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In New York City’s subway system, a summer of hell

People wait on the subway platform during rush hour at the Jay Street-Metro Tech station in New York City.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Michael Sciaraffo stepped into an F train earlier this month in lower Manhattan, he experienced a form of irritation familiar to most New Yorkers: On a steamy evening, the air conditioning in the packed subway car wasn't working. He resigned himself to an uncomfortable commute home to Brooklyn.

It got worse. After leaving the station, the train stopped in the tunnel. For nearly an hour, it was stuck there without ventilation or electricity. In the sweltering darkness, passengers dripped with sweat. One middle-aged woman stripped to her underwear. The windows fogged up as though in a sauna: In the vapour, one passenger wrote, "I will survive."

Finally, the train limped into the next station and the doors opened, allowing the dazed and panicky passengers to exit. "I never enjoyed the dank, smelly aroma of a train station more in my life," said Mr. Sciaraffo. Then he crossed the platform and boarded the next train heading toward Brooklyn. After all, he figured, it was either that or walk over the bridge.

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While Mr. Sciaraffo's experience – quickly dubbed "the F train from hell" – is an extreme example, his frustration is increasingly common here. New Yorkers are a stoic bunch, but the problems plaguing the city's century-old subway system are testing even their resilience. Delays have more than doubled since 2012 as aging equipment breaks down. Meanwhile, ridership continues to rise, with an average of 5.7-million passengers every weekday.

Next month, there will be a new complication. That's when emergency repairs will begin at Pennsylvania Station, shutting down several tracks at one of the city's busiest commuting hubs. Some of the passengers who normally take regional trains from Long Island will be diverted into the subway system, increasing passenger loads even more. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo warned commuters last month to prepare for a "summer of hell" (infernal metaphors are in good supply these days).

New York's subway has never been a delight for the eyes or the nose, but it did move millions of people in a mostly reliable fashion, running 24 hours a day just like the city that never sleeps. Now delays are becoming more frequent as an overburdened system shows its age.

Some of the signal system technology, which controls train traffic, dates back to the 1930s. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, the agency that runs the subway, is replacing the older equipment, but at a glacial pace. On Tuesday morning, the latest in a series of major signal malfunctions afflicted the rush-hour commute. The B line stopped entirely for several hours, while the A, C, D, E, F and M lines were running with delays, forcing passengers to scramble and improvise.

Anni Irish, a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, said she knew something bad was happening when she arrived at her local station in the morning and saw a crowd six-people-deep waiting for the train. "I almost witnessed a fist fight," she said. "People were pissed." She ended up taking a bus and then a Lyft ride, arriving at work an hour late.

Eric Dunn, also stuck in Brooklyn, jumped in a "dollar van" – an unlicensed shuttle – that took him to a subway hub at Barclays Center, where he switched to a 4 train into Manhattan. "You could be starting the day off with positive energy and then you get very frustrated," he said. "They're asking for more money [for fares] and the subway is getting worse."

Some riders pursued a more drastic solution on Tuesday. In Manhattan, two commuters in a stuck train who feared they would be late for work jumped down into the tracks and walked to the next station, according to a video provided to the New York Post. That's extremely dangerous, due to the presence of a high-voltage electrified rail that runs along the tracks.

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"These days, there is a pervasive sense in New York City that you leave for work in the morning without knowing if or when you will actually get there," said John Raskin of the Riders Alliance, an advocacy group for subway passengers. "That is an inconvenience to a professional who has to move meetings around, but it is a catastrophe for an hourly wage worker who could lose pay or even a job."

For the tabloids, the subway woes are a feast. The morning after Tuesday's snarl, the Post's front page blared, "For F's sake, fix the subways!" (the "F" mimicked the symbol for the corresponding subway line).

The New York Daily News, meanwhile, published a cartoon showing people streaming into a subway entrance, which, instead of displaying letters indicating train lines, featured the letters U R S C R E W E D. Another piece in the Post offered a list of coping strategies for subway-related stress. Among them: Take deep breaths, keep the consequences in perspective, and remember, it could be worse.

The growing frustration comes even as the subway has made improvements in some areas. On New Year's Eve, Mr. Cuomo inaugurated – with much fanfare – a gleaming new subway three-station line on Second Avenue in Manhattan, a project that was a century in the making. Subway stations are also now equipped with free wireless Internet.

Some passengers have used that Internet access to direct irate messages at Mr. Cuomo on Twitter (the state, not the city, controls the MTA). Strap-hangers say they are more interested in reliable subway service than perks.

"We don't need subterranean WiFi," wrote an exasperated commuter this week in the Daily News. Instead, the MTA should "guarantee us a train that arrives sort of on time, most of the time."

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Video: How the TTC hopes to reduce subway overcrowding with automatic train control
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About the Author
U.S. Correspondent

Joanna Slater is an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Globe based in the United States, where her focus is business and economic news and New York City.Her career includes reporting assignments in the U.S., Europe and Asia. In 2015, she was posted in Berlin, Germany, where she covered Europe’s refugee crisis. More

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