Checking out the old South Ferry station before it closes forever

Mosaic station identification sign, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)

First, the backstory.

On 16 March 2009, a new South Ferry subway station, the southernmost subway station in Manhattan, opened. The old South Ferry station, which originally opened over a century earlier in 1905, had served millions of commuters well, but it had always had its limitations. When the New York City Subway was originally built, local trains had only five cars, and so stations where only local trains stopped were built just long enough for five cars. This later proved insufficient, so local trains were extended, as were local stations — where possible. That’s the reason the beautiful original City Hall subway station was shuttered at the end of 1945, and it’s why the architecture and signage of some older subway stations abruptly changes partway along the platform.

City Hall subway station
The City Hall subway station, which was closed at the end of 1945. (Photo by Paul Lowry via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

The old South Ferry station, built as a loop where terminating downtown trains could turn around and return uptown — like the City Hall station — couldn’t be extended. But, unlike City Hall, it was too vital to close: there wasn’t an alternative station nearby, and it gave commuters a needed connection to the Staten Island Ferry. So it remained open, though only the first five cars of a ten-car train could platform.

Gap filler, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan
A platform extender fills the gap between the curved platform and the open doors of a waiting 1 train.

But, as I mentioned, it was also a loop, and you know what happens when you align a ruler-straight subway car with a curved platform? It leaves large gaps between the platform and the train — gaps that really are big enough for someone to fall into. Mind the gap, indeed! So the old South Ferry station had mechanical platform extenders that filled the gap in front of each train car. But that also made service at the station slower, since arriving trains had to wait for the gap fillers to extend and departing trains had wait for them to retract.

(There was also an inner platform within the loop, but the curve was so tight that trains could open only their center doors. It proved so problematic that the inner platform was closed in 1977, though the tracks are still used, particularly by downtown 5 trains which terminate at Bowling Green on weekends and use this loop to turn around and return to the uptown track.)

So in 2009 a new, modern South Ferry station opened. It was a true terminus, with the tracks ending on either side of an island platform. In addition to making the station fully accessible, it also allowed more frequent service on the 1 train: MTA New York City Transit could decrease rush-hour headways from four minutes to as frequently as 2½ minutes — 24 trains per hour.

But then, a mere three and a half years later, the unthinkable happened. On 29 October 2012, hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and hit Lower Manhattan with a nearly two-meter (six-foot) storm surge which flooded streets, buildings, and tunnels, including subway tunnels and stations. Millions of liters of salt water filled and virtually destroyed the new South Ferry station and its sensitive, state-of-the-art electronics and other equipment.

Decorative tiles, South Ferry subway station, Manhattan (Heins & LaFarge, 1905)
Vintage 1905 ceramic tiles depict a sailboat. Fifteen of these tiles decorate the original South Ferry station.

Five months later, on 4 April 2013, the old South Ferry station was reopened to restore the 1 train’s vital connection to the Staten Island Ferry. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the New York state agency that operates the subway, had to figure out what to do about the old station, with repairs estimated at $600 million or more.

Now, four years later, the MTA’s Fix & Fortify repairs on the new South Ferry station are almost complete. Since the idea behind the repairs is to leave the transit system more resilient and able to weather future storms with less damage, once the old South Ferry station closes it may never open to the public again. So last Saturday, 18 March 2017, I took some time to visit the station and take in its early-20th-century details and design. Here are some photos and videos from my visit.

This video shows a train entering the station and gap fillers extending before the doors open.

In this video, the same train leaves the station. Notice the train pause while the driver waits for the gap filler signal to clear. Also notice how loudly the wheels scrape against the rails, despite the lubricant which is sprayed on the tracks to reduce friction.

The MTA plans to reopen the new South Ferry station in June 2017, after repairs that cost $344 million.

It shouldn’t have to snow for NYC transit agencies to cross-honor fares

It’s snowing in the New York City region, which means we’re seeing tweets like this:

Even on days without “significant weather events”, it’s common to see tweets like this:

Those of you outside the New York City area may be wondering, what is “cross-honoring”? Cross-honoring means that because of a significant service disruption on one transit system another transit system providing approximately parallel service will honor passengers’ tickets for the interrupted service. So, earlier today, when the New York City Subway’s 7 train was interrupted, passengers going from, say, Flushing, Queens—where the Flushing-Main St subway station is about a block away from the Long Island Rail Road’s Flushing-Main St station—to Manhattan could use their MetroCards to ride the LIRR instead.

