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NY City's Subway System Makes a Comeback - 2004-07-31

With over 6,000 trains traveling nearly 1,000 kilometers of track, the New York City subway system is one of the largest and proudest metropolitan transit systems in the world. Yet during the 1970s and early 1980s, graffiti, crime and a nearly broken infrastructure caused many New Yorkers to give up on their underground marvel.

In 2004, during its 100th year, almost all agree the subway system has dramatically improved. Ridership is nearly double what it was two decades ago, and it's growing every day. VOAs Adam Phillips examines the roots of the turnaround.

Like many if not most city residents, New York Times reporter Randy Kennedy rides the subway every day. It's a routine he is far more comfortable with now than he was 1991, when he came here from his tiny Texas hometown and took his first ride.

"It was really sort of a symbol of urban blight and chaos," he recalls. "And in the 12 or 13 years I've been here, you've just watched it become one of the safest places. I think statistically it's safer than being on the street up above. You can argue [that] it's overcrowded in spots and it's unreliable in places, and sometimes [it's] smelly and dirty. But overall, if you compared it to 1982 or 1977, it is a different world down there."

"Down there" was a scary place, and not just because of the garbage or the rats. The trains themselves were old and dangerously neglected, the result of decades of under-funding.

"In the early 70s, the system was one of the worst systems in the world," explained Carlo Perciballi, the subway system's operations chief. He began his career as a rank-and-file subway car maintenance worker during the "bad old days."

"We had a tremendous amount of old cars," he recalled. "You couldn't hardly see out of the windows; the lights were not working; the door systems, sometimes there were a lot of the doors cut out and a lot of people could not enter or get out of the cars. There were fires. We had a derailment approximately every 15 days. People were afraid because we were always in the news because of derailments. You never got on time to your job because of breakdowns of the rolling stock plus areas of the system."

But it was the graffiti that covered almost every centimeter of the subway cars, inside and out, that provided the most visible symbol of the subway's decline. It was more than an esthetic issue. The black marks on the windows, for example, were so thick the glass was opaque, and that emboldened criminals and fueled the fear of crime. "The graffiti was the worst disaster that ever hit," explained Stanley Fischler, author of a book about the subway system called Moving Millions. "It made every train look like a garbage dump. It turned off a lot of people who just wouldn't ride the system. They lost a lot of the middle class because of that. And I yearned for the day, and I doubted that the day would come, that it would be cleaned up. Because I felt that the Transit Authority had surrendered to these vandals!"

Help arrived in the form of David Gunn, who became Transit Authority commissioner in 1984. Mr. Gunn's strategy was to have each car inspected at the end of each run. If any graffiti was found, the car was taken out of service, cleaned and repainted. This eliminated the pleasure the so-called 'taggers' took in having their handiwork on citywide display.

Operations Chief Carlo Perciballi says this practice, plus hyper-vigilance in the train yards, made the system virtually graffiti-free by 1989. "When I first started, ridership was approximately three million people. And since we cleaned up the system, it's gone up to 4.7, almost five million people a day who came back the to the system. Because the system is clean," he said. "And no one in the world thought this would be possible. But with the police department, transit workers and everybody together, we accomplished a mission that was almost unachievable."

As rider-ship increased, so did revenue, and the subway fleet began to modernize. Today, almost all of the older Red Bird subway cars have been replaced with shiny modern stainless steel cars, which are better lit, run more quietly, and have air conditioning units that work, a necessity for comfort in the crowded quarters of the subway cars. Mr. Perciballi is also proud of a massive project to computerize the track signaling system.

"It knows how fast you're going, and it knows where the next train is and it knows exactly how fast the other train is going and tells the other train behind it how fast it can go so you can never have a collision," he added.

Subway operators will be able to override the computers when necessary. Automation is also coming to the train's public address system:

Announcer: "Next stop Time Square. Change here for the Q, W?"

Introducing recorded station announcements is a development that irks lifelong subway buff Stanley Fischler.

"First of all, I can't stand this character from Omaha that does the announcement," he says. "He's very un-New York and I'm tired of hearing his voice. Normally you could hear a conductor, [and] one guy is different from the other. Some guys did standup comedy. Some guys gave you very polite suggestions. It was great stuff!"

Not to worry. The character and grit associated with New York City subways are not disappearing. Not as long as there are New Yorkers to ride them!