The Awful Decline of the New York City Subway System

The aging infrastructure was already terrible. Overcrowding made things much, much worse.

A conductor stands next to a stalled train in New York City after a power failure stopped multiple subway lines in April 2017.
A conductor stands next to a stalled train in New York City after a power failure stopped multiple subway lines in April 2017. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Okay, what the hell happened to the New York subway?

It wasn’t so long ago that New Yorkers could smugly look to cities like Boston (Aww, what a darling toy train!) and Washington (Six whole lines? Adorable!) and appreciate the scope and reliability of their underground transit system.

But between fare hikes, overcrowding, frequent breakdowns, mechanical failures, signal gaps, janky cars, and rickety tracks, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is facing millions of angry riders and a multibillion-dollar repair job that is likely to span decades.

One of the weirdest aspects of all this is that the problems seemed to come all at once, out of nowhere. The subway was mostly fine! But, then, it was most definitely not.

Subway delays have more than doubled over a five-year period. Track fires increased. “The current state of the subway system is unacceptable,” the MTA’s newly reinstated chairman, Joseph Lhota, said in a statement late last month as he outlined an emergency improvement plan. “We must rebuild confidence in the authority with a complete overhaul of the system.”

It’s not yet clear exactly what that overhaul will look like—or, crucially, how much it will cost. Initially, the MTA said it would need as much as $20 billion for systemwide maintenance and repairs. (Lhota didn’t reply to my request for an interview.) In the meantime, New Yorkers are left wondering how things got so awful.

Where to begin? For one thing, there’s the old—so very, very old—infrastructure. “In fact it’s so old that the MTA can no longer buy replacement parts from the manufacturer,” James Somers wrote in a 2015 essay for The Atlantic. “It has to refurbish them itself.”

New York City subway construction (The New York Public Library)

The 1960s-era Brightliners, those stainless-steel C-train cars, break down constantly—every 33,000 miles on average, The New York Times recently reported. That’s compared with the average subway car, which breaks down every  400,000 miles, and the newest cars, which break down every 750,000 miles, according to the newspaper. Then there’s the signaling system that Somers wrote about. On top of being ancient and unreliable, signals are inspected far less frequently than they were a decade ago. They’re languishing despite sorely needed upgrades that could otherwise improve efficiency to accommodate the growing throngs of riders.

Oh yeah, the people. Here’s where we get into tipping-point territory that explains how things seemed to get so bad so quickly. There are more passengers now than there have been since the 1940s. The all-time ridership record was set in 1946, the year 2 billion passengers rode the subway. Ridership exceeded 1.7 billion last year, and broke records set in 1948. These days, overcrowding is the reason for about one-third of the system’s delays any given month, the MTA says. (Then there’s Penn Station, which is facing its own chronic failures after “decades of neglect,” as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it in May.)

“The other factor is there’s no political capital in doing preventative maintenance,” says Andrew Natsios, the former chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority who helped save Boston’s notorious Big Dig highway project. (He’s now the director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at Texas A&M University.) “The consequence is that systems deteriorate much faster. No one gets elected for voting for preventative maintenance. It’s very sad.”

1870 illustration of New York’s pre-subway pneumatic tube system* (New York Public Library)

Even when state officials have set aside the necessary money for upgrades, funds haven’t been managed well, and repairs are rarely made on schedule. Cost overruns are a big issue on any major infrastructure project, but especially when you’re dealing with an old urban area. At least New York officials now seem to be taking the subway’s many problems seriously. Lhota’s return to the authority and a recently announced modernization competition are reasons for cautious optimism. Then again, “there are always problems you don’t expect,” Natsios told me.

He gives an example from his time in Boston, when Big Dig construction disturbed the city’s many rats—and the rats disturbed the city’s many humans. “The rat population under Boston goes back to the Colonial period,” he said. “You suddenly had tens of thousands of rats on Boston streets. They had to spend tens of millions of dollars on rat extermination.”

At least in New York’s subways, the rats are already expected. But the rodents are a growing problem of their own. On Wednesday, the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, declared war (again) on the city’s rat population, pledging $32 million to kill as many as possible. (“We want more rat corpses,” the mayor said.) That’s a paltry sum compared with the $20 billion estimate for a complete overhaul of the subway system. For now, the rats of New York have this in common with the city’s subway cars: They aren’t going anywhere.

Related Video

* This article originally featured a caption that mischaracterized this illustration as an early sketch of the existing subway system. We regret the error.