MTA chief pledges change after track fire brings over a million riders’ commute to a crawl; riders are skeptical

HARLEM, Manhattan — A track fire in Harlem during the morning rush affected over 1 million commuters across eight different subway lines — a full one-third of the entire subway system.

The number of track fires, which are largely caused by trash on the tracks, is way down in recent years, according to MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. While the problem is still real, it is being handled by the MTA.

But for the many riders from the Bronx down to midtown Manhattan affected on Monday, the assistance can't come soon enough.

"They were horrible," said Lyneshia White, about the trains Monday morning.  Her ride on the No. 1 train was severely delayed, due to changes to ridership because of a track fire between the 135th and 145th Street stations.

It broke out just after 7:30 A.M.  Before the fire was extinguished and the scene declared safe a half hour later, a second train got stuck in a tunnel north of the fire scene, near 155th Street, for 25 minutes, forcing an evacuation on the tracks.  Nine people also had to be removed from the 135th Street station and treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation.

The smoke-filled stations shut down the A, B, C and D trains temporarily, causing the MTA to advise riders to take other, nearby subway lines — the 1, 2, 3 and 4.  Those trains, in turn, experienced delays due to heavier volume than usual.

The No. 1 train in particular suffered from overcrowding.  The scene in the 168th Street station showed jam-packed platforms, as well as shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the pedestrian bridge connecting them, but no train.

"Disruptions to service are unacceptable," said Lhota, in a statement, Monday evening.  "We will do a better job, and we're working every single day to deliver on that promise."

For some commuters, the delivery can't come soon enough.

"Usually I drive," said Alex Checa, who'd been diverted to the 1 train from the shut down letter trains.  "For this, I could be in my car with the radio on. There'd be traffic, but that's better than... sweating next to someone I don't know."

For his part, Lhota said there is good reason for commuters to believe things will improve soon: Operation Track Sweep.

"We’ve developed Operation Track Sweep with dedicated teams of more than 500 employees, to reduce fires," Lhota said. "We're putting into service 12 portable vacuums that have proven successful in reducing fires by 51 percent in the areas they've been tested and we're bringing in three vacuum trains, all of which will be in place by the end of the year."

The significant reduction in track fires over the last three-and-a-half decades — from nearly 5,800 in 1981 to 698 in the last year — is an achievement.  However, there's one other major change over that same course of time that has a ripple effect on emergency situations like the one seen Monday morning:  ridership.  It has nearly doubled since the early '80s.

That means that even a relatively small fire can have a strong effect on a larger number of people.

Some of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by Monday's fire emphasized that the MTA needs to take wide-ranging action as quickly as possible.

"Fix the problem," said Lyneshia White, running an hour late for picking up her daughter.  For her, the jury is still out as to whether or not the transit agency chairman can deliver on his promise to get the challenge in hand soon. "The MTA wants to keep raising the fare," said White, "but not fixing the problem with the trains specifically."