the city pump a mild glow across the clouds. But no light spills from Prospect Park, 526 acres of meadows and quiet groves. A few yards to the west is the mouth of a subway tunnel.
The men see the train long before they hear it: headlights gashing the black pitch of the tunnel, beams rising and bouncing along the walls as the train drives from the tail end of Brooklyn toward the ever-lighted island of Manhattan. The men flatten their backs against the concrete wall and suck in their fronts.
Now the rays sting across their faces, nailing bright white spots to their eyes, and they can feel the train looming.
To the men standing on the tracks, two-thirds of the subway car is over their heads; most of what they see is motors and wheels moving, at such close quarters, beyond the shutter speed of the human eye. Everything about the cars is colossal: each is 75 feet long, and is linked in strings of eight by powerful metal couplers and thick electrical cables, in all, 800,000 pounds of metal and plastic and another quarter million of flesh and blood, the greatest moving mass of human tissue in the universe, apart from the planet earth, shooting a mighty roar of wind at 40 miles an hour past their ears.
Above the men the train is a silver blur of cars, their aluminum skins free of blemish. In eleven seconds, a long time to hold a breath, the train is by them.
Nothing moves except the canvas sack that the first man has been holding at his side. During the day he is a mechanic who fixes trains just like the one that barreled past. But tonight, he is the Obeahman, the man of magic, and when he steps out from the wall and walks between the rails, the other two men fall in behind him. Their footfall is measured by a constant crunching of gravel. About 100 yards away is a station, and a junction for another subway line known as the Franklin Avenue shuttle.
Quickly, the men find a clear space near the track. The canvas sack is laid squirming on the ground.
"Loa," says the Obeahman.
"Santo," says another.
Chanting begins in an island dialect. Their religion is a brew of Catholicism, witness to Christ, and voodoo, the magic of the crossroads. To send energy to the saints, sacrificial offerings are made at crossroads, the meeting place between the physical world and the spiritual.
This spot in the subway has the makings of a crossroad; here, two of New York City's twenty-three train lines meet, the Franklin Avenue shuttle and the Brighton line.
From the Obeahman's coat pocket comes a slim butchering knife, its blade sheathed in leather. The plump hen, pure white, except for a pale red comb, is pulled from the bag.
This time, they hear the train before they see it. There is a sound like a bowling ball being dropped, a crash upon crash, which comes from spots on three of the train wheels that are not perfectly round.
The men press against a wall, not needing clearance from the train, really, but to escape the fierce reports. Half a minute later, the train catches up with its own noise. After twenty-seven years of rolling under and over New York, its grime has hardened into a shell that is a kind of canvas for graffiti, the desolate black marker scrawls on maps and benches, walls and windows, and the soaring four-colored murals splashed 500 feet along the outside of the cars.
And here at midnight, May 12, 1989, three decades and a million miles down the road, the cars are making their last trip along the rails of New York. This is the last train in New York covered with graffiti; its lead car is 8205 and designated S, because the train is heading in the subway's version of south. The train is being scrapped.
When it has passed, the Obeahman flashes the knife.
"Where is the bird?" he asks.
The men look at each other. In the retreat from the noisy train, the hen had wriggled out of someone's arms. Now it is trotting down the tracks behind the noisy train. They start to chase it. The hen spurts ahead.
"Let it go," says the Obeahman, disgustedly. "You cannot catch a hen on the run unless it is cornered."
Somewhere down the railroad, the battered 8205-S passes a gleaming new train. Midnight, New York City Transit Authority Command Center, Jay Street, Brooklyn
Ride the New York subways one day. You could fall in love or get snake bitten or see a baby born. Hear a conductor do Elvis routines between stops. Buy a cabbage or a condom. Watch an actress rehearse Garcia Lorca. Study Islam. Salvage a soul. Shinny up a banister in a station where the stairs have been stolen.
Maybe nothing like that will happen - maybe it'll just be a routine ride on America's greatest public work. Also its goofiest. And its most sinister.
New York opened for business in 1624 and managed for most of its first three centuries to mash everyone, more or less, into the bottom - southern - half of Manhattan Island. In 1904, the first subways were opened, supposedly to take the people away from this teeming squalor. And bring them back again, of course, the next morning.
