As New Yorkers, we have all ridden the New York City subway and realized that as dynamic and expansive of a system we have, there are going to be delays and hiccups. It’s almost as routine as showering and shaving every day. We have close to 700 trains that run every single day on roughly 25 subway lines, including 3 shuttle lines, with 468+ stations that are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. With that said, here are the main reasons that trains are delayed. Please note that some of these are reasons given by NYC Transit and those that I have known or have experienced in my travels and my career here.
- Train may be held by the dispatcher. Believe it or not, our subway system has timetables and schedules. Most people don’t realize this because trains run frequently enough during daytime hours that there is no need for a schedule to know exactly when trains are to arrive at any station. Be mindful that trains do run ahead of schedule and need to be held in a station to avoid getting to any station too early: I bet you would be pissed off if you got down to a platform and missed a train only to realize it was early. Maybe not, since there will be another one right behind it or in a few minutes’ time. There are times when trains are behind schedule due to an incident and trains are backed up one behind the other. So that passengers can be afforded the opportunity to make alternate travel plans or exit the system, a train can be held in a station so that you aren’t sitting in a tunnel for a long period of time until the problem clears up…if it does.
- Train may be delayed due to a sick customer. A “sick customer” is a loaded term down here at NYC Transit, being that it could mean a lot of things. A sick customer can be someone who is actually sick and needs medical attention, which is the most common. It could also describe someone passed out on the platform, someone who threw up after one too many beers, or someone who got injured, hurt, stabbed, shot, raped, tortured, or pushed in front of a train. (Sometimes, we might say “injured customer” instead of “sick customer” if they are seriously hurt or killed.) We wouldn’t say any of those things over the Public Address system, so “sick customer” or “someone requiring medical assistance” sounds better. If you hear it so many times in your subway travels, it’s probably because any of the above happen all too frequently. In addition to their being a “sick customer,” the train dispatchers or the Rail Control Center have to get help to the person, so the train that called it in has to wait until first responders show up and assess the situation before the train gets released…which can take time. Think about that the next time you ride the subway and hear a “sick customer” delay. Or next time you ride and actually get sick or otherwise injured.
- A train might have had its automatic brakes activated or “brakes in emergency.” All New York City subway trains (well, passenger trains, mainly) are powered by electricity from the third rail. Though the trains need electricity to move forward, our trains need air to stop them. We have a compressed air system which takes outside air and compresses it to be stored for use in the braking systems. There is a service brake, which is used to bring a train to a controlled stop in a station or behind a red signal; there is also an emergency brake which is applied when a train operator, conductor, or passenger needs to bring the train to a fast, immediate stop in case of emergency. When a train experiences “brakes in emergency” or “automatic brake activation,” it can be cause by a number of things, including a passenger pulling the emergency brake valve or cord (e.g. if a passenger is severely injured), the conductor pulling the brake cord (i.e. if the conductor sees someone riding on the outside of the train as it leaves the station), or if the train operator sees someone or something on the tracks ahead). When that happens, if the train operator didn’t see anything ahead or if he didn’t accidentally let go of the controls, the train crew has to check it out and see whether it’s a “pulled cord” or if the train had been stopped for another reason. Each subway car is equipped with a “car-borne tripping device” designed to activate the emergency brake if it comes up on a raised “trip arm” or “stop arm” next to a signal if it is displaying red. Unfortunately, sometimes these signals malfunction and could display a green or yellow light and the stop arm is in the raised position. Even if that isn’t the case, being that these tripping devices stick out from underneath the car, anything that sticks up from the tracks high enough to reach the tripping device can cause the device to activate the emergency brakes. This can include garbage bags, buckets, tools, and even people that slip and fall between the cars or walk on the tracks and get swept underneath by the wind from a speeding train. Whatever the reason, the actual cause of the emergency brake application and the investigation to find the cause of it takes time and can cause delays. Extensive delays at times, causing trains to be held in stations or even rerouted depending on the length of the investigation.
- There might be a “police investigation” or “fire activity” somewhere down the line. A “police investigation” could mean anything down in the subway. It could be anything from a shooting on the platform to a crime that occurred adjacent to a station, an unruly passenger, or an emergency shutoff of power to the third rail. It’s better to say a “police investigation” rather than explain over the public address system exactly what it is an invoke fear or panic among passengers. The job of the conductor is to ensure the safety of passengers on his/her train, and saying certain words could be the difference between passengers complaining about the delay and passengers trying to make an exodus from the train when it wouldn’t be safe to do so. If there is “fire activity” in the area, it might be on a train, in a station, or in a building adjacent to a station. Recently, a fire in a building adjacent to the Cleveland Avenue station on the (J) prompted some firefighters to use the station platform to fight the fire, causing a temporary suspension of (J) train service in the area and thus delays up and down the line. Sometimes, “fire activity” isn’t a fire at all. It could be a building collapse, a water main break, or someone trapped in a crevice or grate on a subway platform. If the FDNY can respond to a situation like that, it’s broadcast as “fire activity” and thus dispatchers will hold trains in stations or reroute trains until the situation clears up.