That’s considerate of the agencies, right? I suppose that’s one way to look at it.

All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)
All these subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road are operated by the same agency—yet you have to have two separate tickets to ride them. (And why should the agency that operates it matter anyway?)

But here’s the thing: the New York City Subway and the LIRR are part of the same agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Over in New Jersey, mentioned in the tweet above, the rail, light-rail, and bus systems that are cross-honoring each other’s fares are all part of the same, statewide transit agency, New Jersey Transit.

So, my question is, why don’t they cross-honor each other fares to begin with? As in, all the time, regardless of the weather or service disruptions?

I know, I know: the various systems—the regional railroads, the subway, the light-rail lines, and buses—tend to serve different groups of users in different geographic locations, often with different socio-economic backgrounds and levels of income. It is arguable that a commuter from a wealthier community on Long Island should have to pay more for a trip through Queens than a lower-income New York City resident.

I know, too, that the systems were, at one time, completely separate companies, and that the political and financial deals that brought them together preserved various and separate streams of revenue for them.

What I’m saying is that maybe now is the time to have a conversation on whether that should end.

After all, the New York City Subway was once three separate companies, one owned by the City of New York, the other two in private hands. It gets even more complex when you consider that various sections of what is now the subway, particularly in Brooklyn, were once owned by separate, private railroads and only later absorbed into the IRT, BMT, or IND and then merged into the subway. And even after consolidation of the city’s rapid-transit systems, at one time riders to and from the Rockaways had to pay an additional, premium fare. But that was all eventually swept away and a single, unified fare structure adopted for the New York City Subway and local buses (which are still technically operated by three separate MTA entities: New York City Transit, the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority or MaBSTOA, and the MTA Bus Company).

More importantly, it’s increasingly how New York’s peer cities—and economic competitors—do things. Case in point: Paris. On my recent trip there I paid a visit to Versailles. To get to Versailles from my hotel near the Eiffel Tower, I took the RER’s line C (French) to one of its termini at Versailles Rive Gauche. My walk through the estate and back into town took me past Versailles Rive Droite, a terminus for the Transilien‘s line L (French). At La Défense, I transferred to RER line A. Eventually, I took the métro using the same ticket. It didn’t matter that RER C or Transilien L are operated by the national railway company, the SNCF, and that RER A and the métro are operated by the Paris region’s transit authority, the RATP. It also didn’t matter that the métro is a different mode from the RER or the Transilien; I could have taken a bus or a trolley using the same ticket.

This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region's transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien's website.)
This map shows the five fare zones into which the Paris region’s transit network is divided. (A PDF of the map is available on the Transilien’s website.)

See, the Paris region, called the Île-de-France, is divided into zones. Daily, weekly, and monthly passes are issued for a certain combination of zones; with some exceptions, such as airport and river services, a rider can use any public transit within the zones indicated on the pass. The operator or the mode doesn’t matter. As the website for Hourtoule, an operator of local buses in the city of Versailles, explains, “Comme tous les réseaux de transport publics d’Ile de France, Cars HOURTOULE appliquent la gamme tarifaire définie par le STIF.” In other words, “As all public transit networks in the Paris region, Hourtoule buses use the fare structure defined by the STIF.” (STIF stands for Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France. It coordinates transportation throughout the Paris region as well as a unified fare structure. A brochure, available in PDF in French, explains how the fare structure works. A webpage in English explains the many ticket types available.)

Here in New York, I can’t even get from Brooklyn to Jersey City with a single fare (though I can use a pay-per-ride MetroCard the entire way) or from my corner of Long Island to the rest of Long Island using a single ticket.

The Paris region has figured out how to make riding transit across the Île-de-France virtually seamless. No matter the mode, no matter the operator, a single ticket will get you from Rambouillet in the southwest to Charles de Gaulle Airport in the northeast, or from Cergy in the northwest to Montereau in the southeast, and for a relatively low fare.

It’s time to make that happen in the New York City region as well.

An animated history of the New York City Subway (in GIF form)

NYC Subway animated history

This very cool animated map of the history of the New York City Subway by Appealing Industries has been making the rounds on the internet the past few days (WNYC, Transportationist, Untapped Cities, Gothamist, and elsewhere), so of course I had to jump on the bandwagon.