In a bare instant, the subways created fantastic fortunes, carving Manhattan Island into the most valuable real estate in the hemisphere. (The transit system itself has been broke for most of its existence.)
Nine decades later, the subways have become the great public commons of the city, where acts of the heart and warped adventures are played out every day. Every rank of New Yorker is indentured to the subway. Nobody rides first class.
The subways cannot be hurt. It has been tried. One fall day in 1989, a water main broke in Harlem and washed a park - a park - into the 125th Street station at Eighth Avenue, home of the A train (and the B, C, and D). Before the faucet was turned off, 18 million gallons of water had flowed into the tunnels; the only way to reach the roofs of the trains was to swim straight down ten feet. Forty pumps ran around the clock for four days. Then there was the park - which, when a transit worker named Mike Hardiman was through with it, was in forty thousand bags, fifty muddy pounds apiece. The city collapses, now and then, but the trains keep running.
The subways are infinitely absorbent.
On a typical Friday in early September, there are 3,200,000 riders. It is the last weekend of summer vacation for schools, so by Monday, with the return of the students and teachers, there are a half million more riders, 3,700,000. With the exception of a rambunctious air to the cars at dismissal time, the subway feels no different.
It is as if most of Boston or San Francisco were flown to New York, were handed subway tokens, and then vanished. The subways can swallow major cities without even burping.
Then again: A wire burns out on a train in a tunnel under the East River. Now 150,000 people, backed up over 11 miles and two islands, will not get home for dinner. One tiny problem in one car on one train has brewed an unenchanted evening for, say, the population of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Logically, the grand tour of the New York subwaysshould begin in a grim fourteen-story building on Jay Street in Brooklyn, the headquarters of the New York City Transit Authority. On the third floor is a room called the Command Center, which looks just like those big brain-center places at NASA headquarters or in war movies.
New York is wrapped in 731 miles of track that winds under, over, and on the streets. Here in the command center - oops, the Command Center - every mile can be viewed on a model board that stretches for 70 feet across the front of the room. A dozen men and women are staring at radio consoles, muttering into microphones, sometimes into one of four phones on each desk.
It is very impressive. This, you imagine, is where it all happens: the exacting coordination of the greatest mass transit system anywhere. You envision a full day in the Command Center, as the dispatchers monitor 6,800 train trips, blinking from light to light on the model board. You conjure the staccato reports from train crews and police and station personnel that pour in over the course of a day. You muse on the hundreds of split-second adjustments made when a train breaks down, the rerouting, the announcements, the switches thrown, all to keep the railroad and its cargo of millions on the move, steadily, across the blinking board.
You might see all this, but you'd be dreaming.
The board never has been plugged in to the track circuits.
"We don't know where most of the trains are at a given moment, because the model board was built before the city's fiscal crisis and then never finished," explains John Gaul, the director of planning for the subways. "No one can see the entire system."
There is no omniscient brain center, after all. Maybe, officials say, there'll be one by the turn of the century. 5 a.m., Washington Heights
Alone in her booth, railroad clerk Anna Lans (not her real name) tries to bring her breathing under control before reaching for the emergency phone. There are two in the booth: one for emergencies, and one that rang at the transit Command Center and was rarely answered.
"Yes," she says. "This is booth Nancy 6A. The booth was just robbed." She pauses.
"No. He's going up the ramp now. A black male. With a ski cap. Two of them. A Hispanic also . . . I'm okay. Tell Supervision I have to go to the clinic. I think I have high blood pressure . . . The booth? It is secure. They got me when I was pulling the wheel."
"The wheel" is the collective name for the turnstiles - and every clerk must venture outside the booth near the end of the shift to register the count, open the vault at the bottom of each turnstile, and carry out the tokens, nearly $ 4 million in cash and tokens every day. 7:20 a.m., 181st Street, Manhattan What do we have?" says transit detective Jim Christie as they drove uptown.
"A gun and knife caper," says his partner, Tom McGurl.
"Gun and knife?" Christie says. Why bother with a knife when you had a gun?
In the station, they survey the massing of transit workers and pick out the lieutenant who had called them. They want to know about this young transit cop, Callahan, who was supposed to be in the station, on duty, when the robbery took place. Now he is suspected of goofing off - "cooping," in cop talk.
