Next Stop Cleanville
Cleaning Up the New York Subways at the Avenue X Subway Yards
By Christopher Ditto
April 23, 2002
There was a time when New York City had some of the dirtiest and most dangerous subway lines in the world. But those times now seem long gone.
Roderick O'Toole remembers riding a subway with so much graffiti he could not see out of the windows. Now, as a Supervisor of the 24-hour a day Transit Complex at Coney Island, part of O'Toole's job is making sure that at least four of the city's subway lines remain spotless.
But calling the place a Transit Complex makes it sound like a parking garage. They Coney Island Yards, as it is know to the workers, is a massive 75-acre facility capable of building, overhauling, recycling and cleaning the city's 5,803 subway cars. It is the largest and most complete subway facility in the city.
The place is also home to the city's only automatic car wash for trains. Monday through Friday, three shifts a day, subway cars line up on the tracks leading to the wash building for an exterior cleaning.
A cable, attached to a small sliding piece of steel nicknamed "the rabbit" pulls carriages into a 200-yard concrete tunnel for their weekly scrubbing. A large sign posted on the outside of the building lets the employees know the speed limit is set at two miles per hour.
Each week between 800 and 900 cars a week, more then 90 percent of the carriages in the W, Q, and N lines that the Coney Island car wash is responsible for cleaning, get scrubbed much like automobiles in a car wash. The ten percent that are not washed are usually undergoing repairs or inspections.
O'Toole is proud to point out that only the first and last 10 yards of the tunnel are actually used for cleaning. The rest of the tunnel, which used to be used for cleaning off graffiti, now looks like an empty subway platform.
For water, the yards are able to switch between reservoir water and well water. The well water, according to workers, does not get the cars as clean, but during water crises, like the one New York is now facing, it means that water usage does not need to be a major concern.
The cleaning up of New York's subways has been attributed to many factors, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's "quality of life" campaign, which targeted crime in the city. But it is hard to walk around the Coney Island Yards without seeing that much of the credit belongs to the facility itself.
"There's no kids coming into the yards to paint their murals anymore," explained O'Toole, in his strong but amiable New York accent. "It's much more secure than it used to be."
People used to simply stroll into the facility. Arial photos from twenty years ago show dozens of old rusting carriages and trash sitting on rows and rows of parallel tracks. Today, the Yards are now surrounded by double cyclone fencing and topped by six strands of barbed wire. Coiled around the barbed wire, and filling the gap between the cyclone fences, are rolls and rolls of razor wire.
Evidence of recently cut slits in the cyclone fence reveals that even with all of the security measures, vandals are still attempting to break in. According to O'Toole, at one point the police even experimented with a remote control helicopter equipped with an infrared camera to patrol the area.
But physical security isn't everything. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the yards and the subway system, also uses different materials in the trains themselves to combat graffiti. Stainless steel carriage exteriors allow workers to use new highly effective graffiti removing sprays. Tempered glass, which scratches less easily than Plexiglas, is being phased back into subway carriages.
A new product, which is currently being tested, resurfaces glass that has been scratched. If the product works out, initials scratched on windows may soon become a less common sight on subway windows.
Subway cars themselves have also been redesigned for ease of cleaning. Every car gets cleaned on the inside at the end of each run. Each F train car that pulls into the Coney Island's Stillwell Avenue terminus, for example, gets inspected and washed on the inside.
According to Straphangers, a subway rider interest group, the city's subways are getting cleaner. A "State of the Subway" report card released by the group last year said that "system-wide, the percentage of subway cars with clean seats and floors increased from 75 percent to 85 percent." An annual report on subway cleanliness released last year used a different rating system but noted a similar improvement concluding that 47 percent of New York City subway cars clean, a 15 percent rise from the year before.
According to O'Toole, the cleaning turns up some unusual items. "Probably just about everything you've ever seen has been found at some point in time," said O'Toole. He listed a bizarre list of items including a bag of snakes, rats, guns and sadly, an occasional dead person, adding, "We have unique set of scenarios for those things." After reports surfaced several years ago that a homeless man had ridden one train on multiple runs after having died, many of the scenarios now involve the police.
Coordinating all of the lettered trains, such as the A, C, E, and F lines, is handled by controllers in "Tower B," a four story building topped with a glass lookout room. Three shifts of workers sit in front of control boards that look like equipment from NASA historical video footage. The resemblance is not a coincidence, the control boards were built in 1969, the same year the Apollo 11 mission resulted in the first person stepping foot on the moon.
But keeping the subways clean has not been enough to keep ridership up. Before last September an average of 4.7 million passengers rode the subway each weekday. Today that number is down to 4.2 million.
And when the cars become too old to rebuild, repair, or refurbish they are stripped of parts and fluids and cleaned one last time at the Coney Island Yards before being placed on barges. The current final resting place for New York's subways is off of the Georgia coast. They are sunk for use as artificial reefs.
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