But in doing so, I want to point out that there is at least one thing missing from the map: the eastern end of the IRT New Lots Line—specifically, the Van Siclen Av and New Lots Av stations, served at most times by the 3 train. These stations opened on 16 October 1922, which would put them right after the opening of the New Lots Line from Pennsylvania Av west and just before the opening of the BMT Canarsie Line, today known as the L train.

Do you notice anything else missing from the map?

If the MTA’s debt were a GDP …

One of the eye-popping financial figures being much talked about in the New York City media over the past few days is the Straphangers Campaign‘s report (PDF) that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s debt, currently $34.1 billion, is greater than the national debt of 30 countries.

A sobering figure indeed.

But that got me to thinking: how many countries have GDPs smaller than the MTA’s debt? And I have an answer:

102

That’s right: 102 sovereign nations have an economic output smaller than the MTA’s current debt.

If we follow the Straphangers Campaign’s lead and exclude nations with a GDP smaller than U.S. $10 billion, that still leaves us with a lengthy list of 45 countries:

Country 2013 GDP
Billions of U.S. $
Jordan 33.7
Bahrain 32.8
Tanzania 32.7
Latvia 31.0
North Korea 30.7
Bolivia 30.2
Paraguay 29.0
Cameroon 28.0
Trinidad & Tobago 27.8
Côte d’Ivoire 27.2
Estonia 24.5
El Salvador 24.3
Uganda 23.5
Zambia 23.4
Cyprus 21.9
Democratic Republic of the Congo 21.3
Afghanistan 20.7
Bosnia and Herzegovina 19.4
Honduras 18.6
Nepal 18.2
Brunei Darussalam 17.0
Georgia 16.1
Equatorial Guinea 16.1
Senegal 15.6
Cambodia 15.5
Mozambique 15.3
Botswana 15.3
Papua New Guinea 14.8
Iceland 14.6
Jamaica 14.3
Albania 12.6
Namibia 12.4
Mauritius 12.0
Burkina Faso 11.9
Mongolia 11.5
Nicaragua 11.3
Chad 11.2
Gabon 11.1
Armenia 11.0
Palestinian Authority 11.0
Zimbabwe 10.9
Laos 10.9
Mali 10.8
Madagascar 10.6
Macedonia 10.2

Looking at the full list of 102, the MTA’s debt is greater than the combined GDP of the bottom 28 nations ($34.1 billion versus $32.1 billion).

The full spreadsheet with all the nations and GDP data can be found here.

These figures were reported in the June 2014 Metro Economies Report (PDF) issued by The United States Conference of Mayors. The report was prepared by IHS Global Insight. The original report included a few “nations” I have excluded here, including American Samoa, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which I consider to be a part of the United States, and the French overseas departments of French Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion, which are a part of France.

Photo: Fulton Center, the stunning new subway station that opened in November 2014 in Lower Manhattan, cost $1.4 billion to construct—more than the GDP of 18 countries.

Grand plans for D.C.’s grand station

A rendering of what Union Station's train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.
A rendering of what Union Station’s train shed may look like someday if ambitious plans to redevelop the station and the surrounding neighborhood come to fruition.

In an extensive online piece with several interactive features, The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein examines ambitious plans to remake and expand Washington Union Station and the surrounding neighborhood. The master plan calls for a new passenger experience on expanded tracks and platforms within a massive development project that stitches back together an urban fabric split by Union Station’s rail yard for more than a century—at a cost of $10 billion or more over 25 years or longer. There will undoubtedly be, as Mr. Pearlstein explains, significant financial and political hurdles to overcome.

Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.

While most of the piece is solid, I find Mr. Pearlstein’s repeated references to Grand Central Terminal here in New York to be a bit of a stretch. Can Union Station be to D.C. what Grand Central is to NYC? Better yet, would we want it to be? Clearly there are many similarities: a grand Beaux Arts station in the heart of one of America’s great cities, used not only by commuters but a tourist and shopping destination in its own right, saved from neglect and outright destruction in the 1970s.

But if Washingtonians are expecting to recreate Grand Central in their city, there are significant differences that shouldn’t be overlooked. First is the sheer number of travelers who pass through Grand Central each year: 82 million. It has even more passengers today than it had during the “golden age” of train travel, when travel through the terminal peaked at 65 million in 1947. Compare that to Union Station’s 14 million annual passengers currently, or even 30 years from now when ridership is expected to triple to 42 million (and Grand Central’s ridership has increased to 115 million or more with the coming of the Long Island Rail Road).