Callahan has little to say. "Everyone is trying to railroad me on this thing," he says disgustedly.
"Listen," says McGurl, "I'm not here to hurt you. If you weren't here, I won't hurt you - but if you were, we'll help you. This kind of thing follows you for the rest of your career unless we get it cleared up right now. Think about it."
With that, McGurl walks over to the booth and goes inside with Christie. Anna repeats her story: the male black, male Hispanic. Medium height, medium build.
They step outside. "She's describing half the city," says Christie.
"Not even a token on the floor," says McGurl. "The cleanest booth I was ever in."
McGurl wanders to the solar can, which is the subway system's name for a trash receptacle. He doesn't have to root around: on top of the heap are stacks of white boxes, ripped apart. He snorts. Empty token boxes. This supposed robber had taken the time to tear open the boxes and throw them in the trash?
Tom turns around. The kid, Callahan, is standing behind him.
"I been here since four-thirty, like I was supposed to be," he says.
"I believe you," says McGurl. "I think she took the money. But how can we prove you were here the whole time?"
Callahan reaches into his shirt pocket and fishes out a telephone number. He had met a young woman passenger in the station.
"We got talking," says the rookie. "She gave me her number. Go ahead and call her up."
"I'm not calling her," says McGurl. "I know what she's gonna tell me. 8:55 a.m., Transit Police Office, 145th Street, Manhattan
The big Louis Vuitton bag is cradled across her lap. She never takes her arms off it. As Anna sits in the district office, she offers no further details on the criminal or his escape.
"He went up the ramp," she says. "The two of them."
"There was a cop stationed up there half the night," says Christie.
"Oh, I don't know, maybe they went the other way," she says. "I thought they ran that way. Listen, I gotta go to the clinic."
Transit workers who are robbed almost invariably are sent to a clinic, and then home sick for a period to recuperate from the shock.
"They got, what, 4,500 tokens?" asks Christie, ignoring her. "Do you remember what they put them in?"
"They had, like, a brown bag," says Anna.
"You've been robbed before?"
"Two times," said Anna.
Christie and McGurl know this; twice in the previous six months, Anna has reported robberies. By coincidence, the stickup men were the same nondescript medium-build Hispanics with gun and knife, accompanied by a male black of medium build.
There is a knock on the door.
"Excuse us a minute, would you?" asks McGurl.
Outside, a sergeant wants to know how much longer. This woman is entitled to a clinic visit. They are keeping her here altogether too long.
"We'll be done in a few minutes," says Christie. "Get off our backs."
The sergeant turns away, muttering threats.
"She's holding that bag like it's got her life savings in there," says McGurl.
"How are we going to get into it?" asks Christie.
It's a delicate question. At any moment, she can demand a lawyer. Questioning would cease, the attorney would arrive, and that would be the end of the game.
"I'll knock it off her lap if I have to," says McGurl.
"Let's talk it off her first." 10:09 a.m., Transit Police Office
"Can I go now?" asks Anna. "You know, I'm here wasting my time, you're asking me all these questions. I got one. Why wasn't you there when I was getting robbed?"
"We don't like your answers," says McGurl, "and we have some more questions. It's important to me that we all feel comfortable with each other. Isn't that right?"
She says nothing.
"Please, have some coffee," says Christie.
"It's standard procedure that people we question open their bags. Security protocol," says McGurl. "Now I'd feel a lot more comfortable if you could open that bag up. Wouldn't you, Jimmy?"
"I think it's up to Miss Lans - do you mind if I call you Anna? - it's up to Anna here. I think we've tried to be nice, Anna. Is there anything we could do for you that we haven't done? Let's just finish this up and we'll get down to the clinic."
"It's a question of personal safety," says McGurl. "Would you mind opening up your bag now?"
A calculated risk. She can say no and leave, or ask for a lawyer, and they have no basis to hold her. Christie winks at Anna, then smiles indulgently at McGurl. Isn't he being a pain?
"Look," Anna sighs, still clutching the bag, "it happened before the cop got there." That meant the young cop Callahan was in the clear.
"Tell us," says Christie.
