UNDERGROUND

08.08.14

Leaky Ceilings, Catcalls, and Uncaged Pythons: 4 Hours on NYC’s Worst Subway

Ask 10 New Yorkers which subway line is the worst, and you might get 10 different answers. But a new poll says the winner (or loser) is lucky number 2.

Amid the honeycomb of subway routes that compose New York City’s metro system is the 2, a train that hauls commuters from the crest of the Bronx to Flatbush Avenue in southern Brooklyn. In late July, the 2 received the shameful label of New York City’s worst subway line from the Straphangers Campaign, a third-party organization that rates and ranks Gotham’s transit.

“We’re a bit of a tradition in New York,” Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, told The Daily Beast. “Not everyone agrees with us, but it starts a lively conversation.”

Russianoff notes the annual finding is informed by studying routes’ cleanliness, promptness, propensity to breakdown, and available seating. The report also makes the MTA bristle. “The Straphangers Campaign’s latest report offers nothing that isn’t already available on our website,” officials told The Daily Beast in a statement.

As a former 2 rider, the rating is entirely expected. The 2 is a place where coveted seats go not to the elderly or pregnant, but to the straphanger with the swiftest legs and least scruples. A place where unexplained delays are a matter of course, and where public fingernail clipping is considered only a minor sin.

Here’s a glimpse at a 2 commute from start to finish and back again—a nearly four-hour ride—with insight from those most familiar with the route’s shortcomings.

Wakefield-241 Street—6:44 p.m.

This 2 train’s car, sufficiently air-conditioned and devoid of debris splayed across the seats, has already surpassed my expectations.

“Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” bellows the 2’s robotic concierge. With a lurch, the journey begins.

The deluge comes from the ceiling, where excess rainwater has worked its way into the subway car from outside. It lands with mischievous accuracy, mottling the crotch of my jeans.

West Farms Square-East Tremont Avenue—7:02 p.m.

The first mishap on the 2 leaves me soggy. A rush of water spills from above, but not from the bottle of an absent-minded commuter or tipsy traveler. The deluge comes from the ceiling, where excess rainwater has worked its way into the subway car from outside. It lands with mischievous accuracy, mottling the crotch of my jeans.

Uncomfortable, but not unfamiliar. I’ve seen leaky 2 train cars ruin paperbacks and startle sleeping passengers. The man next to me, unfazed, casually moves to a seat where precipitation isn’t a threat.

According to Russianoff, leakage is as much a problem on the platforms as it is are inside the cars. “You have to find a place on the platform where you’re not going to get drenched by a waterfall,” he says, noting metal canopies have a tendency to collect and then dump rainwater on passers-by.

Simpson Street—7:07 p.m.

I discover the 2 has a Twitter account. It’s unofficial but well-intentioned, sharing service changes and reroutes. It’s also a punching bag for distressed commuters. One traveler notes a cigarette-smoking straphanger on the 2 is outdone only when the train literally begins to move in reverse.

The 2’s first panhandler also makes a debut—a ponytailed fellow hawking copies of the broadsheet REVOLUTION. He too is no stranger to pushy peddlers: Mambo bands, candy bar salesmen, and DVD bootleggers have all made appearances during past commutes. To risk eye contact with any of the above is to forfeit all singles in your wallet.

Somewhere between 135 Street and 125 Street—7:19 p.m.

I realize, at the train’s current temperature, my pants will not be drying in this borough. Also, a catcall is overheard at the far end of the car.

96 Street—7:26 p.m.

Most New Yorkers have developed a finely-tuned sixth sense of when subway doors should close. And when they linger open for just a few seconds longer than usual, it signals a dreaded delay. Ninety-Sixth Street marks the first delay of the trip, the cause of which is lost in a garbled announcement from the conductor.

I introduce myself to Stephanie, a commuter sitting nearby, and inform her the 2 has recently been labeled the worst route in New York City. “It sure is,” she says. Stephanie lives in the Bronx and works in Manhattan, a commute that should take 45 minutes. “But I leave an hour-and-a-half each way,” Stephanie notes, citing frequent construction projects.

She also floats a conspiracy theory: “The air conditioning won’t work in the Bronx, but kicks in as soon as we reach Manhattan.”

Stephanie often takes surreptitious photographs of fellow commuters for a not-yet-realized blog. “There are a lot of really hard-working, blue-collar people on this train,” she says.

Times Square-42 Street—7:36 p.m.

Seats become scarce. When the train slows before each platform, a noticeable tension manifests; commuters slyly eye those preparing to relinquish their seats. When one commuter stands to leave, a businessman outpaces a woman hauling a sizable shopping bag. He will spend the rest of his commute sedentary, and she upright.

Between 14th Street and Chambers Street—7:40 p.m.

I ask a man to my left, who commutes on the 2 regularly, if the route is deserving of last place. “I’ve gotten stuck once or twice,” he says in a dejected voice. “But I’m from Philadelphia—it’s worse there.” This is a man utterly resigned to the 2’s deficiencies.

Wall Street—7:49 p.m.

Mercifully, as we pass out of Manhattan and into Brooklyn, the crowd diminishes.      

When I pass Wall Street on my return trip, I chat with 2 train veteran Delores, a Broadway costume designer who takes the route in the evenings. Dolores has abundant gripes, late arrivals, and a sluggish pace among them.

“It’s chugging along and then stops between stations for six or eight minutes,” Dolores says. “And there’s no announcement. Why would they do that? At least get to a station and give us the choice to get off.”

“We’ve conditioned ourselves to be OK with it,” she adds. “As long as the lights don’t go out, everyone’s silent.”

Dolores also shares oddities witnessed across several decades on the underground—pet rats and pythons uncaged, and derelicts able to clear out an entire car, during rush hour, with their odor.  

Hoyt Street—7:55 p.m.

In the interest of balanced journalism, I move up one car to experience a fresh landscape. A Ziploc bag of acorns (in August?) is scattered across the floor.

Between Franklin Avenue and President Street—8:04 p.m. and 8:06 p.m.

Two more brief delays.

Between Newkirk Avenue and Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College—8:17 p.m.

Tauntingly, minutes before reaching the end of the line and my halfway point, the train comes to a mid-tunnel pause without explanation. The 2 heaves forward shortly afterward, pulling into Brooklyn at 8:20 p.m.

Russianoff says that after 16 years of Straphangers Campaign rankings, the subway remains a “mixed bag.” Cars may be cleaner one year, but breakdowns might become more common, too. Subway ridership is increasing, he added, and commuters are becoming more judgmental.

“The millennials have expectations that my generation never had for the subway,” Russianoff says.

It’s a notion I ponder on the return trip, which deposits me back in the Bronx shortly after 10 p.m. The 2 train must improve, or face the barbs of twentysomething, Twitter-wielding commuters.