“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
This is quite the loaded phrase, and many people hear it, on non-tech trains and tech trains alike, but more so on the tech trains such as those found on the 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, E, F, J, M, N, and Q lines. Well, let’s talk about it:
Well, for starters, let’s go over what the phrase means. People often say that it’s not like riding a bus where one of the main reasons for delays with buses is traffic on the streets (double parking, long lines of cars, trucks blocking bus stops, long red traffic lights, etc.), so why does NYCT mention “train traffic” if it’s a subway with trains on tracks? No, we don’t deal with double-parked cars and trucks blocking lanes for deliveries, but we do have trains that are held behind other trains or behind signals at danger. What I mean by that there is a red signal in front of the train which tells the train operator that there is another train in front of it or that the route is not set and the train cannot proceed until a route is given.
If there is a train in front of your train and another train is in front of that train, that is considered “train traffic.” Now, train traffic can and does include other than passenger-carrying trains. Those types of trains are usually referred to as “work trains” and include garbage trains (we call them “refuse collection trains” or “pick-ups”), vacuum trains (yes, these trains are actually designed to vacuum the tracks and pick up trash and debris from the tracks), track inspection vehicles, and other types.
Why do we have train traffic down in the subway, and why does it seem to occur so often in the system? I will answer this in several parts.
Well, during the rush hours, train traffic can occur when a number of trains several short minutes apart get stuck behind each other, all trying to pick up as many passengers as possible to take them to work in the morning, away from work in the afternoon. On the F line (179 St Jamaica-Coney Island), trains are spaced about 4-6 minutes apart in either direction to accommodate heavy ridership from both the Queens Boulevard corridor and the Culver Line (from Neptune Avenue to Bergen Street), all funneling into the 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas) corridor in Manhattan. With such relatively short spacing of trains, even one mishap with a train or with a signal (color lights telling the train operator to proceed or stop) or switch (mechanism that routes trains from one track to another) can cascade down the whole line. Depending on the situation, trains can either be held at stations until it clears up, taken off the line to allow trains behind it to move up, or rerouted to other lines. Some trains can return to their regular route while others would run to a foreign terminal and then return to where they came from. Mind you, this is even before taking into account the merges and splits with other subway lines. The F train runs with the G train from Church Avenue to Bergen Street, where the G splits off towards Court Square on the Crosstown Line. The F then runs by itself until it gets accompanied by the M train (weekdays only) from Broadway-Lafayette Street to 47-50th Sts-Rockefeller Center. After the M splits off, the F runs by itself until it joins the E train at roughly 36th Street on the R line. The E and F share tracks until Forest Hills-71 Ave. Except for weekends and anytime after 7pm, the F switches over to the local track and makes all stops from 75th Avenue to 179th Street/Hillside Avenue while the E uses the express track to Jamaica Center. This is all important because with the F line’s short intervals during rush hours, a slight mishap on the F line at Smith-9th Streets can affect G service to Court Square, and a slight mishap on Queens Blvd express track can affect the E and F lines, causing trains to bunch up even though the F line otherwise has no delays.
During overnight hours, train traffic can occur when a passenger train is stuck behind a work train heading out to its assigned work location or a garbage train still picking up garbage from a subway station. Though this train traffic may not be the same as during rush hours, it is still a scheduled train being held by a non-revenue train in or outside of a station. There are instances where track workers replacing sections of rail on a given area of track might hold things up for a train approaching the area, which could delay a train right behind it since two trains at 20-minute frequencies might be scheduled at a station or corridor several minutes apart. Even though the D and N trains run every 20 minutes down the 4th Avenue Line in Brooklyn, they arrive at DeKalb Avenue Station roughly 5 minutes apart from each other. Even if the D shows up before the N, or vice versa, a garbage train picking up trash after the previous D or N train can get held up at any of the 4th Avenue local stops (such as Union Street or Prospect Avenue) while the following D or N train catches up to it. If it isn’t a garbage train, then it’s track workers replacing rail or signal maintainers repairing a defective signal or switch. If it’s rail replacement, sometimes a 5-minute job can take three to four times as long, resulting in a backlog of trains behind it. Sometimes, a work train can hold up traffic while waiting for the Rail Control Center to give them permission to enter a track taken out of service for repairs or construction. Verbal permission over the radio is required so that all parties concerned understand what is to be done, and if it takes all parties several minutes to understand each other clearly to execute the orders, then so be it…even at the expense of delaying service. If one order is mis-interpreted or is carried out without permission, significant damage to equipment or severe delay of service can result. So, trains get backed up, causing the wait time between trains to fluctuate from 10 to 30 minutes or more.
Sometimes, during any hour, there are trains back to back heading to a terminal and one of the trains is to be taken out of service to be stored in a yard or storage track for the night or for the middle of the day. If trains are spaced close together, as on the A line in the morning rush hour, one train being taken out of service at the 207th Street station can cause several trains behind it to back up and be held at stations leading up to the terminal. Every morning during the rush hours, A trains sit at Dyckman, 190th, and sometimes 181st, 175th, and even 168th Street stations waiting for trains up at 207th Street to discharge. Note that only of of the two trains in the station at 207th Street is going out of service, the other being the next scheduled train southbound. Because of this backup of trains, there are trains that are scheduled to terminate at Dyckman Street and at 168th Street, discharge all passengers, and be taken to the yard or storage track for the rest of the morning. Even with these “drop-backs” as they are called, some trains take longer to discharge because of sleeping passengers and still cause cascading delays down the line. The back-ups on the A line are caused by the fact that 207th Street has only two tracks for trains to terminate and begin their trips while A trains from three branches (Lefferts Blvd all day, Far Rockaway at all times, and Rockaway Park during the rush hours) are trying to occupy those tracks. With no concrete solution in sight, these delays will continue and only get worse when something goes wrong further down the line.
In a perfect world, the subway system would work perfectly, much like Montreal, Paris, and even London (though there are areas of the Underground that are prone to delays due to the age of the system, just like here). For now, with repairs being done at night and on weekends, and emergency repairs that can happen at any time, it’s just something to cope with until the MTA can receive funds to bring the entire system to a state of good repair. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause, and I’m sure it will cause some sort of inconvenience. Plan ahead, check the website and transit apps for updates, and learn your alternatives when things go wrong.