It’s Not Your Imagination: The MTA Runs Less Subway Service Than It Did 10 Years Ago

Headways ain't what they used to be.
Headways ain't what they used to be.

Subway service today is atrocious, that much is clear. During rush hours, crowding and delays have reached crisis proportions, and off-peak, the wait for a train can seem interminable.

There are a number of culprits, including the failure to adequately maintain and upgrade track and signals, and the profusion of unnecessary timers slowing down trains. But one simple factor doesn’t get mentioned enough: During off-peak hours, the MTA doesn’t run as many trains as it used to.

The service reductions mainly stem from the financial crisis of 2008, when MTA revenues nosedived. While Albany enacted an MTA funding package in 2009 to prevent a total collapse of service, the agency balanced its budget with a round of deep service cuts in 2010.

For subways, the cuts mainly affected off-peak service. It’s a logical way to allocate resources when budgets are tight, but those times are also when subway ridership has recently seen significant growth. Off-peak service still hasn’t been restored to its former levels, so more people are riding the subway at times when the MTA is running less service than it provided 10 years ago.

These service cuts are especially painful for people who work outside conventional office hours, including New Yorkers doing shifts on nights and weekends. Let’s look at a few examples to see how these systemwide service cuts have contributed to the diminished utility of the system.

Back in 2008, the midday A train came as frequently as every six minutes during on weekdays. Similarly, on Saturdays, going northbound, service every eight minutes began at 6:30 a.m. and lasted until about 5:30 p.m. That’s 11 hours of frequent, useful A service. On Sundays, too, the MTA delivered, with trains running every eight minutes in the late afternoons, getting people home promptly before the week began again.

Today, during weekday midday hours, the A runs a measly seven or so trains per hour — once every nine minutes. On Saturdays, the window of eight-minute headways lasts about nine hours, not 11. And on Sundays, service every 10 minutes is as good as it gets. Keep in mind that the A splits in two at Rockaway Boulevard, so what may be barely-adequate on the main line equates to 20-minute headways on the branches to Lefferts Boulevard and the Rockaways.

On the R, weekend trains ran every eight minutes for 10 hours on Saturday, and six of Sunday in 2008. But today, the line runs no more than every 10 minutes on the weekends.

Most disturbing is the J. The 2008 version of J train service often arrived every eight minutes during off-peak hours. Today, the only time the J arrives more frequently than once every 10 minutes is during the weekday rush.

This is just a sample of the service reductions. While the MTA has restored some of the service cut in 2010, especially rush-hour service, off-peak service on most if not all subway lines remains below the level of 10 years ago. It has become the new normal.

More recently, other service reductions have been forced by weekend work. The MTA’s flagging rules (which govern train operation while workers are on the tracks) mandate that all operators begin slowing to 10 mph as much as a quarter mile before a work zone. This reduces track capacity significantly, and if the MTA predicts that a line will be facing these changes more regularly — for example, on Queens Boulevard, where work upgrading the signal system is underway — the agency may preemptively cut service.

These cuts could be mitigated if the MTA was open to adjusting service patterns during longer-term projects. But instead of embracing flexibility, the agency is content with a status quo in which construction work detracts from service quality more than it has to.

In most cases, bringing scheduled service back to the levels of 2008 doesn’t even raise questions of how to juggle maintenance needs and subway frequency. It’s just a matter of allocating resources.

Yet when restoring cut services is brought up, the MTA often cites a lack of demand to justify doing nothing. This ignores perhaps the most basic truth of transit — that people do not flock to infrequent services. It also ignores history: Until recently, the MTA did run off-peak trains more frequently. If that was good for New York in 2008, why isn’t it good for New York in 2018, when more people ride off-peak?

Some of the problems plaguing New York’s transit system are entrenched and complex and will take some time to fix. Restoring off-peak service to 2008 levels isn’t one of those problems. Reversing these service cuts wherever possible would do wonders for system utility and perception. This is New York, where every minute counts.

  • Restoring service to pre-2010 levels is the LEAST the MTA could do. Many lines need more than that!

  • Larry Littlefield

    And rush hour service is down from more than 60 years ago.

