How Bad Is New York's Subway? It's Looking Grim

The power in New York City will be back within days, but the status of the subway is still unknown. The whole system is still shut down has suspended all lines, as the MTA tries to fully assess the damage, which it can't do until it pumps out all the water from the tracks. To make up for the lack of transit for the 4.3 million people who use it daily, the city is offering free bus service operating as close to its normal weekday schedule as possible. The MTA has also given cabs permission to pick up multiple passengers and will allow the hailing of livery cabs on the street. In theory those are kind gestures, but in practice they have resulted in a traffic mess as people try to get back to work. All the busses and cabs in the city can quite handle the masses. "Wow. Lines for MTA buses are like 40 ppl deep in Jackson Heights. And when the buses show, they are already full," tweeted Billboard's editorial director Bill Werde. The New York Times says to "expect delays, detours and crowding" on buses. Other modes of transportation aren't much better. Another tweeter says the traffic in Park Slope, miles away from the bridge, is at a total standstill. To avoid the cars, some, like Reuters's Megan McCarthy have resorted to walking across the bridge. 

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And it could be like this for weeks. According to one 2011 study that modeled a 100-year storm with the kind of flooding we saw with Sandy, which found it would take 21 days to get back to 90 percent of normal operations. Though, there is no official estimate from the MTA, whose website doesn't even let people see the train maps, redirecting to this weather advisory. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it would take four days for service to start up again, which the MTA said would come back in patches. Considering all the steps the MTA has to take before it can re-open, that assessment doesn't sound too absurd. Here's what it will take before the subway is open to commuters again.

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1. Pump Out the Water

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Estimated time: 1 Week

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Seven subway tunnels under New York’s East River flooded, which you can see in this graphic from The New York Times.

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 Joseph J. Lhota, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said flooding was "literally up to the ceiling" at the South Street subway station in Lower Manhattan, some of which you can see in the photo up top. Pumping them out could take a week, report Bloomberg's Angela Greiling Keane, Frederic Tomesco and Alan Levin, assuming officials could get 100 portable pumps. The subway only had three for the entire system. This process has already begun in some of the tunnels under the East River. 

2. Inspect the Tracks

Estimated Time: TBD

Only after all the water is out, can officials assess the damage. Which is no small feat: "If you laid the New York City subway system in a line, it would stretch from New York to Detroit. Now imagine inspecting every inch of that track," write Keane, Tomesco and Levin. 

3. Repair

Estimated Time: TBD

From electrical to salt water damage, there are a number of ways the subway system could need repairs. "In the tunnels under the East River, all the signal-and-control systems are underwater. And it is salt water,"  Klaus Jacob, an environmental disaster expert at Columbia University told The Associated Press's David Caruso. "It’s not just that it doesn’t work right now. It all has to be cleaned, dried, reassembled and tested. And we are not sure what the long-term corrosion effect might be."

Once things have dried out, then officials can start testing the thousands of connections and system signals, Mortimer Downey, a former MTA executive director and current board member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority said to Bloomberg. Then, the repair process can begin, which isn't that simple, because it has "a lot of antique components where the vendor has been out of business for 50 years," Kathy Waters, vice president for member services at the American Public Transportation Association, also told Bloomberg. This part alone doesn't sound like a few day fix. To be safe mentally prepare for a month-long painful commute.