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Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Dan Phiffer

Looking back on a miserable year for the New York City subway system

Written by
Clayton Guse

The New York City subway had quite a year in 2017, to say the least. The system that acts as a vital bloodline for America’s largest city saw its arteries clogged with delays and equipment failures. Regular train service during rush hour was once a reliable fact of life; this year it was more of a roll of the dice for the five million-plus riders who rely on the subway every day. A sizable chunk of the system’s signaling infrastructure dates back to the 1930s, and the MTA is still working on repairing the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While all of this was going on, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo engaged in an extensive passive aggressive flame war over who should pay for the fixes. 

There's no doubt that 2017 was a rough year for many Americans, but it was almost universally terrible for New York City’s straphangers. Here's a look back on what was a truly miserable year for the city’s subway system. 

January 1: The Second Avenue subway debuts

The MTA kicked off the year on a positive note with the first leg of the Second Avenue Subway finally opening. The project was decades in the making and currently only serves the Upper East Side. But hey, progress is progress. 

January 8: Cell and Wi-Fi service expands to every subway station

By the second week in January, New Yorkers were able to get cell service and connect to a public Wi-Fi network at each and every subway station in the city. Sure, service is still dark between stops, but everyone in town was finally able to communicate with the outside world after descending into Gotham's underbelly.

February 12: The Times reveals that subway service is getting worse

The New York Times published a damning analysis in mid-February that revealed that the quality of subway service was in a free fall. Its report showed that subway trains were experiencing delays at a rate of roughly 70,000 per month, up from 28,000 per month in 2012. 

March 19: MetroCard fare hikes go into effect

While the MTA did not end up raising a singe-ride fare to $3 (as was expected), the authority did end up hiking the price of a 30-day pass from $116.50 to $121 and that of a seven-day from $31 to $32—just enough to make New Yorkers roll their eyes and sigh. 

May 16: A Second Avenue subway station is crippled by a busted escalator

Less than five months after debuting, the 83rd Street entrance of the brand-new 86th Street Second Avenue subway station closed “indefinitely” due to a busted escalator. It’s since reopened, but that infrastructure shortcoming was an early omen to what would be a terrible summer for riders.

June 5: Subway riders get trapped on an F train from hell

Right as the summer heat began to descend upon New York City, a group of F train riders were met with a commute that was straight out of a zombie flick. At around 6pm on June 5, a train on the line lost power between the West 4th Street and Broadway-Lafayette stations, leaving its passengers without air-conditioning or light for roughly an hour. The MTA deployed another train to literally push it to a station, and when it arrived, the weary riders clawed their way out of the sweltering train in a sight that was simultaneously captivating and disturbing. 

June 21: Joe Lhota is appointed chairman on the MTA

Joe Lhota, who guided the MTA through Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and ran against de Blasio on the Republican ticket in the mayoral race of 2013, was lured back to the authority by Cuomo. For many riders, this marked a small step in the right direction. 

June 27: An A train derails uptown

In late June, an A train derailed between the 135th and 125th Streets stations during the morning rush, gumming up service across Manhattan and forcing hundreds of passengers to evacuate the train. One of our writers happened to be on that train—she wrote about her experience right here

June 29: Cuomo declares a state of emergency for the MTA

By late June, the subway system hit a tipping point. Penn Station was about enter eight weeks of track closures (dubbed the “summer of hell”), the F train fiasco and the A train derailment had the MTA’s PR team working overtime, and there did not seem to be a fix in sight. Cuomo responded by declaring a state of emergency for the authority and issued an executive order to speed up existing repair work on the subway.

July 17: A track fire throws a wrench in morning rush hour service

By July, rampant delays had become the norm for the subway system. Even so, a track fire on July 17 was immeasurably painful. A, B, C and D trains were cut off in both directions uptown, which led to bottlenecks and mind-boggling overcrowding on the 1 train. 

July 25: The MTA releases its emergency plan to fix the subway

When Joe Lhota was appointed chairman of the MTA, he was tasked with putting together an emergency plan to fix the subway by the end of July. That plan was released on July 25 and is still being rolled out. The whole thing will cost an estimated $800 million when it’s finished, yet it’s still not clear where all of those funds will come from. 

August 13: Cuomo comes around to the idea of congestion pricing

In an effort to plug the massive budget hole in the MTA’s emergency plan to fix the subway, Cuomo floated the idea of “congestion pricing,” which would entail installing tolls in Manhattan’s busiest areas to both help curb traffic and generate revenue. “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” he told the Times

August 14: A goddamn kitty cat interrupted morning trains on the C line

When signal and switch failures delay commuters in New York City, they turn to Twitter to curse the transit gods. But in August, when a cute little cat on the tracks temporarily brought service to a halt, straphangers were left wondering what else could possibly go wrong. 

August 23: More than half of the city’s subway lines are delayed

If you commuted via subway on August 23, chances are you were delayed

September 14: Another day, another set of subway failures

Just as the summer began to turn to fall, a perfect storm of problems brought morning delays to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, F, M, N, Q and W trains.

October 12: IBO report shows that the subway is a delayed, overcrowded shitshow

Anyone with a pulse could have told you that the New York City subway had turned into a mess in 2017—but an Independent Budget Office report requested by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams detailed exactly how much service was suffering. 

October 16: Straphangers reach their wit’s end after another awful commute

morning delay in mid-October came with the usual complaints but also included one commuter who voiced distain on Twitter about a hunk of poop on an M train, so that’s fun. 

November 13: LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers ride the subway

When the Cleveland Cavaliers headed back to their hotel after a practice session at Madison Square Garden in November, the team quickly realized that it would be in their best interest to ride the subway instead of the team bus. It was great press for the MTA (and New York City in general), even if it had zero implications on the wider service issues. 

November 15: Data shows that subway ridership continues to fall

A report presented at an MTA Board meeting in mid-November showed that subway ridership had dropped 3.1 percent year-over-year. This came after 2016 saw its first drop in annual ridership since 2009. 

November 21: MTA hires a transit mastermind to fix the subway

In late November, the MTA announced that it was bringing on Andy Byford as president of New York City Transit. The English-born man is a 14-year veteran of the London Underground and had incredibly successful stints at Chief Operating Officer of Sydney’s transit system and as CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission. In 2018, he’ll have the daunting task of making New York City’s trains run on time. 

December 27: Cuomo announces winners of the Genius Transit Challenge

Over the summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a competition that offered $1 million for the best ideas to fix the subway. As the year came to an end, the winners of the contest were announced, boasting concepts that included artificial intelligence on the system and recycling trains at a quicker rate. 

Here's hoping that service is better in 2018. New Yorkers are a resilient bunch, but the state of the subway is the one thing that could cause residents here to reach their breaking point. 

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