The L train slowdown stumbled out of the gate on Friday night, kicking off drastic reductions in nights and weekend service with a performance that left many riders confused, frustrated and convinced the next 15-18 months will be more painful than previously thought.
The problems started at 9:30 p.m., just half an hour before L service was set to ramp down to planned 20 minute headways, with trains running just three times every hour. But as the gap between trains began to grow, the countdown clocks across the L train corridor sprung forward, showing 41 minutes waits until the next 8th-Avenue bound train arrived.
“Day one, and we’re already behind schedule. Real ominous,” remarked Williamsburg resident David Dimicelli as he gaped at the Bedford Avenue display screen. “I was expecting it to be pretty horrible, but…” The 33-year-old supply chain manager trailed off, then turned to his partner and reminded her it wasn’t too late to move out of the neighborhood for good.
An L train did eventually come about 30 minutes later, but the MTA was soon forced to take their countdown clocks offline, leaving riders in the dark about the train’s schedule until close to midnight. And even as the subway’s official Twitter account assured customers they could find real time service information on the MTA’s app, that too was on the fritz. As of noon on Saturday, the app still wasn’t showing 8th Avenue-bound L train service.
For many of the city’s regular L riders—a group that numbers 400,000 on a normal day—the reality underground was a far cry from the governor’s description of “service that would still work.” In Union Square, crowds were penned in along barricades on the mezzanine level, in some cases waiting to board an open train that wouldn’t arrive for close to an hour. Transit workers, stationed across the system in large numbers, practically begged customers to make use of the increased service on the M, G, and 7 lines, or the free transfers on the M14A/D and Williamsburg Link buses.
Those who did stay encountered extended waits not only inside stations, but on unmoving trains as well. The dwell times seemed especially bad at Union Square, where the MTA’s interlocking system means that Brooklyn-bound service must wait for a passing train to arrive before switching over to the shared track, in order to avoid the construction area between 3rd Avenue and Bedford.
“It’s worse than I thought,” said Alfredo Fernando, a dish-washer at a restaurant near Union Square. He typically leaves work at 11 p.m. to commute home to the Graham Avenue stop, he said, and hadn’t seriously considered using other alternatives until now. “This will be a total disaster for me.”
Been 27 minutes since last train left. Group station manager (Shan) going car to car telling people it’ll be another 5-10 minutes. Upstairs, a line of people waiting for next train pic.twitter.com/iSnikL4wuo
— Jake Offenhartz (@jangelooff) April 27, 2019
The L train’s ubiquitous showtime dancers were bummed out by the service reductions too. “This is really messing up the flow for us,” said Danny “DocSmooth” Cruz, a Bronx resident. Realizing that he’d probably have to start performing on a new line, he lamented taking the L for granted for so long. “This is the train right here. This is where it’s really at.’
Several riders did note that they were impressed by the MTA’s efforts at human communication. In addition to the hefty police presence, hundreds of transit workers—their orange vests affixed with bright pink “Ask me about the L project” buttons—were spread out across stations passing out literature and doing their best to answer questions. Among them was NYC Transit President Andy Byford, who spent much of his night pacing the platform asking New Yorkers where they were going and if they knew about the alternative service options.
A handful of workers also reiterated their own concerns about the safety of the revised L train project, which some fear could expose employees and riders to carcinogenic silica dust. “It’s going to get dusty down here,” predicted one MTA employee from behind a face mask. Asked if he was concerned about the air quality during the slowdown, he replied: “I wouldn’t be wearing a mask if I wasn’t.”
For their part, the MTA has called the fears about dust kicked up by construction on the damaged bench wall “outrageous and false.” The agency has also promised to make the results of their air quality monitoring available to the public, though it’s not clear when or where that information will be posted.
New Yorkers working together. With no countdown clock, they’re asking each other how long they’ve been waiting for the L train to figure out when the last one came. MTA worker suggesting they bail for the free shuttle bus. @NY1 pic.twitter.com/9BfKkAa28m
— Van Tieu (@Van_Tieu) April 27, 2019
Still, some riders said that the reduced service was an improvement from the previous plan, which would’ve shuttered the tunnel entirely for 15 months. Kristi Maroutas, a 30-year-old sales executive who moved to Williamsburg last month from Southold, Long Island, said she didn’t understand why people were freaking out: “If you’re really in a huge hurry just take an Uber. We’re just happy it’s open at all.”
One of the looming fears about the slowdown, according to transit advocates, is that L train riders will defect to ride-share companies en masse, creating congestion that snarls bus service and forces even more people give up on public transit. At least half a dozen riders told Gothamist on Friday night that they’d likely start taking car services between Manhattan and Brooklyn far more frequently.
As crowds around Union Square began to drop off around midnight, Byford told Gothamist he was proud of how the MTA had handled the first night of the slowdown, even if there were a few “learning points” along the way.
“The whole point is to continuously improve,” he added. “While Friday is intense for a short period of time, [on Saturday] we’ll be busy all day. I think tomorrow will be the bigger test.”