"I went out to pull the wheel a little bit earlier than I was supposed to," says Anna, referring to the turnstile counts. "If I'da called it in then, they woulda had my butt for being outside the booth too early. I'm sorry, I didn't want to get that kid cop in trouble."
"Please open the bag for us, would you?"
She unzips the bag, reaches into it, and pulls out a handful of tokens.
"They took, like five thousand - I got a couple for myself. I figured I was entitled for all the trauma, like," she said. Opening her fingers, a score of tokens clatter onto the table.
"Put the bag on the table," Christie orders.
She sighs and hoists it as if it were loaded with barbells. The table jolts when she drops it. Inside are 2,000 tokens, most of them packed in little plastic bags of ten.
"Okay, I took more than a couple," she says. "But we're getting stuck up all the time down there. Nobody cares about the clerk."
Herald Sq. Transported By ... a Kiss
May 31, 1993
You wouldn't have said they were gorgeous until they sat on the bench in the Herald Square subway near midnight and kissed a kiss.
The kiss burned a hole through the subway, a comet that stopped trains and hushed the roar of cosmic junk. Her hair was the color of copper beech. He was wearing white linen pants. Each by gender had a strong shape. It was the greatest kiss ever made.
On the planet, at that instant, five billion people are somehow, someway digging their spoons into life. Down in the subway at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, it was not yet midnight and two of the five billion were rotating their heads into position for the kiss.
To know how powerfully they kissed, it is necessary to tune in to the noise around them in that nanosecond before their mouths touched. Eavesdrop promiscuously.
Near the escalator, a tall man, very black, explains to a tall woman, very blond, about the Senegalese TV show he is sure to start in New York when he has talked to enough people.
"So we have de-veloped co-mmunity par-tee-cipation," he says in English that is fragrant with his accent.
Now the faces of the young couple are turned, and his upper-half body is twisted and in position for her arms to lie across his shoulders, her fingers softly on the back of his neck.
On the next bench, beyond them, a young boy with dark, deep eyebrows plants his thumb in his mouth until his mother slaps at his hand.
And no subway station, at any hour, is complete without loud boys, 14 to 18, swaggering through teenage boastland. The fat boy in the crowd is bragging to his friends.
"I said to him, 'Yo, why'd you smack my boy's cousin?' And he goes, 'Yo, man, this ain't your beef.' I go, 'Yo, I decide what's my beef. And you my beef now.' I picked him like, up, and I just slammed him. I slammed him."
He pauses to read the meter on his audience's credulity.
"I told you, when I get mad, I just like - I just, like, I slammed him down. Then I kicked him, I punched him, and when I was punching him, I looked up and saw the two Five-Oh cars. That's when I ran to your house and chilled out. I went home, remember I was wearing blue jeans and a red sweatshirt? Then I put on white pants and a blue shirt."
On the love seat, the young man is putting his right hand to the left of her face.
A man standing at the pay phone pillars holds Muscle Monthly magazine and New Republic magazine, flexing his unlikely vanities. All this chatter, all this attention to other things, will stop in a minute.
The evening is rich with spring - not that weather has much to do with a place three stories below the street.
That is a bad side to being underground: The fresh air, the moonlight, cannot reach the spirits. But neither does the wet rag of official "news" penetrate such a place, no reports from the world that does not matter. Andrew Stein was not in the mayoral race and Michael Jordan was not in Atlantic City and neither is here, by rumor or by reading.
Maybe 35 people were in the station, each carrying a headful of private news. You get to eavesdrop now on just one of these heads for an instant.
News flash: A friend's baby that came 11 weeks ahead of time does her best with breathing and now shows weight gain, an ounce here, a gram of hope there.
To have stayed so long at a truly bad off-off Broadway play tonight was gutless. Just walk out the next time and tough on the actors. The house is empty of wife and kids for the weekend, and precious solitude has turned out to be a bust. Being alone takes practice.
On the lip of the platform sits an empty quart bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor. It is certain to become a shattered mess and rattle the nerves as only broken bottles can. Someone bends to pick it up, then turns toward the trash can and stops.
The fat boy bragging about his disguise is in the middle of the next episode - "The DTs was out looking for me and they never - " when he, too, drops the stitch in his story and stares.
