For the third year in a row, the Straphangers Campaign rated the 7 Train as the best subway line—tied with the 1 and the L trains—in its Annual Report Card. And 7 Train riders are asking again, "what train are they talking about?"
With one year left in what seems like an never-ending upgrade of 7 Train’s signal system to Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), riders are exhausted and frustrated with a train that never seems to work. As part of a growing online community of 2,300 riders, Access Queens receives daily complaints about inadequate service and station conditions. On 7 Train Blues, riders post pictures and videos to document frequent overcrowding and service interruptions. Over the past year, we have worked with the MTA on ways to improve other issues not directly affected by CBTC. A few asks have come to fruition, but others are still in progress.
As for the report card, Access Queens and the general rider consensus agrees overall that the categories the Straphangers Campaign’s uses—service, dependability, and comfort/usability—are important among commuters, but it is clear that the weight given to each category fails to paint the full picture of the subway rider experience in Queens.
When measuring service, the 7 received a high mark because it, compared to other lines, has the most frequently scheduled service, which the report card claims there are two and a half minute intervals between trains. However, the official MTA schedule claims morning rush intervals of 2-4 minutes, express, and 4-6 minutes, local. While these intervals look great on paper, they are best case scenario under extremely rare circumstances.
In reality, the 7 Train is over capacity during rush hours. Even if the 7 arrives at more frequent intervals, riders can’t always get on the first train that comes. Often they have to wait for several trains to pass before one arrives with enough room to board. In some cases, oncoming trains skip stops as a means to get the entire fleet of cars across Manhattan- and Queens-bound service back on track.
Dependablity, which emcompasses both train breakdowns and regularity of service, put the 7 at 10th and 12th place, respectively. In terms of regularity of service, the 7 actually performed worse in 2016 compared to 2015. As one of the biggest traits riders expect from the 7 Train, its dependability was rated with less weight than scheduled service in the Straphangers Campaign report card, which is one major reason why there’s a discrepancy between what was published and the customer experience.
"Though newer train cars recently added to the line may experience occasional mechanical problems—much less than the older train models—the full story of how riders experience service dependability gets left out of consideration in rating the 7."
In order to address this discrepancy, the dependability metric should include not just mechanical breakdowns, but other types of service issues. For those of us who rely on the 7, those service issues tend to be rail problems and signal malfunctions, the latter causing a majority of delays for years. CBTC is expected bring them to an end. Though newer train cars recently added to the line may experience occasional mechanical problems—much less than the older train models—the full story of how riders experience service dependability gets left out of consideration in rating the 7.
The metrics on comfort and usability focuses on the clarity and accuracy of in-car announcements, cleanliness, and crowding. Again, only telling part of the story. The new train cars have not yet had a chance to become dirty or fall into disrepair, and they also came with new PA systems and pre-recorded announcements inside the train. Thus, 7 should rate well in those areas as expected, but what about communication overall?
"It is not uncommon for riders to wait 10 to 20 minutes for the next train during rush without any service announcements at all."
How, when, and why the MTA communicates with customers, on the 7 and across the entire subway system, is one of the most pressing issues riders face. Platform announcements are often inconsistent in both frequency and accuracy. For example, customers often hear announcements claiming the arrival of the next train in X number of minutes, only for that train to arrive in double or triple the announced time.
Furthermore, customers are frequently not informed of details surrounding service issues before swiping their Metrocard or while waiting on the platform. It is not uncommon for riders to wait 10 to 20 minutes for the next train during rush without any service announcements at all. For customers who have already paid their fare, waiting upwards of 20 minutes before giving up to find another mode of transportation at cost is infuriating. If the MTA could improve just this issue alone, customers would feel a lot better.
Access Queens receives quite a bit of complaints about service change postings. The posters are inconsistent and not always placed in convenient locations, if at all. Access Queens asked the MTA to post the signs at station entrances, where customers can see them before having to walk up to the platform. This change helps customers who are elderly, disabled, travelling with children or carrying heavy cargo make better decisions about their transportation. Shortly after our town hall on April 5, 2016, we started to see signs posted at street level. While this change was an improvement, the MTA still has a ways to go in improving its communication with customers.
Cleanliness as a measure of usability also falls short in conveying the rider’s experience. We may have new, clean trains, but many of the stations are in need of repair or renewal. The 52nd Street station, for example, was recently rated the worst in the entire subway system. In fact, it has fallen into such disrepair lately, it’s slated for a complete overhaul in 2018-19. The walls are dirty, chipped and peeling paint along the elevated tracks falls onto pedestrians walking along Roosevelt Avenue, and the uneven stairs are difficult to traverse, especially during inclement weather.
On the topic of crowding, the 7 is over capacity during rush and at capacity during much of the day. Service issues across the entire subway system, whether signal malfunctions on the 7 or issues on other connecting lines or the Long Island Railroad, exacerbates the crowding experienced on the 7. Not to mention, the looming L-pocalypse. While there is likely not quantifiable data on platform conditions, such as average number of riders waiting on a platform, customers’ sense of safety on the platform can be surveyed. Many riders continue to witness and express concerns about crime, risk of injury, and violence, all of which are sparked by overcrowded conditions.
In recent news coverage by NY1, Founder and Executive Director Melissa Orlando invited members of the Straphangers Campaign to join Access Queens to ride the 7 Train one day for an accurate view of what the 7 Train is like on a daily basis. The Straphangers Campaign’s report card unfortunately publishes information that only addresses half of the issues riders face and paints a rosy picture of areas along the 7 Line that in reality are otherwise stretched in terms of access to public transit. For one thing, the Straphangers Campaign uses the MTA’s data to generate the report.
Riders want to know what they can really expect from neighborhoods so they can make informed decisions about where they want to live and residential developers should have accurate information on the areas their properties will serve. Unfortunately, with partial data and skewed metrics, the current state of the Subways Report Card won’t tell them. It may be time to look at the weight of that data or perhaps conduct additional surveys to with a sampling across the entire line to unveil the true customer experience. After all, it is everything.