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment.

Second is the state of the development around each station. Grand Central’s predecessors, as Mr. Pearlstein notes, were built on the edge of what was then New York City, mostly open farmland and fields that were ripe for development. By the time the current iteration of Grand Central was completed in 1913, New York was on the cusp of a massive building boom of skyscrapers; one which was the tallest in the world for a short time, the Chrysler Building, was even constructed directly across Lexington Avenue from the terminal and connected to it by an underground passage. Today, New York City is working on a massive “upzoning” around the terminal, which will increase the amount of office space—and building heights—within walking distance of the station, to take advantage of the coming East Side Access and rising property values. The area surrounding Union Station, on the other hand, while ready for redevelopment, isn’t on the city’s edge: it’s a mere four blocks from the Capitol at the very heart of the city. And not only is it hemmed in on the sides, but thanks to the Height of Buildings Act it’s also hemmed in on the top, limiting the area’s potential.

While Mr. Pearlstein would have you believe that travelers at Grand Central have a superior passenger experience, I wouldn’t be so sure. While there are many shops and amenities for travelers, perhaps the key difference lies in the platforms themselves: all of Grand Central’s 44 platforms lie underground, sweltering and stuffy in the summer and unsightly all year round. Trains enter and leave the terminal through the Park Avenue tunnel that stretches nearly 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) all the way to 97th Street. Though I have taken the train to and from Grand Central on a number of occasions, I can’t imagine beginning and ending my commute this way on a daily basis. While Union Station’s current platforms are even worse—whoever came up with the idea of putting a low roof over tracks served by diesel locomotives clearly wasn’t thinking straight (probably the result of breathing in diesel exhaust)—the proposed atrium-like train shed, filled with natural light, will be an entirely different—and far superior—experience for those traveling through Union Station.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.

Metro, the D.C. area’s subway system, has its own grand plans for Union Station. A “superstation” has been proposed at Union Station, connected to a larger “inner loop” of stations and tracks encircling central Washington and providing the Metro system with much-needed capacity at its core. Combined with Amtrak, Maryland’s MARC trains, Virginia’s VRE commuter rail, and the intercity bus depot that was recently relocated and consolidated at Union Station, D.C.’s grand station could provide multimodal access to the city, the region, and beyond that Grand Central just can’t accommodate. While the arrival of the much-delayed and over-budget East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into Grand Central, will be a boon to the station and travelers in the region, there is little that can be done to expand subway service under the terminal, and those wishing to take the subway from Grand Central will find cramped underground stations for decades to come. (The planned Second Avenue subway, which should relieve the overcrowded 4/5/6 line that passes under Grand Central, will pass three blocks to the east. If it ever makes it to 42nd Street.)

But the real obstacles to any visionary plan for Union Station are financial and political. Mr. Pearlstein writes:

It speaks to the paucity of our civic imagination, and the small-mindedness of our politics, that simply to describe a project of such ambition is to invite the knowing smirks and raised eyebrows of those who will immediately recognize it as wholly incompatible with the current political and budgetary environment. It’s hard to imagine a project more likely to raise the tea party’s hackles than having federal and state taxpayers borrow billions of dollars to increase subsidized train service in and out of Washington.

In closing, Mr. Pearlstein admonishes: “Nobody thinks we’d be better off today if government had not borrowed the money to build the Beltway, or the subway system or Dulles International Airport. It would be yet another symptom of today’s cramped political vision—and our false notion of economy—if we fail to make a similarly bold investment in the expansion and redevelopment of Union Station.”

I’m reminded of the timeless advice of Daniel Burnham, one of America’s greatest city planners: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”

America’s capital needs grand plans and the visionary leadership needed to make them happen. And we shouldn’t let money and ideology stand in the way.

Read more
Reimagining Union Station
by Steven Pearlstein
The Washington Post, 12 September 2014


I will note one small error Mr. Pearlstein made in his piece. He writes, “The majestic main concourse was 275 feet long and 120 feet wide, flanked on both ends by grand marble staircases, underneath a massive concave ceiling on which was painted the constellations of the stars.” The main concourse originally had only one marble staircase; the East Staircase, though part of the original plans, was completed in 1998.

I will also note my personal affection for and connection to Union Station: it was where my now wife and I went on our first date in 2007.