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Monday, January 24, 2005


From the NY Times:
A subway fire that gutted an underground communications room has crippled two of New York City's busiest subway lines, the A and the C, and full service may not be restored for three to five years, officials announced today.

The Sunday afternoon fire at the Chambers Street station was apparently set by a homeless person and is being investigated as an act of arson, according to Lawrence G. Reuter, president of New York City Transit.

The A train has been running at two-thirds of its normal frequency, meaning that riders face a wait of 8 to 12 minutes. Service on the C line, which normally runs from 168th Street in Washington Heights, Manhattan, to Euclid Avenue in East New York, Brooklyn, has been suspended indefinitely.
Much of the equipment dated to the construction of the Independent City-Owned Rapid Transit Railroad, nearly all of which was built between 1924 and 1937.
Three to five years? To rebuild one control room which was a small part of a major subway line built in 13 years 80 years ago? The article doesn't explain why it should take this long--it strikes me as a "black box" problem. There should be some point in each direction that the fire didn't reach. At these points there would be mechanical or electrical connections (cables, wires) which transferred the information in and out of the communications room. Chances are that your typical Palm Pilot has more than enough computing power to handle the computing chores of that communication room--a ordinary PC could certainly do the job. Converting the mechanical and electrical signals into data for the computer (and back) would take some work, but it should easily be within the capabilities of hundreds of engineering firms. Something is very wrong if it's going to take three to five years to fix this problem.

I see from the MTA subway map that the C line is basically just a local version of the A line. It has a shorter run on the same tracks in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, but stops at more stations. At rush hour, it appears that the A train normally runs every 5 minutes and the C train every 10. So, for most trips, three trains come by every ten minutes. That is now down to one, and apparently will be for some time. I would think that restoring full service would be a top priority--why would it take three to five years? (If anyone has any answers, let me know.)

The story also gives some insight into how far "homeland security" has progressed in America's prime target city since 9/11:
Near the charred ruins of the signal equipment, investigators found 2-by-4-foot wooden blocks in a shopping cart, according to Assistant Chief Henry R. Cronin III, the commanding officer of the transit bureau of the New York Police Department. The investigators surmised that a homeless person had ignited the blocks to try to keep warm.

"I don't think it was an intentional act of arson," Chief Cronin said.

Mr. Reuter acknowledged that the fire highlighted the delicate nature of the subway system. Its carefully calibrated signals and lines rely on decades-old mechanical equipment. "We've said all along the system is extremely vulnerable, all the time," he said.

A transportation authority board member, Andrew B. Albert, asked Mr. Reuter at the public meeting whether fireproofing of signal equipment was possible.

"I don't think there's an easy solution to stop these types of fires," Mr. Reuter responded. He said that the relay room had been locked and that the shopping cart was found in an area that is clearly off-limits to the public.