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Beset by floods and fires and built on technology that predates the Model T, the subway, the very essence of New York, has become frighteningly fragile. And now that the MTA has dug itself into a deep financial hole, it has started traveling back in time to 1975.


Picture this: Sometime in the near future, you get on a subway train heading into Brooklyn, and zoom into the tunnel. Unbeknownst to you, though, something bad is happening on the other side of the river. A track fire is smoldering. Throughout the subway, there is fine-grained metal dust that comes from the constant grinding of wheels on rails. It’s combustible stuff, and tonight, as the train ahead of you leaves the station, the 600-volt current from the third rail arcs and ignites some of the dust, like a Fourth of July sparkler. The sparks torch a mess of paper wedged on the tracks, left behind because budget cuts have resulted in fewer cleanups. Normally these fires are a mere nuisance—but this one really gets going, and soon the tunnel ahead of you fills with acrid smoke. The tunnel’s nearest ventilation fan hasn’t been fully repaired, so the smoke doesn’t clear. The motorman tries to contact his command center, but his radio has hit one of the system’s “dead spots,” so he gets no signal. Chaos ensues: The car fills with smoke, nobody has any clue what’s going on, and a bunch of passengers start kicking out windows in a bid to escape.

This scenario is merely hypothetical, but it’s constructed from the real, everyday concerns of transit workers, transit officials, and subway experts. From their perspective, situations like this are increasingly likely to happen, because our subway is facing a turning point: a moment when it stops improving and starts declining again.

By historic standards, the subway is at the top of its game. After $26 billion in repairs and upgrades in the past two decades, it has banished the horrifying days of the seventies, when subway wheels would fly apart in pizza-slice-shaped chunks, motors would simply drop out the bottom of cars, and the system was, by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s own description, “near collapse.” Riding the subway was almost like playing Russian roulette—derailments occurred once every eighteen days, on average.

Today, with ultrasound scans to detect faltering rails before they break, and with nearly one-third of the cars less than a year old, delays have dropped to an all-time low, and derailments happen only a few times a year. The subway even continued running during 9/11, a powerful testament to its health and the superb organization of its employees. It is the world’s most remarkable Rube Goldberg device—with cutting-edge fiber-optic switches sitting alongside pre–World War II Bakelite phones, custom-engineered radio cable running along areas festooned with dripping stalagmites, and passengers streaming obliviously by, barely glancing up from their BlackBerrys. Pull back the pavement and watch the 6,210 cars rattle along 660 miles of track, while cleanup workers dodge the trains and pick out umbrellas, wedding rings, and pacifiers from between the tracks, and it is a marvel the thing works at all, much less with such astonishing efficiency.

But the era of improvement has ended and the subway has reversed course. Money for basic maintenance has been drying up: For the past four years, the funds for keeping the subway in what is quaintly called a “state of good repair” have been 29 percent lower than the MTA’s own needs assessments, according to an analysis by the Regional Plan Association. This translated into $483 million less for the relay-and-stoplight system; $685 million less for repairing and modernizing the power substations that deliver electricity to the trains; and $668 million less for line equipment, which includes ventilation, lighting, and pumps for the tunnels. The stations themselves got $639 million less.

What makes these shortfalls so ominous is that the New York subway is always inherently falling apart—rigorous maintenance is the only defense against the natural pull of entropy. A constant infusion of money is necessary just to ward off the forces of decline, and yet the system is continually cheaped out by the state: Last month, Governor George Pataki said he would give the MTA only 69 percent of the funds it requested for its next five years of capital upgrades and repairs—an $8.5 billion kick in the trousers. The sounds of alarm are now coming not just from cranky gadflies but from the MTA chairman himself, Peter Kalikow, who recently warned that 2005 could resemble 1975, the year the subway began to decay rapidly.

Consider the system’s last, extremely weird year: Back in September, a three-inch downpour flooded the tracks and paralyzed the entire system. Just as New York City Transit was laying out plans to downsize the staff that supervise stations, a creepy string of subway shootings broke out. Then came the coup de grâce: a fire, supposedly set by a homeless man, that destroyed a Depression-era pile of relay switches at Chambers Street, and shut down the A-and-C line for nearly two weeks.

In fact, the initial damage assessment, by Lawrence Reuter, the MTA president, suggested that the line would be shut for five years, fueling the perception of a fragile system about to crumble. If an inadvertent act by a single person could knock out a vital piece of subway engineering, even the least catastrophist mind goes immediately to the question: What’s going to blow next?

If you want to understand the critical points of the subway, that charred bit of slag left by the A-and-C fire isn’t a bad place to start. It was a “relay room,” a crucial part of the subway’s nervous system, yet also one of its most ancient—a technology in use since the subway opened in 1904.

Relays are simple electromagnetic devices that let the subway know where its cars are, to help keep them from slamming into one another. Each relay is hooked up to a thousand-foot-long section of track, and a small amount of electricity is pumped into it. When a train rides onto that section of track, it shorts out the circuit, flipping the relay switch open, and letting the system know a train is there. Without that information, the system is blind, and it’s too dangerous to move cars at anything other than a crawl.

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