- There could be other trains ahead that might also be delayed. We run trains on individual lines every 5-10 minutes and 2-5 minutes in combined corridors. At many stations, there are hundreds if not thousands of riders that get on or off in many of our stations. Stations such as Times Square in Manhattan on the West Side IRT (1, 2, 3) and Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue in Queens on the Queens Blvd Corridor (E, F, M, R) are some of our busiest, and even the fastest train crews can’t always get people in and out of trains quickly enough to maintain the short intervals between trains. That one train with more people entering than exiting can cause the train behind it to wait longer to get into the station, which causes the train behind it to crawl and wait, with delays holding up as many as 10 trains on a given corridor. This is most relatable to those on the East Side IRT (4, 5, 6), Queens Blvd (E, F, M, R), West Side IRT (1, 2, 3), and IND Sixth Avenue (B, D, F, M) corridors since most trains there are 2-5 minutes apart (especially the 1, 2, 4, 6, E, and F lines). Even one hiccup on any of those lines in Manhattan (i.e. any of the reasons above) can cause a long line of trains all the way back into the outer boroughs. A delay on an uptown #6 train at 68th Street-Hunter College, if not cleared up in a short period of time, can cause delays not only in uptown 6 trains behind it but also around the City Hall loop and affecting downtown #6 trains all the way up to 68th Street-Hunter College. Yes, a U-shaped queue of trains waiting to get somewhere. Some delays during the peak hours actually can be caused by pre- or post-rush hour routines such as the “dropping out” of trains on the A line in Inwood. Since 207th Street Station has room for only two terminating trains at a time, that station has to process trains coming from three terminals during the morning rush hour (Far Rockaway, Rockaway Park, and Lefferts Blvd) as opposed to just two during the middays and one during the overnight hours. In order to alleviate the backlog of trains, some trains terminate and Dyckman Street, and a select few terminate at 168th Street. Trains that terminate at Dyckman or 168th return to the nearest storage yard until the afternoon rush hour and therefore have to be walked through entirely to ensure there are no passengers on board. What makes it time-consuming, and thus causing delays, is that some trains terminate at 207th Street ALSO get returned to a storage yard, which means that one or both tracks are occupied at 207th Street and nothing can move. Thus, dispatchers have A trains stopped at every station as far back as 145th Street, and when a train leaves 207th Street or Dyckman to go to the yard, every train at each stations moves up one station. The process repeats until all storage trains are moved and the line becomes normal again.
- There may be personnel on the tracks doing work. This system is 100+ years old, and most infrastructure down in the subway is repaired every 20-50 years. Some track and signals haven’t been changed since the bad ol’ days of the 1970s. Even if some of it was changed, it may have deteriorated far quicker than other areas of the system and need to be replaced. NYC Transit is always repairing signals and track due to excessive wear and tear on the rails, signal boxes, and cabling systems. When these things need to be checked and/or replaced, track personnel need to descend onto the tracks. Whenever that happens, they need what’s called flag protection. Underground in the subway, it’s in the form of small LED lamps, but outside, there are actual colored flags. Whenever yellow flags or lamps are present, trains must slow down to 10 miles per hour and sound their horns to let track workers know that a train is coming so that they can get out of the way of the passing train. Trains can’t pass them faster than 10 miles per hour as that would make it unsafe for them to be down there; they can easily get dragged under the train if any part of their uniform catches onto something on the train. Going this slow in areas where trains normally operate at high speeds can be quite frustrating, but if there are workers down there, they must be protected while trains are passing through an active work area. The only other way they can work safely is when the track or tracks are shut down (e.g. during FasTrack work which shuts down whole corridors for work). In a 24-hour-a-day system, that doesn’t always work, so we run trains and they do their work around trains. When you have tracks work areas set up at consecutive stations, that can severely slow down service and cause delays. There are times when track workers have to replace sections of track while trains are still rolling on that track, but complications in that kind of work that are supposed to be quick and seamless can cause trains to be backed up for up to an hour. When that happens, trains are one behind the other when they are otherwise supposed to be 20 minutes apart. What can happen, in addition to huge backups, is that trains might get rerouted or turned back if the work is being done on a track which is the only way for a train to continue on its route. Such an example would be track work on the (D) line at Grand Street which, if complications occur, would cause Manhattan-bound (D) trains at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center to terminate and head back to Coney Island because there is no way for (D) trains to reach 6th Avenue or the Bronx from Atlantic if there is a track outage at Grand Street.
These are the main reasons for train delays, although there are many more reasons, some of which could probably fall under the main 6 categories above. Since this system is used by 5-6 million riders daily on average, with 600+ trains running around at any given time during the day, there is bound to be problems. It seems like the only times that the trains appear to run “regularly” is during the holidays that fall on a weekday. Some holidays, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, trains run on a weekday schedule but don’t have the same volume of riders as a normal weekday. Other holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Labor Day, have a special holiday schedule or run a weekend schedule even though the day falls on a weekday. Maybe those are the best times to travel and not have to constantly worry about delays everywhere. I didn’t mention track work or related construction because this post was written to explain those unavoidable or unexpected delays as opposed to delays due to track work.
So, what can be done about all of this? Really, not much of anything. As far as sick customers and pulled brake cords, we can only minimize them by putting out public service announcements and advertise reminders such as the importance of not getting on the train if you are sick or contacting the train crew if you are on the train. When it comes to holding doors and dealing with crush loads, we can only give constant reminders to refrain from holding train doors even if you think you can fit or that there isn’t a train right behind it. Because if you were on the train already and someone holds the doors so they can try and make that particular train, you both aren’t going anywhere fast. As far as track work goes, there will never be a time where there isn’t track work or signal work. Not when there are trains that pass every few minutes, trains that run all night, trains that are heavy and place a lot of stress on the rails and switches (such as the R68 type cars found on the (D) and (G) lines), and signal systems that are as old as time itself. A word of advice? Check the MTA apps, MTA website, news briefs, and announcements given by the dispatcher, train operator, or conductors as they are usually given the latest information via handheld radios. Be alert as things can change in a heartbeat, and if you are buried in your books or electronics, you might miss something important. Also, bring some bottled water and some patience, as there might be times when a delay could mean power is cut or the air comfort might be turned off for whatever reason. Just be mindful when you ride the subway, as anything and everything can happen down there which could either speed up or hamper your commute.