from the archives

The Subway Crisis We’ve Been Writing About for 48 Years

From New York, June 15, 1970.

Cynthia Nixon has deftly made the decaying, infuriating transit system a central campaign issue. How much she, or anyone, can do about it is an open question. The intensity of the subway’s troubles is new, but the problems themselves are not.

June 15, 1970

“Subway Roulette: The Game Is Getting Dangerous”

“Delayed trains, begrimed windows, broken lights, incorrect signs, tattered advertising posters, the detritus of thousands of shifting, shuffling feet, a swaying, tortured ride with every man’s elbow your enemy — can anything be done about the appalling day-to-day state of the New York subways? … Roughly a third of the stations, mostly on the oldest line, the IRT, for example, are without running water. ‘Confidentially,’ a cleaners’ supervisor told me, ‘we use the closest hydrant.’ ” —Thomas R. Brooks

January 26, 1981

“20 Ways to Save Our Subways and Buses”

“Duke Ellington [popularizer of ‘Take the “A” Train’] died in 1974 — the year before Mayor Abraham Beame began cutting the frequency of all the subway trains, including the fabled A line; the year before the deficit-plagued city stopped paying attention to the mechanical health of the subways and buses, and likewise began to ignore the dirt, the roaches, and the graffiti; and the year before the price of a token soared to 50 cents, ten times the fare of only three decades earlier. Not surprisingly, there’s been little to sing about since.”  —Robert N. Rickles and Harold Holzer

November 17, 1986

“Paradise Postponed”

“Since [Robert] Kiley and [David] Gunn took over, there have been fewer fires on the main lines and fewer collisions and derailments due to faulty tracks. Half the subway trains — or about 3,000 cars — are now graffiti-free. There are 1,375 new subway cars … Over 60 miles of track have been rebuilt.

For all that, more cars fail to leave terminals on their scheduled routes. The number of fires in trains is up. More cars uncouple, and if critics are right, faulty new equipment may cause serious malfunctions of brakes, couplers, track signals, and switches.  The system is still in trouble.” —Marilyn Webb

May 17, 1999

“The Next Big Things”

“New York led America in subway construction in the early part of the century. Nearer our time, it led America in subway decrepitude, as the system became a ring of hell during the fiscal crisis. Twenty years and $20 billion later, under Richard Ravitch’s leadership, the system is vastly improved—new tracks, rehabbed stations, and the MetroCard system, along with the roaring economy, have brought people back. Ridership is up 21 percent since 1992. But capacity has not increased.” —Michael Tomasky

February 28, 2005


“By historic standards, the subway is at the top of its game … 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 … 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 …

Consider the system’s last, extremely weird year: Back in September, a three-inch downpour flooded the tracks … 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 … 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?”

—Clive Thompson

The Subway Crisis We’ve Been Writing About for 48 Years