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In L-ternative Universe, Subway Riders M-iserable

Riders found themselves trapped on M trains last night; meanwhile, this morning’s commute was beset by an "earlier problem"
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Riders found themselves trapped on M trains last night; meanwhile, this morning’s commute was beset by an "earlier problem" Jake Offenhartz/Gothamist

With the L train nights and weekends slowdown now in full swing, the MTA is aggressively touting its alternate subway lines as a faster option for many L riders. Chief among those so-called L-ternatives is the M train, which officials say has seen a roughly 50 percent surge in ridership since the start of the partial shutdown. According to NYC Transit President Andy Byford, the immediate migration to the M is one "mark of success" for the project.

But for those who took the M train Monday night and Tuesday morning, that purported success feels a lot like failure. At around 9 p.m. on Monday, just as the L train service was beginning to ramp down for the night, both J and M trains were brought to a standstill by a switch problem at Myrtle-Broadway. Passengers reported being stuck for close to an hour, with very little information coming from conductors or the MTA about what was happening. Even when they did manage to escape the stuck trains, some riders said they had no other option but to get in an expensive cab.

Harrison Pettis, a 22-year-old legal assistant who works near Union Square and lives off the Myrtle-Wyckoff L station in Bushwick, told Gothamist he decided to take an M train home on Monday night after enduring a two hour commute on the L train on Friday: "They were saying [the M] would be faster in the evenings, but then I was just stuck on the M and eventually got off and took a car home after an hour and 45 minute commute."

Last night's experience was particularly vexing, Pettis said, because the MTA had repeatedly advised him that the M train was a quicker option, and because service was said to be working fine on Monday. He often leaves work after 8 p.m. on weeknights, which is when the authority has warned riders to seek out other transit options.

"I think the MTA did a good job letting people know what it was going to look like and to prepare to take alternate routes," Pettis added. "So it was frustrating when the alternate routes they suggested failed so poorly on the first work day of the slowdown. It wasn’t even the delays that made me angry, it’s being stuck in the middle of two train stops for forty minutes so you physically can’t leave to try and find another way home."

As is often the case, the conductor's announcements about the status of the delay were impossible to make out, according to Pettis.

A spokesperson for the MTA, Shams Tarek, told Gothamist that the issues were caused by an electrified track component making contact with a circuit, which led to a false signal at Myrtle Avenue. Tarek also emphasized that the M continues to be the better option than the L at night. It's the only direct link between Manhattan and Brooklyn to see expanded subway service during the L project, and is now running more frequently on weekends—every 8 minutes, instead of every 10—and later into the night on weekdays.

To prepare for this influx of riders—and because so much of the M train is literally crumbling—the MTA began fully reconstructing the "century-old concrete viaduct" at Myrtle Avenue in 2017, while shoring up the track bed and steel girders. That work resulted in a ten-month service outage between Middle Village and Myrtle-Broadway.

As any regular rider can confirm, it's hardly been smooth sailing since then. Within hours of the project's completion last April, J/M serivce had to be suspended once again because of switch problems at Myrtle Avenue.

On Tuesday morning, my own M train was too packed to board by the time it reached Marcy Avenue, and repeatedly held in stations as a result of what the conductor called a "dreaded earlier problem.” (To those new here: welcome, and please take off your backpacks).

For now, Pettis says he's hoping Monday night's breakdown was merely a fluke, in part because he has little other choice but to "give the M another shot" on days he leaves work after 8 p.m. At the same time, the Bushwick resident notes: "My lease is up in a few months so I’m seriously considering trying to find a place [away from] the L so I won’t have to worry about it."

UPDATE: Following publication of this article, a spokesperson for the MTA provided Gothamist with this statement:

"We had a signal problem at a critical juncture between the M and J at 8 p.m. - an emergency team fixed the problem within about an hour, but the impact was unfortunately amplified by the timing and location and we apologize to our customers for the inconvenience they went through. In addition to doing much rehabilitation work in the last two years to make the line more reliable, we’ve extended and added service on the M to accommodate L riders on nights and weekends, with M trains scheduled to run every eight minutes. The M and other lines provide the capacity needed to accommodate customers who normally take the L and we encourage customers to take those more frequent lines while we rehabilitate the L tunnel. We are also debriefing about the project every single day and constantly working to improve our communications with customers so they can make helpful decisions about their trips in real-time."

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