How Cuts in Basic Subway Upkeep Can Make Your Commute Miserable

Good article on unintended effects of reducing maintenance.


Good Intentions Go Awry

Signal problems happened every day in June. In recent years, union officials and transit workers say, the authority has struggled with the basics of keeping the system in good repair. But at least one effort to ease the problem resulted in unintended consequences.

When Mr. Cuomo declared a state of emergency, he also directed the state Public Service Commission to oversee Consolidated Edison’s efforts to shore up the subway’s power supply. The process required hiring contractors to inspect and repair relay equipment, signals, cables, track circuits and other key parts.

Because work cannot be done on or near the tracks without transit employees acting as “flaggers,” essentially lookouts for oncoming trains, and because there is a shortage of lower-level workers to act as flaggers, skilled signal maintainers were pressed into this task, current and former employees said.

John Chiarello, a subway signal maintainer and representative in Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said about 10 percent of the transit authority’s signal maintainers, who are specially trained to take apart and put back together some of the most complex pieces of the subway, were working as support for contractors in November.

Mr. Weinstein said the M.T.A.’s subway action plan is “accelerating signal inspection, maintenance and upgrade projects throughout the system” and added that even if maintainers were acting as flaggers, critical work was being done. “What matters is that more qualified people than ever before are now working to inspect and maintain signal and power components in the subway,” he said.

Misplaced Priorities

Not long before the June 20 electrical breakdown, the M.T.A. cut more than $400 million from its proposed signal funding and added money to pay for station enhancements and other improvements that are priorities of Governor Cuomo.

Mr. Weinstein said the reduction had nothing to do with the governor and resulted from changes in planned signal work.

It was the most recent instance of transit leaders focusing on expenditures such as new subway stations, countdown clocks and Wi-Fi, which improve the rider experience but are small solace to those trapped in stopped trains.

Peter S. Kalikow, a former M.T.A. chairman, said keeping the subway in good condition required constant vigilance, though that work receives less attention.

“If you dedicate the Hoyt-Schermerhorn pump room,” Mr. Kalikow said, “you think you get a press conference and anybody shows up?”

Records show that the authority’s signal maintainer work force also has not kept pace with the subway’s demands.

The number of signal problems rose from 2012 to 2016, but the transit authority added just 57 signal maintainers during that period.

Transit leaders also began requiring less frequent inspections of signals in the late 1990s because of a worker shortage, and they never restored the cuts, according to the transit union. Twenty years ago, workers had to inspect signals, many of which date to World War II, every 30 days. Today signals are inspected every 90 days.

The authority also, until recently, offered no standard guidance in how to perform preventive maintenance on the antiquated equipment — and instead left new maintainers to learn on the job, the transit union said. Mr. Weinstein denied that the M.T.A. was not training its workers in basic skills. But current and former signal workers said it was the case.

“The training aspect was limited to a book the manufacturer puts out, ‘Grease this, grease that, put oil here, put oil there,’” Mr. Chiarello said. “So you would get that, but there wasn’t anything formal. You weren’t trained to do maintenance.”

Now the authority is making a concerted effort to improve training, Mr. Chiarello said.

When the authority hires new maintainers, it often cannot keep them for long. Subway signal maintainers toil in dark, rat-infested tunnels, are often called on to work overtime and are paid far less than what they could earn in the private sector. They earn about $35 an hour; an electrician with similar skills can make $60 an hour elsewhere.

Continue reading the main story

via The New York Times

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