Why Is Stuff in the Subway Always Breaking?

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Here in New York City, the transportation situation is so dire that the MTA is encouraging people to “stay home or work odd hours” to ease the rush hour burden. Which is a good peg for the third installment of our series in which real MTA workers tell us what the hell is going on down there.

Last week, we heard from insiders about why our mass transit budget is busted and what the train operators think. Today: Why is shit always breaking?

Why maintenance problems exist

Hi, I’m a Signal Maintainer at New York City Transit.

Subway dysfunction, the need for overhauls and rebuilds, and the problems that make that more difficult or even impossible—it’s just enormous in scope. I’m not entirely sure where to begin.

I guess the causative factors divide up into a few basic pieces.

The MTA has become very data driven. Which is not bad by itself, but when we have managers (or managers’ managers usually) who just see numbers without an understanding of what those numbers can (and cannot) tell them, priorities get messed up. Every piece of equipment we have has some maintenance cycle—usually 30 days—where it is supposed to be cleaned, greased, tested—basically whatever preventative maintenance and minor repairs it needs. Supervisors push for more maintenance, to keep as close to having 100% of equipment within its cycle as possible. They do this because Superintendents push them for it, who do it because General Superintendents and so on are just looking at this number as an indicator of how well maintenance is performing.

The result is that when a single piece of equipment needs extra time and attention, supervision doesn’t want that. They want their numbers. In Autumn when we are supposed to spend extra time winterizing everything we do maintenance on to prevent cold-related troubles, there is no extra time for that. If something is working and will be costly (in terms of time) to replace, it cannot be replaced even if it is obviously going to wear out soon. Things don’t get replaced or fixed until they fail catastrophically, because maintenance percentage is the priority.

Part of the 6-point plan that was announced with much fanfare last month involved cutting that maintenance cycle from 30 days to 15 days on the 8th Avenue line. But I can guarantee you they aren’t going to double the manpower there, because they can’t. There will be some overtime, sure, but what quality of work do you think you get from someone on the 14th hour of his shift? Working double shifts is the norm in Signal. The men like it because it’s extra money at time-and-a-half, the MTA likes it because it’s way cheaper than hiring new employees.

People get upset when they see maintenance workers making $140K, but the MTA will pay that money because one maintainer making $140K is cheaper than 2 maintainers making $65K plus pensions and health benefits. But there’s a cost. Quality of work declines, accidents increase, and troubleshooting ability suffers as well. How well can you expect workers to logically progress through a problem and find and repair its cause when they have consistently been working 60 and 70 hour weeks?

Besides staffing issues, MTA policy in general is not conducive to good maintenance, timely repairs, or large scale overhaul.

There is an admirable focus on safety. It’s a dangerous job, and people die doing it. Safety should be prioritized, and we have a lot of safety rules. But rules are about all we have. Track flagging is extremely manpower intensive, and we don’t actually have the manpower to do it right. And yes, we can refuse to work unsafe, and they cannot officially retaliate for that. But the onus is always on the workers to take that stand—we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. If we push against supervision and demand the gear and manpower to do the job 100% safe, they can and do make our lives miserable. If we don’t, and we’re caught breaking safety rules, we face suspension without pay or termination. For most guys, the only solution to this is to spend as little time on the trackway as possible when they are short staffed. So shortcuts are taken, quality of maintenance declines, accidents increase, everything you’d expect from a rush job. The supervisors get their numbers, and everyone is happy—but the job isn’t really getting done. Not the right way at least.

RTO (Rapid Transit Operations) has their own number that they prize above all else—on time arrivals. Regardless of the degree to which on-time arrival reflects actual good service, RTO aims to optimize on time arrivals. And they control track access—so sometimes scheduling a major job is literally impossible. They will not allow the disruption to their service unless we force the issue by declaring the equipment unsafe. And that’s a big step to take, and one that a maintenance worker needs to be very certain of before he takes it. It’s just one more thing that pushes us towards short term band aids when we need real long term work. If something is working and trains are moving, the attitude in general is to leave it alone.

There are also really serious issues around contract procurement. The most obvious being that it is a generally accepted career path in the MTA (and especially in Signal) to go up as high as possible in management, pension out at 55, and then immediately go work for (or start) a Signal contracting company. There is supposed to be a 2 year ban after leaving the MTA before going to work for contractors that the MTA employs but waivers are given out as a matter of course. These people are often talented signalmen, but they’re not hired for their knowledge of railroad signaling. they’re hired because they provide access, because they know people and because they know the institution quirks and idiosyncrasies of signal contracting at NYCT. And because a lot of contract compliance and managerial types know there is a job waiting for them when they leave Transit, enforcement is sparse, and we often end up accepting sub par work. That in turn stresses the maintenance budget when we have more failures, more things that need to be fixed.


We’ll bring more from inside the MTA later this week. If you are an MTA employee who wants to share your thoughts, email me.

Senior Writer. Hamilton@SplinterNews.com

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