Strangeness on a Train


Few places in New York City’s 307 square miles have been so hot for so long as Williamsburg, the slice of Brooklyn where land meets water and hipster boutiques abut grimy warehouses. Music and books, bagels and beer, trendy duds and pricey haircuts all are there for the buying along Bedford Avenue and the side streets, and even in mid-afternoon on a cold, rainy Tuesday the place buzzes. That’s partly because every seven minutes or so the area’s lifeblood pumps in from the L train station at Bedford Avenue and North 7th Street.

Sometimes, however, that spigot of shoppers, revelers, and people coming home is choked off—not for an hour or two but for whole weekends. That’s been happening occasionally for a couple years now, but already this year the L has gone down for two weekends, and as many as six more Saturday–Sunday closures are scheduled for the rest of 2006. Some residents are considering legal action.

Williamsburg doesn’t suffer alone. When the L halts, people in Bushwick, Canarsie, or points between who need to get to work or a doctor’s appointment in Manhattan could also be out of luck. What makes Williamsburg unique—in fact, the reason for all its success in recent years—is that it’s a destination not just for its residents but also people from Manhattan and elsewhere.

“Williamsburg has worked really hard to make a name,” says Lilah Wilson, who runs the Lucky Cat, a bar. She says that even during the transit strike in December, English and German tourists somehow found their way to the area because they had heard the hype. But not everyone is able or willing to go that extra mile. There’s a shuttle bus when the L is down, but it doesn’t run to and from Manhattan and along 14th Street like the L; it merely trucks folks to other subway lines, making for a long journey. So, says Wilson, “a closure can mean life or death to a business.”

And the life-or-death worries aren’t just for businesses.While upset over how the L shutdowns affect business aboveground, many in the neighborhood are equally concerned over the work that’s going on down in the tunnels.

Right now the city’s subway traffic is controlled by “fixed block” signals. As a train moves into a section or block of track, a signal goes off to prevent another train from entering that section and risking a collision. The problem is that the blocks of tracks are big, and the signal is the same whether the train is at one end of the block or another. It’s like knowing someone’s standing ahead of you in a dark tunnel, but being unsure whether he’s 20 feet away or right in your face. It’s inefficient; trains are delayed even when there’s no risk of collision, so fewer trains run.

That’s why, according to New York City Transit, the L train is being shut down on weekends. The Canarsie line is the guinea pig for new technology called Communication Based Train Control, which will provide trains with their own signals. The contractors installing CBTC need long stretches of time—in other words, whole weekends—to get the job done. The L was picked because it’s one of the few lines that does not share any of its tunnel, so it can be suspended for days at a time without affecting service elsewhere in the subway system.

The payoff for today’s frustrations will be tomorrow’s better ride, says transit spokesman Charles Seaton. “It will improve safety and it will allow us to add more trains,” he says.

But MTA documents suggest that’s not all the new signals will allow them to do. “Communication Based Train Control,” reads one Q&A on the Second Avenue subway proposal, “allows for One Person Train Operation.”

The prospect of One Person Train Operation (a/k/a OPTO or “conductorless trains”) has been a touchy subject for New York City rider advocates and organized labor for years. Already, on some lines at some times, trains run with an operator but no conductor. But the MTA clearly wants to expand the practice. Last year an arbitrator found the authority had violated contract terms by kicking conductors off the L train. In its most recent proposal to settle the ongoing contract dispute with the Transit Workers Union, the MTA says it wants to keep conductors on the train but out of their cabs.

NYC Transit tells the Voice that the signal work on the L has no connection to cutting conductors. “One does not have anything to do with another,” Seaton insists. “We already have one-person train operation on the L train at night.”

The Federal Transit Administration, however, says CBTC “may pave the way for eventual introduction of total automation of train operations.” And at times, the MTA has embraced that brave new world. A July 2005 financial plan cites 71 jobs that can be eliminated on the L line once the new signaling system is in place. As recently as November, the MTA reported that “one person train operation on the L line is being implemented in conjunction with installation of [CBTC].”

City Council Transportation committee chairman John Liu sees the new signals and the one-person trains as “one and the same.” And he worries that the signaling system won’t work, citing implementation delays on the L project. One-person train operation also carries risks, Liu says, pointing to an emergency evacuation drill held last April on a train with only one MTA worker aboard. The union says the drill was a failure; NYC Transit claims it was “incomplete.”

“The MTA has difficulty making announcements over public address systems that people can hear,” Liu says. “They have trouble getting all the MetroCard vending machines to work. So it’s kind of a stretch to think they are ready to have computer technology run subway trains.”

But anyone who has sweated out endless minutes on an immobile rush-hour subway train might be willing for the MTA to give it a shot. The subway system has often been the proving ground for new technology, and if more efficient trains get more cars off the road, transit advocates will smile. Even the TWU is “not religiously opposed to new technology,” according to a spokesman.

Residents question how much actual improvement in services CBTC will bring to the L line. At least at first, the MTA is promising only one additional train per rush.

Not everyone in Williamsburg is hurt when the L stops. Felice Kirby at Teddy’s Bar & Grill says her 120-year-old establishment has a local customer base, although her workers have a hard time making it in. The guy at the Reel Life Trading Post says the weekend suspensions actually improve his business because people can’t get to Manhattan and rent more movies. And residents who don’t go to Manhattan on the weekends really can’t complain.

But Williamsburg is coming to grips with other changes: massive development that is expected to bring thousands of new people. Locals are still protesting the 2003 closure of Engine 212’s firehouse. So there could be more residents but fewer firefighters, and more subway trains but fewer conductors to help in an emergency. A crisis on the L is not unthinkable. A cop sits on the L train platform at the Bedford stop because it leads into a potential terrorist target—a tunnel under the East River. And Engine 212 used to drill at an emergency hatch from the L tunnel to the Brooklyn waterfront, according to Phil DePaolo, an activist on the firehouse issue. “I’m not buying it,” he says. “They’re thinking but they’re not planning.”

Sometimes even a hot neighborhood like Williamsburg gets burned. NYC Transit says it conducted an economic-impact study on the L shutdowns but did it several years ago. “In many ways the neighborhood is a victim of its own success,” says Teresa Toro, a communsity board member. “The L train used to be just a hick line. It’s just not like that anymore.”

The Latest