The little boy with the deep dark eyebrows suddenly feels the grip of his mother's hand go limp.
Looking over the Muscle Monthly magazine, the man glances up and cannot return to the page, but sends his gaze skimming over the top of the magazine.
The Sengalese man and the blond woman just boldly watch.
On their bench, the man has heaped the woman's hair into his hands and she is pushing the valley spot on his back between the shoulder blades, and there, under the street, breaching the nightnoise, pinwheeling the starlight, face cranking to face, they kiss. Others smile.
The City Fails the People Who Make It Work
June 6, 1995
When they peeled back the train wreckage yesterday morning, you found New York inside: mailmen and waitresses, day laborers and seamstresses, nurses' aides and security guards.
The very word "subway" terrifies people north of Yonkers and east of Jamaica, where they believe it is the name of the most sinister place in creation. Instead, a train crashes and crawling from the rubble are the men and women who cause the sun to rise in New York.
"I got on around 6 at Seneca Avenue, had to get to work in Harlem for 7 o'clock," said Michael Rivera, age 26, postman, lying on a gurney in Bellevue yesterday. "Did someone call in? Yes, I asked them here at the hospital to call my work for me."
The last time I looked, Michael Rivera and the people of New York City had provided about $ 14 billion to fix the transit system.
And the system failed yesterday.
I don't care if the dead motorman was whacked out on crack or sober as a judge: A subway train ran out of control on a bridge 150 feet over the East River.
That train should have been stopped by a combination of the signal system and the subway-car brakes that recently cost us $ 14 billion to buy, rebuild and repair.
Instead, it nearly ended up in the East River.
Immediately, someone from the government stood up and said that the signal system dates back to the early 1900s. That is a lie disguised as a fact. The money we spent to repair the signal system dates back to 1981. We put money every day in the turnstiles so they can do repairs and keep us alive.
Here are the facts about the most important safety feature in the whole subway, the signal system:
A subway car runs past a red light.
A metal pole on the track reaches under the subwaycar and brakes the train.
We don't need a computer for this.
We don't need fiberoptics.
We just need someone to repair the poles on the track and the brakes in the trains.
One of the great efficiencies of transit management in the 1980s was that it cut the repair staff for the signal system and car maintenance by at least 25 percent. The people who did this were featured on the television show "60 Minutes" and called "infrastructure heroes." They were heroes because they painted over the graffiti, not because "60 Minutes" or the editorialists or the politicians had the slightest idea what had happened to the subwaysystem.
What happened was that the margin of safety was shaved and shaved.
In the last six or eight years, we have had more catastrophic accidents in the subways than in the 80 years before.
In 1989, a No. 1 train came around a blind curve and crashed into another train that was parked at 103rd Street and Broadway. It turned out that a temporary repair had been made to this section of the signal system at least a year before. The signal repairman had filed a written request for permanent repairs. It was stacked in with 150 others, dating back years.
Our "infrastructure heroes" had not gotten around to them. They were, however, "doing more with less" and getting tough with labor, both of which are pornographic fixations of many powerful people and newspapers in this town.
Getting tough with labor did not include fixing broken signals.
In 1991, a drunk named Ray drove a No. 4 train down the Lexington Avenue line. The signals did not slow him down until he killed five people. He was half-asleep and stoned at the time.
There have been two other main-line subway crashes in the last year or so, neither of them fatal. Both of them involve brakes and signals that did not work as they were supposed to.
And yesterday morning, it happened again.
No one knows yet if the motorman, Layton Gibson, had a heart attack and died even before the crash. How could his train then run away? We all have heard of a "dead-man's" brake on the city's subway trains. But it is designed for train operators who are standing on their feet - and in the modern subway cab, the motorman is seated. If he falls over dead, his hand can still be clutching the controls.
Even if a motorman wants to commit suicide by crashing his train, the signals should automatically stop him and his train.
Instead, the postman Michael Rivera dozed in a train on the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday morning. He awoke to an explosion. The motorman on the early train was dead.
The last time we had a fatal crash, it was at midnight, and the people going home were the same ones on their way to work at dawn yesterday: a hotel chambermaid, a security guard, a nurse's aide. They ride at midnight and they ride at dawn. The world cannot be allowed to fall apart on their watch.