New York subway outage highlights ongoing woes at Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Steve Bittenbender

The Center Square

Aug 30, 2021

Calling Sunday night’s breakdown unprecedented and unacceptable, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul pledged to New York City subway users to find out what caused the chain reaction of events that led to more than 80 trains being knocked out of service for more than four hours.

Speaking with reporters Monday morning outside a subway station, Hochul said Consolidated Edison reported a momentary outage on Sunday night at about 8:20 p.m. ET. That outage triggered the backup system to start. However, as the system tried to return to normal, she said a surge led to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority losing the ability to signal to or communicate with half the system.

“Last night was unacceptable,” she said. “If you’re one of those riders or people relying on safe transport, the system failed you. The MTA is the lifeblood of the city, and a disruption of this magnitude can be catastrophic.”

In two cases, trains stopped between stations, and MTA personnel along with emergency responders coordinated evacuations in the tunnels for those passengers.

However, in two other instances where trains were between stops, passengers performed what the governor called a “self-evacuation,” where they entered the tunnels on their own. That extended the time it took to fully restore the system by about 90 minutes as New York City firefighters checked the tracks.

“What we experienced was a lot of anxiety for the citizens of the city who happened to be on the trains, and on the five trains in particular that were between the stations over 550 people were affected,” Hochul said, noting the fifth train was re-platformed. “Again, this is a scary situation, something we don’t want New Yorkers to ever have to experience again.”

The incident occurred just four days after state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit showing MTA’s Metro-North passenger rail service did not have documented proof that procedures for unexpected or unplanned events were followed in 38 of the 80 cases it reviewed.

In addition, the audit found 26 of the 80 cases should have triggered a call to activate or place on standby its Emergency Management Task Force. Yet, the review found that task force was only contacted one time in all those cases.

Within the past month, the state agency that oversees mass transit and passenger rail in the New York City area has undergone a significant change in leadership. Lieber replaced Patrick Foye as interim president and CEO of Empire State Development, the state’s umbrella economic development arm.