The “Summer of Hell” has not been as devilish for most straphangers as feared even though riders still face widespread delays and interrupted service.
But something miraculous has happened in the nation’s largest subway system: The people who can make the trains run on time are actually listening to the paying public and sometimes even talking to them.
The mainstay of the MTA’s outreach to passengers has been the recorded announcement, which delivers several stock explanations for every stopped train. Crammed into aging cars with a semi-audible public address system, riders stuck between stations hear the disembodied voice from nowhere itemize the causes: “train traffic ahead of us,” “sick passenger” or “signal problems.”
This is immediately followed by the declaration: “We will be moving shortly” even though the car may have been immobilized for 20 minutes in a dark tunnel as the occupants hear the same fake news over and over.
But newly reappointed MTA Chairman Joe Lhota has changed the script . He has told the riding public repeatedly that the agency has failed them and embarked on an ambitious program to win back their trust as he oversees the $836 million overhaul of the deteriorating system.
The conductor on a No. 7 train stranded under the East River on a recent rush hour Friday updated the passengers every two or three minutes on the efforts to remove a stalled train in Grand Central. It was almost too much information, but welcomed.
City and state lawmakers conducted a 24-hour tour of the subways to find out directly from riders about their biggest gripes: Being late to work and missing appointment were high on the list.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who heads the MTA, tromped along live tracks near the Columbus Avenue station to check out the power equipment that has caused 32,000 subway delays in the last year. It was a great photo op, but also sent a message that the governor is serious about solving the state of emergency he declared in June by working with Con Ed.
Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can agree on nothing, have clashed over whether the city should split the bill for the subway’s rehabilitation with the state. The mayor finally gave a little ground when he proposed a tax on the city’s richest of the rich to pay for the work, which was immediately shot down by Lhota.
But the bottom line is the three men — not in a room but the operator’s booth — who can ultimately rescue the subways are talking and letting the suffering souls who ride the trains in on the conversation.