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New York subways roll, but road to recovery will be long ... and costly

The New York subway system, inundated by Sandy's storm surge, began partial service Thursday. But full recovery for the city's 'lifeblood' will be long, complicated, and expensive.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / November 1, 2012

Passengers exit a downtown-bound, west side subway train in New York's Times Square, Thursday, Nov. 1. New York City moved closer to resuming its frenetic pace by getting back its vital subways Thursday, three days after superstorm Sandy.

Richard Drew/AP

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New York

Along with restoring electrical power, getting the nation’s largest subway system back up and running at full speed is crucial to New York City’s recovery from superstorm Sandy. But it is likely to be a long, complicated, and very expensive task.

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Yes, some of New York’s subways did start to roll Thursday morning, and strap hangers got free rides.

But it was only partial service. Below 34th Street the system had no power.

Major segments of the subway system’s 830 miles of track were still inundated Thursday with water that Sandy’s storm surge had pushed into the tunnels. Electrical equipment, such as signals that tell subway operators what speed to travel, not to mention the third rail that carries high voltage electricity to the cars, are submerged in corrosive salt water.

That means that New York, a major center of commerce, was still operating at well below its normal speed, with many workers still unable to get to their jobs. Everyone from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to the janitors who keep buildings clean use the trains.

“The subway is the lifeblood of New York,” says Michael Mulhern, the executive director of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Retirement Fund and the former general manager of the MBTA.

At a press briefing on Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg said he would be surprised if the subways that run under the East River would be back and running by the weekend.

“If they could do that I think that would be amazing,” Bloomberg said. “It may stretch a little longer.”

According to subway experts, it may be even more difficult and time-consuming than Bloomberg realizes.

For example, in 1996, the Muddy River, a tiny tributary of the Charles River in Boston, overflowed its banks after 9 to 10 inches of rain in 24 hours.

Mr. Mulhern was then the director of subway operations at the MBTA when the flood took place. About six stations on Boston’s Green Line, a light rail operation, filled with water. While some service was restored within a week, it was a full year, he says, before the system was back at full capacity.

“That was fresh water,” recalls Mulhern in an interview. “Salt water worsens the situation.”

To get the New York subways up and running, the salt water will have to be pumped out, which is happening. Debris will have to be removed. Then, Mulhern says, the system will have to be power washed with fresh water.

“Then you have to step back and ask what has been damaged and must be replaced,” he says. “It is likely that a lot of the subsystems need to be replaced.”

In addition to replacing the vital system of signals that subway drivers rely on, some stations may require new escalators or elevators to help the disabled negotiate the system. Turnstiles and fare-dispensing machines may need to be replaced.

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