L-Yes, It’s running—but still a work in progress

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
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It could have been much worse—infinitely worse if anything is considered infinitely better than zero. Transit officials in New York City had planned to shut down the busiest segment of the popular “L” Train under 14th Street in Manhattan and through the Canarsie Tunnel into Brooklyn for 15 months, beginning on April 26, to repair flood damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Then New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo consulted the deans and other faculty at the engineering schools at Columbia and Cornell Universities, and he accepted the plan they recommended to repair the tunnels in a less-invasive manner, so most of the service on the line could continue running (see NYCT Canarsie Tunnel shutdown reversal may product ripple effects).

The plan caused a political furor because Cuomo had mandated it at the eleventh hour, but it was implemented anyway. It preserves service that the riders otherwise would have lost for 15 months. Regular service now runs on the line on weekdays until mid-evening, which includes peak-commuting hours. On weekends and later on weekday nights, there is reduced service. Trains run every 10 minutes in Brooklyn when Manhattan service is curtailed (except very late at night, when every line runs every 20 minutes), and there is a train traveling the full length of the line every 20 minutes—in theory, at least. According to the MTA, only 10% of the line’s total riders are affected by the nighttime and weekend cuts. Under the original plan, all of them would have lost their trains completely, and there was an elaborate and expensive plan to run alternate service; such as the agency could provide.

On Saturday afternoon, May 11, this writer returned to 14th Street to check on how the line and its riders were doing. It was the third weekend of the new service pattern, and Joseph M. Clift, former Planning Director for the Long Island Rail Road and a vocal advocate for applying the Canarsie Tunnel repair method to Amtrak’s North River Tunnels under the Hudson River on the Northeast Corridor (NEC), joined this writer for the ride.

Fourteenth Street itself looked normal, for a Manhattan thoroughfare on a weekend afternoon. People were out pursuing the usual city activities. There were no special traffic restrictions on the street, and bus service had been enhanced, with buses running only a few minutes apart. With Manhattan service limited to 20-minute headways, as opposed to 4 or 5 minutes under the non-construction schedule, the augmented bus service provides necessary mobility for riders who are not going to Brooklyn.

In theory, there is a train between 8th Avenue in Manhattan and the Brooklyn end of the line at Rockaway Parkway in Canarsie every 20 minutes. The reason for the limited service is because one of the tracks between Union Square in Manhattan and Lorimer Street in Brooklyn (the second stop in the borough) is out of service on weekday nights and weekends, so the line must run single-track for that segment. The single-track segment includes the first stop in Brooklyn and Bedford Avenue in the Greenpoint neighborhood, which has became a busy stop in recent years. It also includes the two easternmost stops in Manhattan, First and Third Avenues. The next stop in Brooklyn is Lorimer Street, where Brooklyn-only trains to and from Canarsie turn.

Clift and this writer noted that the operation did not quite work that way in practice. The headways were more than the scheduled 20 minutes on that occasion; the countdown clocks at the stations noted a 27-minute gap in one instance and a train that failed to show up when the countdown clock indicated it would, in another. There were nine-minute delays to the Brooklyn-bound train at Union Square (as two Manhattan-bound trains went by four minutes apart), and at Lorimer Street, heading toward Manhattan. The trains were crowded because of the service reduction, but it seemed that the existing service could accommodate the riders. As the operation improves and runs more smoothly, it should be possible to accommodate even larger crowds.

This writer took another ride the following Saturday, May 18, but later in the day; shortly after 7:00 pm. The trains were still not on a strict 20-minute headway at that hour, with the countdown clock indicating that the next two trains to Eighth Avenue would leave in 24 and 45 minutes, respectively (one had just left the station). From Sixth Avenue, the next train to Brooklyn left in nine minutes, and was not unduly crowded. There were some seats available, although the train was crowded by Union Square, the busiest point on the line. It was not a crush load like peak-commuting hours on weekdays, though. It appears that the line can handle the crowds outside the busiest hours on Saturday, but the operation remains a work in progress.

Clift summarized his observations this way: “Infinitely better than a complete shutdown, but poor execution, at least today, is making the rider experience much worse than that marketed by the MTA.” This writer agrees with that assessment, but it must be placed in perspective.

In a system as large as New York’s, single-point failures that interfere with system operations are always possible, and they can happen at any time. There may have been a problem at the time we rode, so the snapshot taken at mid-afternoon on a particular Saturday may not reflect general conditions on the line. This is also a new operation, unlike any that had been proposed for the line before. Employees, including managers, need to get used to it. As they do, they should be able to de-bug it and improve its effectiveness. The public address systems and countdown clocks at stations could use some improvement, also, as part of that de-bugging process.

The overarching question is whether the present sub-optimal service is better than no service at all. The answer is obvious: Of course it is. The L Train is unusual. It has a busy crosstown Manhattan street at one end, and three stations under that street contain almost all the transfer opportunities on the line (to 15 north-south subway lines; compared to only 6 in Brooklyn). There are some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Greenpoint and Williamsburg, that have become so “hot” in recent years that it has been necessary to spend $373 million to enhance capacity sufficiently to accommodate the riders there.

So there is reason to believe that, as transit managers and other employees get used to the new operation, they will do a better job of serving the population that lives along the L Train line and the people who use the line for other purposes. There is a learning curve with every innovation. It still appears that a total shutdown for 15 months, as previously proposed, would have been a disaster for the line’s riders and their neighborhoods.

So it’s not the L-mageddon, or the L-pocalypse or L-hell, as the New York Post and Daily News predicted. There may be a bit of purgatory on 14th Street at night and on weekends, but the conditions at those times should become less severe as transit employees become used to the operation. At other times on weekdays, including peak-commuting hours, service runs normally. In January, this writer predicted that the method now in use for repairing the L Train tunnels could be “revolutionary.” It now appears that, in actual practice, the revolution is succeeding.

We will have more reports on this continuing story in the future.

David Peter Alan lives and practices law in South Orange, N.J. He has been an advocate for better transit for more than 34 years, and is involved on the national and local scenes.

Categories: Commuter/Regional, Construction, High Performance, Intercity, News, Passenger, Rapid Transit Tags: , ,