Thursday’s L Train Shutdown Was a Nightmare Preview of 2019

Crews working to remove water from the Canarsie tubes that carry the L train beneath the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan after Sandy in 2012.
Crews working to remove water from the Canarsie tubes that carry the L train beneath the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan after Sandy in 2012.
MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

For nearly eight hours yesterday, the 225,000 daily riders who take the L train beneath the East River saw what it would look like if the impending Canarsie Tube shutdown, scheduled for 2019, happened suddenly and without warning. It wasn’t pretty.

At 9:17 a.m., the MTA says “reports of a smoke condition” came in the tunnel between Bedford Avenue and First Avenue, which runs beneath the East River. That’s when the transit authority suspended all service west of Bedford Avenue. The fire department says it was called at 9:20, arrived at First Avenue and 14th Street at 9:23, and responded to “an MTA vault five grades below street level.” The MTA says that “upon further investigation, smoke was coming from a manhole” near 14th Street and Avenue D.

The fire was under control at 10:41, more than an hour after firefighters arrived on the scene. The MTA made repairs to cable and a bench wall before service resumed with severe delays shortly after 5 p.m. Two people were taken to hospitals during yesterday’s fire: one person suffered minor injuries, according to FDNY, and a firefighter sustained more serious but non-life-threatening injuries.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. There is no word whether it was related to damage suffered during Superstorm Sandy in November 2012, when the 92-year-old tunnel flooded with 7 million gallons of salt water. “What we’re trying to avoid is unplanned shutdowns due to further deterioration,” the MTA said in a May video about its repair plan, “or worse, an emergency situation that puts our customers at risk.”

While the L train was down yesterday, the MTA suggested alternate routes, including the B62 bus and the A, C, G, J and M trains. But at the Bedford Avenue station, there was little to indicate a massive daylong shutdown and riders were left confused. The only indication of trouble was a station manager in a booth, giving barely-intelligible directions to inquiring passengers through her microphone. The LED countdown displays still showed Manhattan-bound trains, and a rotating alert about the service suspension popped up, only to be cut off instantaneously to show more train arrival times.

Christophe Tedjasukmana, 34, had heard about the L train shutdown yesterday morning from the MTA’s Twitter accounts and talked about it with some co-workers, but he thought any problems would be cleared up by 2 p.m., when he left his Williamsburg office for a trip to 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.

“I was not aware that this was still going on,” said Tedjasukmana, who ended up biking to the J train. He was also considering rescheduling a client from Manhattan who was supposed to meet him in Williamsburg later that afternoon, so she could avoid the hassle.

Others had no idea the train was down. A trio of Australian tourists staying in Williamsburg entered the Bedford Avenue station, trying to get to the East Village. “We chose where we are staying based on an easy train trip,” said Julia Drake, 42. (They, too, ended up taking the J train.)

Suellen Hunter, 42, was traveling with Drake and read about the L train shutdown planned for 2019 while she was researching the trip. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s a bit lucky we’re coming now and not in a couple years,” she said.

Tedjasukmana said he is involved with the L Train Coalition, a group of riders concerned about the Canarsie Tube shutdown. “Hopefully with the ferries and the express bus service that won’t be an issue,” he said of struggling to find an alternate route. “Or we could teleport by then.”

Exactly what the MTA and DOT have planned for alternate routes during the shutdown, however, remains to be seen. The MTA has said it might beef up service on bus routes and the G, J and M trains. For its part, the city is investigating ferries, bicycle infrastructure, and bus lanes.

Transit advocates say big solutions are needed to handle the crush, including bike and bus lanes on a car-free 14th Street, and busways and high-occupancy vehicle restrictions on the Williamsburg Bridge. Elected officials are pushing for an interagency working group to tackle the issue.

“Today was a very brief snapshot of what the L train shutdown is going to look like,” Masha Burina, community organizer at the Riders Alliance, said yesterday. “Granted, it was unexpected. But 2019 is going to come faster than we realize, and the need for robust preparations is pretty clear.”

Riders Alliance is also surveying L train riders about alternate routes. “We’re asking a set of questions that will hopefully help us predict behavior,” Burina said, adding that it’s not a complete substitute for MTA data. Some of that data could be generated from yesterday’s shutdown, when riders were forced to scramble for other options.

“This is a reminder that the city needs to start taking steps now to reimagine transportation in the communities that are going to have to manage without the L train,” said Brian Zumhagen, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, which is pushing for a car-free 14th Street. “This interruption of L train service is just a preview of the much bigger disruption riders will have to deal with in about 800 days.”


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