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An Englishman In New York: New York Transit Triple Talk

"The New York subway has PA systems that are a joke with too much empty space in the subway stations, high ceilings, and lousy delivery systems, and incomprehensible conductor announcements,'' say columnist David Thomasesson.

Taking the subway twice recently produced two coincidences. At a time unusual for me and therefore seemingly random, I spied a friend getting on the subway car. Sneaking in behind him, I waited for the subway doors to close and said, quickly “you’re late”. My friend turned around and said, quite indignantly at the apparent rudeness of a complete stranger “excuse me?” then realized who it was. Simple pleasures I know, but it amused me.

The same day, returning the other way, having switched carriages because of a heating problem, I spied another friend and sidled up to him and made some obnoxious comment to get a response. He was on an errand on the Number 6 train that he doesn’t usually frequent. So, in the big metrolops of New York, I managed the seemingly unlikely feat of bumping into two friends (one of whom doesn’t even live in the same borough) in completely random circumstances, in one day. It’s a small world n’est-ce pas?

The New York subway has PA systems that are a joke with too much empty space in the subway stations, high ceilings, and lousy delivery systems, and incomprehensible conductor announcements. One of my favorites;”We are being momentarily held by the train’s dispatcher because of train traffic ahead”. Well I hope so. Not much point in running subway system without other trains in the system. Once I rode out to Coney Island, just to see what it was like. Not too impressive if you ask me, but perhaps it’s been cleaned up a bit now. Anyway riding the rails, listening to the announcements, they certainly changed depending how close to the city they were and, I like to think, how full the cars were. As subway cars disgorged its passengers en route to Coney Island, and being late morning, the announcements sounded more and more casual.

Starting with a nicely modulated “Stand clear of the closing doors please” from a real human being (unlike the prerecorded electronic voice system used on the more modern lines such as the No. 6). Little by little the clarity of announcement was diluted, perhaps a lazy conductor, and by the time we reached Coney Island we had definitely reached a low point. One announcement contained these three words - “Clear a daws”. I now recall that on the Queens side of the East River as the subway pulls out onto the overland tracks we passed a facility titled, and I can hardly believe it, the MTA Announcement Training Center. My Coney Island conductor must have aced the course with honors.

Now the MTA is testing electronic notice boards advising of next train arrivals. During rush hours there are more trains; say every 3 to 4 minute, but there’s a longer wait during the day and late evening. But if you use the system all the time you probably know that so who cares. It’s incredible that it has taken so long to introduce such a system. The London Underground system implemented this many, many years ago. After all, the relevant channels are in place, just string a few wires, not rocket science surely. The system is now in its testing phase. At the 23rd Street station on the #6 line recently, the electronic indicator board stated that the next uptown train would be two minutes in arriving. Looking down the tracks, I saw that almost as the next train reached the platform, the board changed to Zero minutes. Wow, that was fast. Not trying to be too critical here, but there’s a big difference between 2 minutes and “here’s the train”. Work to be done methinks.

Also, upon entering my usual Upper East Side station and just before swiping my Metro Card, I overheard a son praising to his parents, presumably in for the Holidays, that the new digital train arrival indicator boards were the latest thing and were accurate in advising passengers how many minutes before the arrival of the next downtown train. Hah I thought, don’t count on it. Apparently the said boards indicated four minutes to go. So, time to grab a coffee, pick your nails, and send a few texts. Well, possibly, it only takes 30-45 seconds to reach the platform, and other 15 to walk to one's usual spot, and bingo there was the train arriving. So that makes it 3 minutes early. Well, surely that can’t be right. And stop calling me Shirley.

So there’s a ways to go before the accuracy is believable. Indeed, at some stations there is as much time as seven to ten minutes before the next arrival, in increments of one minute depending on the schedule. But on the 6 Line, the least time to arrival is 2 minutes, what’s the train doing in those two minutes, planning a heist? So, if it says two minutes get your ass in gear ‘cos it’s coming round the mountain as she comes.

In those two minutes a 50 ton subway 10-car set can travel about one mile at 30mph (presumed average speed), which is about 20 blocks. But, the distance between stops is generally no more than 9 blocks. Interesting, isn’t it? So that makes the 2 minute advisory damned inaccurate in my book.

Besides, the old ways are the best, and cheaper. It’s simple really; if the platform is full the train is due.

**

Do visit David's Web site http://www.britoninnewyork.com/

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