Monday Morning’s Subway Mess Was Caused by an MTA Typo

Construction shouldn’t have caused the D/N/R lines to melt down during rush hour, but it did


There is a phrase New York City Transit president Andy Byford borrows from the soccer world to describe meltdowns like this morning’s D-N-R debacle: “own goals.” What ought to have been a routine service change ended up leading to hours-long trips, crawling trains, and widespread confusion. But unlike in some previous transit nightmares, in this case centuries-old equipment didn’t malfunction, car doors didn’t break, tracks didn’t split. Instead, it was entirely the result of a series of MTA bureaucratic screwups.

The mess began during the morning rush when people tried to take the D, N, and R trains in Sunset Park toward Manhattan. Not only were the trains delayed, but the N express tracks were completely blocked off with a big blue wall, with no signage or announcements in the station explaining why.

Adding to the confusion, N trains were also listed as having “Good Service” despite, you know, the wall.

Compounding the issue, the official @NYCTSubway account tweeted at 9:17 a.m. — before the official delay notice was posted on the website — to “expect longer wait times and delays on the N, R, and D lines in Brooklyn while we perform necessary structural repairs in the tunnel — essential work to restore reliable service.”

Naturally, many riders interpreted this to mean the delays were the direct result of the work being done. In subsequent tweets, @NYCTSubway added that this work would continue 24-7 until December. This is the point when riders started to freak out, contemplating every commute for the next five months being just like Monday morning’s.

The good news for D, N, and R riders is these massive delays will not happen every day, because this morning’s delays didn’t need to happen at all.

The bad news is that Monday’s meltdown undermines the many promises New York City Transit has been making over the past few months regarding improved customer communications and, as Byford often says, getting “the basics right.”

As chief customer officer Sarah Meyer said in a statement, the hours of delays resulted from “congestion at the northern end of the project site.” (This morning’s mayhem was set off when D trains at 36th Street, the north end of the section of tracks being worked on, were unable to get to the express track, leading N and R trains to pile up behind them.) According to internal documents provided to the Voice, the cause was actually a mistake in the project’s work order, which identified the wrong signal as the end point of the track work: F4-466 instead of F4-468.

To compound the problem, straphangers had no idea this work was going on because of a quirk in the way New York City Transit creates its schedules. The long-term work on the express N track between 36th and 59th streets had been incorporated into the subway’s permanent schedules, as Meyer explained on Twitter, and therefore “wasn’t flagged as ‘planned work’ that required a supplement,” referring to the temporary schedules that are created in response to planned work. Those supplement schedules are what trigger her team’s communications plans, such as station posters and announcements alerting riders. So without the work showing up on the supplement schedule, nobody knew to announce the planned work.

Ironically, without the work order flub identifying the wrong signal and causing hours of delays, this whole issue might have gone largely unremarked upon. The construction’s only practical consequence going forward should be that the N will run on the local tracks between 36th Street and 59th Street, making two local stops, and adding five minutes or less to each N train journey.

In her statement, Meyer struck the contrite tone increasingly typical of New York City Transit communications: “We deeply apologize for our significant errors today and know that we need to do better. We are working through our policies and procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

But some straphangers are growing tired of the “ensure this does not happen again” line.

The frustration is shared by MTA brass. As Byford is quoted as saying in the recent New Yorker profile on him, “God, I hate own goals.”