Stuck Inside of Dekalb With the Newkirk Blues Again


February 2013.   
"Ladies and gentleman we have red signals in front of us. As soon as those signals clear, we will proceed."  The train was packed.  I was scrunched up against the door.  This announcement left a lot to be desired. Somebody needed to take it to the next level. That would be something on the order of:

"The red signals ahead are caused by yet another tree on the tracks, one in a series of 100 trees that have fallen on the Brighton tracks since 2000.”

“We are not moving because Godzilla is on the tracks! He's heading this way!!”

“Ladies and gentlemen, one word:  Zombies again…I meant two words.”

As I type this on my smart phone, I have been stuck on a Q train beneath Prospect Park for some time. I had been debating whether to write something about the subways but I try to be positive in these pieces. Generosity of spirit is uplifting. Ranting and raving is not. But there comes a time. Like Frank Sinatra sang: "The record shows, I took the blows, I took the subway."

Things had been going so well for a while there after Hurricane Sandy. Each day, a new line was back in service it seemed and there was a cool new graphic of the subway system map with feint ghostly lines representing where stuff wasn't working...lots of ghostly lines in Brooklyn.

I guess some negative thoughts started creeping back in the day the R train service into Manhattan was restored. That would have been a glorious day for me since I had been walking five blocks out of my way since Sandy. If only I had known about it. Foolishly I thought some announcement would be made. I learned a week later when a fellow Argyle Heightsian told me she heard it on the radio.
As I stood waiting for the R on the Dekalb Avenue platform for the first time in a month, it also started to bother me that no one had fixed the sign on the north end of the platform that lit up when a train was a minute away.  All it needed was a light bulb. The other signs further down the station (but out of sight) were all working. Broken for six months. I'm sure 311 has misrouted tons of complaints about that by now.

It’s simple really. Better communication makes for happier customers...
For instance, it was about 9:30PM in late January and I was waiting for 15 minutes at the City Hall station. Then a very clear female voice announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, due to debris on the tracks at Prince Street, there is no R train service. As an alternative, take the next uptown R train and change at Canal Street to the downtown N or Q.”  

Overlooking the fact that the northbound train had just closed its doors as this announcement came on, I had to admit I was pleased – there was a reason for the delay, I knew what it was and now I could act. Of course, I could have used more information about what exactly that debris was at Prince Street. Could the scourge of falling trees now have spread underground to Soho? Was Godzilla battling Rodan again?  Anyway, I figured I'd walk over to the IRT a block away and then change at Atlantic.

But as I am walking out of the station with other like-minded citizens, we hear the same soothing female voice announce: "After an earlier incident, R train service is restored. The next R train is at Prince St, two stations away."

Since our metro cards won’t work unless we wait two hours, we naturally go over and under the turnstiles to re-enter as the booth guy yells something unintelligible. Behind him is a white board that reads in a magic marker scrawl: "All trains OK".

Minutes pass again. "Due to an earlier incident, R train service to Brooklyn is suspended due to debris on the tracks at Prince Street." Huh?

As I walk toward the turnstiles again, another announcement: "The next Brooklyn bound train is at Canal Street, one station away". What?

Another 5 minutes pass and then we're told no service again! At this point a bunch of us were discussing storming the token booth and taking the guy hostage in exchange for correct information and then suddenly, we see a train approaching - it's an R train!

"Step away from the platform - this R train is not in service".

So I left - that voice could have announced the next train would fly non-stop to Argyle Heights, but there was no way I was staying.

As I rode the escalator down to the Park Place IRT station, another train was just leaving.  Oh well. But I couldn't help wonder what all those contradictory announcements were about.  Was somebody playing with us?  Or was it a practice session for new announcers?

The entire incident and so many like them boil down to one thing: lousy communication. If there is a customer service ethos in the MTA, it sorely needs to be super-sized. In particular:

1) If another line intersecting with the train you're on is experiencing gigantic problems, let riders know before they transfer. Never is a cross-train line perspective evident in any announcements. Also stop closing the door in my face when I transfer to the R at Dekalb.

2) Alerts to my smart phone are fine – but they don’t work underground and they never seem to arrive in time when I’m above ground.
I close with this incident: it’s February, a weekday rush hour and I’m waiting for the F train at Jay Street to go home. Five A and C trains had pulled in, discharging what must have been a thousand souls to keep me company. 15 minutes have passed, no announcement. Then a D train pulls in. It is nearly empty but clearly in service. Great!  Just what we need!  Way to go, MTA!

Everyone steps in – even usually surly folks are so happy, they don’t plant themselves by the doors blocking everyone behind them, no sir, this train is bound for Park Slope and Parkville, we’re goin’ home and…"Re-routed D train!  This is a D train!  There's another F train right behind this one!!"

"Yeah, and it's in Queens” I mumbled as I shuffled off with everyone else.  Then I realized there was no other track for this train to be shunted to - it had to travel the F route, so I hurried back on with some other subway cognoscenti. The doors closed, leaving maybe 500 confused straphangers behind. Of course, that D train made every stop on the F line. And was I happy, sitting there in comfort in a half-empty car?  Yes, you bet I was.  I mean no, I kept thinking about my fellow citizens, suffering back at Jay Street, of course.

So here I am, somewhere underground between the 7th Avenue and Prospect Park stations, “waiting for red signals to clear”.  Come on!  Even on airlines, with everyone seated comfortably, would the captain consider saying: “We’ve been delayed waiting to take off because there seems to be a plane immediately in front of me.”  And then repeat the same message every few minutes? Customers expect more information than that, so why…Wait, we’re moving!  And we’re going express to Newkirk!  Forget everything I just wrote. Life is good.

Note: On Thursday,  March 21, 2013, a new light bulb was installed on the north end of the uptown Dekalb Avenue station...Life continues to be good.

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