There’s One Fix the New York Subway Can Make Today: Tell the Truth

Don’t take the A train.

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To New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who so loves his fancy car and flashing lights but is unfortunately saddled with the extremely grown-up responsibility of running the busiest subway system in the Western world, I recommend a child’s lesson: When you get in trouble, tell the truth.

Fessing up would be a necessary tonic for Cuomo’s dissembling act about who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the very wobbly backbone behind the 8 percent of U.S. GDP also known as the New York City metropolitan area. Last week, Cuomo moved to “take control” of the MTA, a bit like a groggy sea captain might bellow that he was taking control after waking from slumber to seize the wheel in a gale.

The truth is, Cuomo has always had control. His Captain Haddock act is duplicitous in light of both the organization’s governance, of which he is and has been the functional head, and the authority’s public relations branch, which has long made clear who takes credit. When a snowstorm loomed in January 2015, it was Cuomo who initiated the system’s first snow-induced shutdown in 111 years, contradicting the agency head and surprising the internal command center, where officials learned the news on television. (The snowstorm was a bust.) When the trains ran on time, when the Second Avenue Subway opened, when there were countdown clocks in the stations and new buses on the streets, every MTA press release began Gov. Cuomo this, Gov. Cuomo that, like anaphoric stanzas of a heroic epic.

Lately, however, “the Engineer on the Second Floor,” as the governor was known when this train set was still fun to play with, has lost interest. He did not appear at the scene on Tuesday morning, when an A train derailed in Harlem, sending 37 people to the hospital. New Yorkers behaved with aplomb, of course, filing through the beached train with calm and kindness. Two hundred firefighters, 100 police officers, and dozens of MTA workers helped hundreds of commuters through the smoky tunnel. It was a very New York display of cool behavior in crazy circumstances.

If Cuomo does the big-picture hedging, the MTA does it daily in its communication with riders. Tuesday’s disaster was no exception. Passengers in the derailed train were told after 10 minutes what had transpired. But as scores of trains halted in tunnels from Brooklyn to the Bronx, and thousands more commuters collected on platforms, it took the agency a full hour to confirm that the delays were caused by a derailment. First, it was an “inspection.” Then, it was a “power failure.” Finally, the agency broadcast the truth.

We’ve come to expect that kind of obfuscation from subway announcements. But on Tuesday it was particularly galling. Because one of the governor’s high-profile subway initiatives was installing Wi-Fi and cell service in stations (lipstick on this big old steel pig), passengers on the derailed train began broadcasting footage of the train’s busted door long before the MTA had moved beyond saying it was conducting an “inspection.”

Fixing the agency’s structural problems is going to be a long, hard haul—but fixing its communications problems needn’t be. On-time performance has fallen for the sixth straight year, down to 63 percent from 85 percent in 2011. The less reliable the system becomes, the more we depend on accurate warnings about delays. Making them better could start tomorrow.

“Train Traffic Ahead,” the eternal MTA delay announcement, is always a punchline. Inside the great subway sauna of June 6—a sweltering, stalled F train that compelled at least one passenger to strip to her underwear—commuters were told there was “train traffic,” though crews had reported a power problem. “Most of the time, they don’t even tell us the true cause,” Richard Richards, a longtime train conductor, told the Daily News on that occasion. “They’ll relay that message to us, to tell the customers that there’s train traffic.” Service changes come with no more clarity.

The cumulative effect of all this noise pollution, as Second Avenue Subways blogger Ben Kabak has observed, is an beat-by-beat dissolution of credibility that mirrors the governor’s own. It makes it hard to plan the day, but it’s also dangerous: Twice in the past week riders have left stalled trains on their own, because they don’t believe what they’re hearing from conductors—if they’re hearing anything at all. That means straphangers wandering through dark, electrified tunnels where trains run at 30 miles per hour.

Last week it was two renegade commuters who “self-evacuated.” Today it was 500. Tomorrow, who knows?

Meanwhile, three hours after the derailment had—as often happens—prompted the MTA to draw an entirely new subway map to send trains around the bottleneck, the agency alerted commuters with a quiet “Service Change” notice. The new routes weren’t front and center until midafternoon.

It wasn’t good enough to prevent scenes like this on Tuesday night:

Who among hasn’t let a (metaphorical) train go off the rails? How you talk about it counts.