It was unusually sunny the morning of Dec. 1, 2013, as a Metro-North commuter train rolled south through Riverdale.
Peter Stillman, who The Riverdale Press later described as a “white-haired Manhattan resident,” was on the train, wearing a mask over his eyes to help him sleep in the fresh dawn light.
“I was awakened by a jolt, and a crushing and grinding sound,” Stillman said. “Then my head was smashed up against the back of my chair. And then we stopped. I remember being afraid that we were going to hit something harder.”
Stillman was lucky — he wasn’t injured. But more than 60 others were hurt, and four were killed, when the Metro-North train derailed at 7:19 that morning near the Spuyten Duyvil station.
The train was making its usual curve just north of where the Harlem River branches from the Hudson. But instead of taking the curve at 30 mph, investigators later determined the train was racing through at 82 mph.
It wasn’t speed that derailed the A train last week, just a few miles away in Harlem, but instead a loose unused track, according to the initial investigation. While MTA didn’t have to deal with fatalities this time, the accident put the entire New York City transit system under a massive microscope.
And even a recent emergency declaration by Gov. Andrew Cuomo might be too little too late, especially when it comes to deeply aging portions of the system like the Bronx end of the 1 train through Kingsbridge.
Could a train derailment happen on the 1? “No line is exempt,” said Paul Navarro. He’s a subway safety director and track division chair for Transit Workers Union Local 100, and a 24-year MTA veteran.
The tracks, Navarro said, are in a state of disrepair much like the rest of the system, and even worse, it’s “prehistoric.” Tracks are even more vulnerable during rush hours between 5 and 10 a.m., on weekdays, since no work can be done. That means no rail replacement, no tie fixing, not even inspections — unless it’s an emergency.
“A game of Russian roulette is played by the MTA during those hours,” Navarro said. “Increased ridership means the MTA doesn’t want anything to stop the trains from rolling, crews working, (or) work trains holding up service.”
The MTA, Navarro added, puts its workers under “extreme pressure to keep a system running.”
The northern end of the 1 train ends at West 242nd Street near Van Cortlandt Park on an elevated platform that opened in 1908, but handles nearly 2.3 million passengers each year, according to the MTA.
The century-old elevated spans carry hundreds of trains through the north Bronx, transporting passengers in cars that are at least 30 years old. While the tracks themselves likely aren’t that old, the signaling system used to manage the trains on the track are practically ancient.
“We know the system is decaying, and we know that the system is decaying rapidly,” Cuomo told an MTA conference near Midtown last week. “Our signal system must be replaced. Much of it was installed prior to 1937, and it hasn’t been upgraded.”
Getting those upgrades could take between seven and 10 years, the governor said — per line. MTA says it could take as much as a half-century to replace all of it.
“You have countries that are building entire subway systems in a matter of years, and so in cannot take 40 years to put in a signal system,” Cuomo said.
The governor signed a executive order shortly after the A train derailment that would not only free up $1 billion already earmarked to MTA, but also remove a lot of the barriers to upgrading the system — red tape that literally adds years to the overall process.
But in a system that already spends upward of $15 billion a year, that $1 billion is just a drop in the bucket, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz said.
“What I am suggesting is a Marshall Plan for our subways,” said Dinowitz, who also chairs the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which oversees the MTA.
“What the governor announced, I’m pleased about. But frankly, it’s only a small first step. If we really want to turn the subways around, we have to deal with years of neglect. Not only to ensure we have enough operating money, but by making the capital investment in trains and equipment and everything.”
It also means the MTA will need a lot more money even beyond the $1 billion the governor promised, Dinowitz said. Getting it might mean taking a look into the past — a past that includes a commuter tax.
“This has been talked about for years, ever since the commuter tax was abolished,” Dinowitz said. “When we want to do something to help commuters, it’s more than appropriate that that tax be there.”
Commuters who worked in the city but lived outside it were hit with the tax, which cost about $17.30 per paycheck for someone earning $100,000 a year. The legislature ended the law in 1999 under Gov. George Pataki, and the chances of it returning are remote, since legislators outside of New York City likely will not support an additional tax on their constituents.
Simply throwing money at the problem isn’t enough. Doug Kellogg, a spokesman for the transportation advocacy group Reclaim New York, believes the MTA needs to be completely overhauled, from top to bottom.
“These are some interesting times,” he said.
“The money isn’t the problem, it’s the management. There needs to be an attitude and culture change internally.
“I think it’s really unfair to call on taxpayers to spend more and send it into the MTA black hole, and not try and focus on what we really need to fix the system.”
Cuomo insists new MTA chair Joe Lhota do exactly that, ordering him to submit a reorganization plan for the transit organization within 30 days.
“Start with a blank piece of paper,” the governor said. “There are no givens, no sacred cows. Design an organization that performs the functions, rather than the organization that exists today that is just a longstanding bureaucracy that has evolved over time.”
But the clock is ticking. The A train derailment was the third one this year, and it’s just July. It’s only a matter of time before a major accident ends up killing people, like what happened four years ago near the Spuyten Duyvil station.
“It’s not a short-term effort,” Dinowitz said. “But with the crashes, the derailments, and not to mention, the terrible delays, we have to do something about it. And we have to start doing it now.”