Why Weekend Subway Service Sucks

Navigating the trains during off-peak hours can baffle even experienced riders, and the MTA’s lack of communication isn’t helping


On a recent Sunday afternoon, an A train pulled up to the downtown platform on the West 4th Street station. Marcie, a young woman holding a thick book, stood on the platform facing the open doors. She took a half-step toward the train, paused, and thought.

Marcie (she asked the Voice not to use her last name) was trying to get home to Carroll Gardens, but the F was running along the Q line in Manhattan and the D in Brooklyn, so she couldn’t take the F. But the D was stopping at F stops in Brooklyn, although the D was rerouted via the A in Manhattan. So to get to Carroll Street, an F train stop, she had to go to an A stop in Manhattan to catch the D, which would then run along the F.

Got that?

Marcie didn’t, either. She had been waiting about fifteen minutes for the train, any train, but now hesitated to get on board. Did she want an A? Another half-step, then a full step backward. The train then made the “beep-boop” noise signaling the doors were about to close. Marcie remained on the platform.

This dance has become familiar to anyone taking the subway on weekends. While rush hour issues have hogged the headlines for the massive crowds and hours-long commutes, it’s the MTA’s extensive weekend track work that makes large swaths of the subway unusable. 

The MTA has always tried to schedule most of its work on evenings and weekends, to avoid interfering with weekday commutes, says Richard Barone, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association. But in recent years, “weekend and evening ridership has increased dramatically, so more riders are more aware of the disruptions,” he adds. And the added work post–Hurricane Sandy “has only made things worse.”

The MTA does not track weekend subway performance well. Its new performance dashboard only separates peak and off-peak performance, meaning there’s no way to isolate weekends. But even if it did, the agency excludes trains affected by planned work from its performance metrics — meaning if it takes you two hours to get home on a Saturday night, that won’t show up as a delay if it was because of scheduled maintenance.

There is some logic to this, since the MTA’s performance data is supposed to measure unexpected delays. Still, this results in wildly misleading conclusions, like the one in the state comptroller’s September report on the subway that found weekend performance is actually better than that on weekdays, an accurate reading of the statistics that is nonetheless disconnected from reality. The MTA essentially throws out any data from the lines that don’t function normally on weekends — and there are tons of them.

There are twenty subway lines that operate on weekends — all but the B, Z, W, and weekday-only express lines. Every weekend this year has seen at least four of those lines disrupted by work; some weekends, as many as eleven. The median weekend this year saw planned disrupted service on eight lines, or 40 percent of the system (compiled from the MTA’s social media accounts, which appears to be the only place this data is recorded).

(The MTA did not respond to a list of questions from the Voice about weekend subway work by press time.)

Back at the uptown platform at West 4th Street, Ronnell, who’d been waiting for a train for twenty minutes, ran onto a departing A before I could get his full name; he wasn’t about to miss his train for my journalistic requirements. Sporting a newsboy cap with wireless headphones slung over the top and a blue button-down, he had not been happy when I asked him what he thought of the subway’s weekend service. “You already know the answer to that,” he said, before giving out a chuckle. “It’s terrible. How long have you been down here? You seen any A trains come?”

Ronnell said he checks the MTA’s website before heading for the train, but he feels it doesn’t accurately reflect what’s going on in the tunnels. The A is supposed to be running normally, he pointed out; but then why has he been waiting twenty minutes for one? Like Marcie, he was also confused by the F and D construction. Even relatively minor issues — like not blocking off a staircase on the A/C/E platform that leads only to the closed-off B/D/F/M platform, forcing every person who tried it to clamber back up from whence they came — add to the frustration.

Predictably, this results in people steering clear of the subways outside of the work week. Mark Myers, who was waiting for an uptown A train at West 4th Street, told me he tries to avoid the subway on weekends because it’s “always a crapshoot.”

It doesn’t help that if you need to switch trains, the MTA’s posted notices won’t help you: Posters by the F train only advise regarding F alternatives, D train posters only those for D trains. Take Marcie’s journey: F line posters note that the F is running along the Q in Manhattan and the D in Brooklyn, but neglect to inform that the D is also diverted, so to catch the D, riders have to go to the A. The piecemeal notices, Marcie said, are “confusing.”

The MTA does offer a stand-alone app and website specifically for weekend service changes called the Weekender; its Android app has 100,000 downloads. Myers said while he presumed there was an app, by either the MTA or a third party, that could help alleviate some confusion, he hasn’t tried one because he doubted it would be enough to make the subway predictable. And he’s not entirely wrong. The Weekender can help you plan your journey — even though the interface hasn’t been updated in years and requires clicking on individual stations or lines to read the actual service notices. But when so many lines are being serviced at once, there’s only so much a rider can do to avoid prolonged journeys, expected or otherwise.

Some people don’t have the choice to avoid the subways on weekends. Cambilo, a middle-aged man wearing a black ball cap and a red plaid shirt, was waiting to catch a downtown 4/5/6 at Union Square. He has to take the 7 from Sunnyside before, ideally, switching to the N. But, he said, it seems like one of those lines is always out of commission or experiencing delays. (That day, it was the N.) He lamented that his commute is so much easier on weekdays.

At Union Square, I bumped into Jean and Rick, a middle-aged couple visiting from Houston. Rick had a DSLR camera slung around his shoulder and a large subway map unfolded in his hands. He was studying it, trying to figure out how to get from Union Square to Bay Ridge. They come to New York once a year, so they’re hardly strangers to the subway, but they’ve still found it “terrible” this year, Jean said, “because everything is shut down. We can’t get to where we want to go.” After I asked a few questions, they turned the tables and peppered me with inquiries about how to get to Brooklyn with the F, B, D, M, 2, 3, 4, and 5 all not running normally.

This was hardly a rare occurrence. After most of my interviews, I would end up helping confused riders — New Yorkers and tourists alike — get to where they needed to go as best I could. On several occasions, other frustrated riders nearby heard me doling out subway guidance and chimed in with their own questions. It was hard to blame them; the only MTA employees I saw at the track level were on the closed-off platforms. There was no one else to ask.

It’s this lack of information that may be the most enraging to weekend subway riders. “We want the MTA to be doing the work needed to fix and modernize the subway. They need work windows to be able to do this,” says Barone. “What is important is that the MTA be able to communicate planned work outages and disruptions to riders more clearly.

At one point on the West 4th A/C/E downtown platform, an elderly woman in a black dress, heels, and red lipstick came over to one of my impromptu subway guide sessions. She needed to get to Broadway-Lafayette or East Broadway, but those stations were closed.

“But, how do I get there?” she asked anyway.

“Well, they’re offering shuttle buses.”

“I don’t want to take a shuttle bus,” she dismissed, with more than a hint of frustration. The whole point of the subway, she said, was to avoid traffic.

“OK,” I said, before explaining her alternative was to go back uptown to 14th Street, cross town on the L, then take the 6 down to Bleecker.

“No, I can’t go backwards. I have a thing about backtracking, I can’t do it.”

“All right,” I said, and then told her the only other option, subway-wise, was to continue downtown to Fulton and then take the 6 uptown a few stops.

“No, that’s stupid.”

“A cab?” I said, running out of alternatives to offer.

“Screw it,” she concluded. “I’ll walk.”