OPINION: Bringing back an old option could help R Train service
I recently heard several Bay Ridge residents complain about the R train, the local subway line that travels between Bay Ridge and Forest Hills, Queens. Two of them, in particular, said that service has actually deteriorated in the last six months or so.
One said that when taking the R back from Downtown Brooklyn during the evening rush hour, if he misses a 95th Street-bound train he has to wait about 25 minutes for another one. “The later you are, the worse it gets,” he said.
The second resident said that when he starts his trip in the morning from 95th Street, “The platform has two tracks. In the past, it was certain that there would be a train waiting on at least one of those two tracks. Now, we sometimes have to wait 10 minutes for a train to pull in, and by the time you get to 36th Street, the train is jammed.”
In the evening, he said, “If you’re getting on at Court Street, you probably won’t find a seat. At 36th Street [where the D merges with the R] and 59th Street [where the N merges with the R], the train sometimes stops in the middle of the tunnel until the other train gets ahead of us.”
Both said that when the Montague Street tunnel was being repaired and the Brooklyn portion of the R train ran between 95th and Court streets, the trains ran more regularly and it was easier to get a seat because of the shorter turnaround.
That points to a major source of problems on the line: the R, running through three boroughs, is one of the longest routes in the transit system. “If there’s a problem in Forest Hills,” said Josephine Beckmann, district manager for Community Board 10, “it’s often felt in Bay Ridge.”
To take some of the pressure off the “regular” R and give riders a break, her colleague, Councilmember Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights), has proposed that the MTA add a rush-hour express R-train “short line” that would terminate at Chambers Street. Indeed, the transit system ran such a service in the 1980s.
Responding to some of these concerns, Kevin Ortiz, spokesman for MTA New York City Transit, confirmed that the R is one of the longest lines in the transit system. “It has the sixth-longest peak riding time, it’s a local route and it shares tracks with other lines — in Queens with the M, in Manhattan with the N and the Q sometimes.
“There’s one thing to keep in mind,” he continued. “During the 13-month shutdown of the Montague Street tunnel [that ended in September 2014], the R was truncated into two separate sections. On the Brooklyn side, it ran from Court to 95th Street. When you have a shorter run, there’s less likelihood to run into issues. When the tunnel was reopened [and the longer route was reinstituted], there was more of an opportunity to run into hiccups.”
Asked about the old rush-hour R special to Chambers Street on the J line, Ortiz recalled that it was known as the “banker’s special” because it served riders who worked in the Financial District in Lower Manhattan. He stressed that this service was discontinued because of low ridership. “When we ran the M [which, until recently, also shared the J-line tracks in Manhattan] down to Bay Parkway, it also ran empty.”
Nick Sifuentes, spokesman for the Riders Alliance, a grass-roots transit organization, looked at the big picture. “The main problem is lack of funding,” he said. “The state is basically disinvesting in transit. And it’s not really the MTA’s fault.” As an example of what the MTA could do with more funding, Sifuentes mentioned the expansion of communications-based train control, which makes use of digital communications between track equipment and the train itself.
According to the MTA website, this system is planned for the R train, but only for its Queens portion. Since it allows more frequent train service with shorter headways, if it were installed on the entire R train, Brooklyn riders could benefit from trains running every three minutes or so.
For the near future, I think the special rush-hour R service to Chambers Street deserves another try. It would serve several constituencies: the financial people who work on Wall Street; the government workers who commute to the Municipal Building and other buildings around Chambers Street; and the legal crowd that commutes to the Downtown Brooklyn courthouses. It would also take some of the pressure off the regular R service so that regular R trains would be less crowded. The year 1987 was almost 30 years ago — it’s time to study this option again.
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