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The Vicious Cycle That Prevents Perfectly Good Subway Trains From Running

The subway system has devolved into a mobile Vestibule of Hell, with overcrowding, aging infrastructure, Superstorm Sandy damage and, of course, Albany underfunding, all playing their part to delay trains. But a new report in the Times shows how those delays lead to the cancellation of dozens of trains daily, which in turn leads to more overcrowding, which then creates more delays.

According to the paper's analysis, this vicious cycle is thanks to the MTA's outdated train schedules, which harken back to 2012, before the system began melting down on a near-daily basis. Because the agency wants to reduce wait times for passengers on the platform, trains try to run at consistent intervals even when there are delays on the line.

This practice ends up nixing scheduled trains, reducing overall capacity. "It’s a self-feeding problem,” Ellyn Shannon, associate director of the riders' group Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, told the paper. "Crowds get bigger and slow the trains down more, and you lose capacity. But if you have fewer trains, the crowding will build and the trains slow down more."

For instance, 90 trains are supposed to roll through the Grand Central stop on the famously packed Lexington Avenue line from 8 to 9 a.m., but in June and July, an average of only 77 trains ended up running in that timeframe. During the evening rush, from 5 to 6 p.m., 88 trains are scheduled to pass through the station, but the Times found that an average of only 76 trains made it. Each of those canceled trains could carry 1,000 passengers, which means even more bodies have to pile into the trains that are left—and those bodies are all pretty bad at not blocking the doors.

"At times, it takes an hour and a half to get somewhere, when you should get there in 30 to 45 minutes,” one commuter who regularly rides the 6 train told the Times. "It’s because the train keeps stopping because of the train congestion. If there were more trains, and it was running more smoothly, then I think that problem would be solved."

Currently, only about 65 percent of trains in the subway system run on time, down from over 90 percent at the start of the decade. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota told the paper the agency would work on changing the schedules, but his focus was still on maintaining train wait times, and not on keeping more trains on rotation. And though a Communications-based Train Control (CBTC) system would aid trains in running more smoothly without compromising their numbers, that doesn't seem to be happening systemwide anytime soon.

Of course, all that could change if rich people saw their money go to funding a functioning subway system instead of penthouse tax shelters, but we don't live in that world. We live in this one.

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