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Subterranean blues: NYC subway breakdowns drive riders nuts

Associated Press logo Associated Press 9/06/2017 By FRANK ELTMAN and VERENA DOBNIK, Associated Press

NEW YORK — New York, New York is a wonderful town, but people riding in a hole in the ground are at their wits end over the power outages, signal problems and other breakdowns that have turned the city's aging subway system into a horror show.

The stress of a crumbling system with more passengers than ever — 5.6 million weekly in 2016 — has caused the number of train delays to triple during the past five years, to 70,000 per month.

Numbers, though, don't tell the story as well as videos circulating on the Internet of passengers desperately clawing at the doors of a subway car, trying to wedge it open after it crawled into a station this week.

They had been trapped for 45 minutes inside the stalled train with no lights or no ventilation and heat rising to the point that the windows fogged up, and sweltering passengers took off most of their clothes.

One wrote, "I will survive" on a steamy window.

"It started getting really, really hot. Oh my god, really hot! People started fanning themselves; the air was really thick. Any more time and people would have really freaked out. People were dripping wet," said Samantha Mushnick, one of the trapped passengers.

"This issue has to be brought to the attention it deserves," said another, Michael Sciaraffo. "We are a first-class city living with a third-class infrastructure."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who oversees the agency that operates railroads in New York City and its suburbs, concedes the subway system is "at its breaking point." He said decades of underfunding and inattention to maintenance created the current situation.

Much of the signal system is more than 80 years old, and 30 percent was installed before 1965.

"This is 50 years of lack of maintenance and repair coming home to roost, and I believe it is just the tip of the iceberg," Cuomo said in a recent speech.

All agree there's no easy fix. The subway system, which dates to 1904, operates 8,000 trains daily over 655 miles of track; there are more than 1,600 mainline switches and 13,000 signals that control train movements.

Over time, the system has waffled between being the shame of the city and a gleaming symbol of municipal pride. It was a wreck of graffiti, crime and dysfunction in the 1970s and 1980s but experienced a remarkable turnaround, like the city itself, and is now safe and popular.

But the system took a big hit in 2012, when Superstorm Sandy washed out tracks and flooded tunnels. Equipment, from the trains themselves to the ancient signaling system, hasn't been replaced because of the enormous cost and pressure to keep fares from rising. A single ride now costs $2.75.

"The deterioration of the New York City subway is one of the greatest threats to the continued prosperity of the city and region," said John Raskin, executive director of the Riders Alliance, a passenger advocacy group. "Historically when the subway system has broken down, the city has as well."

In April, a power outage backed up trains around the city and closed a key Manhattan station for 12 hours. Riders were stranded on packed platforms, some stuck in dark trains.

Coupled with expected repair work that will cause widespread delays at Penn Station, where suburban commuter lines, subways and Amtrak trains converge, Cuomo warned rail riders are looking at "a summer of hell."

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently offered three $1 million prizes to anyone who can suggest ways to increase capacity and improve subway reliability.

A spokeswoman for the governor said changes will come in the form of a $29.5 billion plan to modernize outdated infrastructure.

Also, the MTA says it's expediting the delivery of 300 new subway cars; the first are due this fall, and all are expected to be delivered by September 2018.

"The governor has challenged the MTA to deliver smart solutions that can be implemented faster than the industry standard to significantly increase the capacity and reliability of the subways. Anything less is unacceptable," spokeswoman Abbey Fashouer said.

"It's certainly about time," said Jacqi Cohen, coordinator of another advocacy group called the Straphangers Campaign "Things are bad. At the end of the day what riders want is better service. Until then, it's just words."

Hunter College nursing student Jerich Alcantara recently got a flash of internet fame when video surfaced of him aboard a stranded subway train, preventing him from getting to his graduation.

Friends, family and fellow passengers staged a makeshift ceremony aboard the train. They played Green Day's "Good Riddance," which includes the line, "So make the best of this test, and don't ask why."

"The lesson is things aren't always going to go as expected," he said after receiving his diploma this week.

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