    It’s really a giant screw you from the political/union class to the serfs. The amount we’re paying in — taxes, tolls, fares — has soared, but the amount provided in return has been slashed. And it’s really just a joke in Albany.

    And then the will infuriatingly weep bitter tears and stand in solidarity when a bunch of people get killed.

    Most of the costs are fixed — tracks, stations, pensions, debts. It really doesn’t even save that much money to cut off peak service. For all we know the TWU members are still being paid to sit around anyway.

    It’s a decade later. This isn’t a recession — just wait for the next one of those. It’s the “new normal.” Let’s see how much we can make those “people” pay for how little. And not just at the MTA.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    The number of weekend MTA-workers/contractors standing around doing absolutely nothing on the D/N/R platform at Atlantic this past weekend was staggering.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here is the consequences. The “Mayor” of our block passed away, and the wake was held in Carroll Gardens in a funeral home one block from the Carroll Street stop. We are 1 1/2 blocks from the Prospect Park — 15th Street stop. For me, hopping the subway would have just been an automatic. Even in the 1980s.

    Not for the rest of my family. They grabbed a Lyft, both ways — they’ve got smart phones and apps and stuff. With four of us, that might have been cheaper than the subway. Except that two of them have unlimited ride Metrocards.

    It wasn’t even a discussion — should we take the subway or a car? When I thought I might be going separately, I even considered biking it in a suit.

    “For subways, the cuts mainly affected off-peak service. It’s a logical way to allocate resources when budgets are tight.”

    As in the 1970s and 1980s, in the end that’s all they’ll have left. And only those working in Manhattan.

  • JarekFA

    They had them all running local too and I got on a D after just missing an N (like literally, 90 seconds after) and it freaking crawled the whole way to Atlantic. Like, if they’re gonna run them all local, at least spread them out a little.

  • JarekFA

    Cutting the Airtrain is just unconscionable. It’s freaking automated! And yah, those terrible A train headways are precisely why I’ve never taken the train to JFK.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It blew my mind when I heard that. I took it once. I waited FOREVER. Twice.

    And you’ll notice how all this stuff takes place in the shadows. Where was the debate when scheduled maintenance was cut on the subways, or the schedule, or Airtrain service was cut?

    And yet, when DeBlasio or Cuomo or the legislature as some little initiative to spend 3 cents per NYC household you get press releases, billboards, brass bands, etc.

    How do they enforce silence? Do they make offers you can’t refuse?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Think about it. 500,000 more people working in wage & salary jobs in NYC than just five years ago. Paying up at the nation’s highest tax rate as a percent of personal income.

    And less transit service.

  • Rex Rocket

    They love the Uber!

  • Jason

    If they have a bunch of people working on the tracks then they probably bunch them because the workers have to stop what they’re doing every time a train goes by.

  • Henry

    “On the R, weekend trains ran every eight minutes for 10 hours on Saturday, and six of Sunday in 2008. But today, the line runs no more than every 10 minutes on the weekends.”

    Um, the R runs every ten minutes on weekdays during rush hour! And with delays, not even that….

  • JarekFA

    I can confirm. My iPhone is full of pics that my wife has angrily sent me showing headways Atlantic or from our local stop.

  • Just like the B and D in The Bronx. Though I no longer need to jump on those these days, as a long-time rider, I feel your pain!

  • Knut Torkelson

    As someone in my late 20’s, I often have to fight tooth and nail with friends and acquaintances to take the subway (or god forbid, bus) instead of a car. To their credit, on the weekends its almost always faster and cheaper (for a group) to get a car. It’s a natural response to the abysmal weekend service levels- to say nothing of the weekday commute.

  • Doc

    I stopped going into the city on weekends and doing things because the service is so bad; probably others do the same; so they lose money on ridership; they don’t get it, do they; when people like something they use it more and when they don’t they use it less; why should some people get a free bus trip to LaGuardia airport just because it is Thanksgiving and to decrease road traffic; why don’t they give people free rides when their usual subway train that they are on has to be diverted to another line and they have to get off and use another way to get to their destination. I have been riding the subway since I was a kid; snowstorms, no problem; added more trains with plows so snow didn’t build up, not shut down the system like they have done and strand people in the city and make them pay for a taxi to go home; incompetence and corruption at the MTA;


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