NEW YORK — New Yorkers who rely on the L train are bracing for months of upheaval when their line is partially closed for repairs. Subway leaders have warned of fewer trains on nights and weekends, crowded platforms and diverting riders to alternate buses.
In other parts of the city, subway riders have felt a sense of relief — and even schadenfreude — to be spared from the transit nightmare.
But their line could be next.
With New York City’s subway in crisis, the only way to improve service is to shut down large swaths of the system to overhaul its ancient equipment. The subway’s leader, Andy Byford, wants to greatly expand night and weekend closings in the coming years.
“We need to start getting used to the idea that we’re entering a period of shared sacrifice,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group.
The disruption planned for the L line is in many ways a preview of what lies ahead for the rest of the system. In a city that takes pride in its round-the-clock subway — it’s one of the only systems in the world that never closes — the L train repairs will be painful: fewer trains starting at 8 p.m. on weeknights and a 20-minute wait between trains on the weekend.
Byford’s sweeping $40 billion plan to save the subway calls for installing modern subway signals on several lines at the same time. Some could be closed on most nights and weekends for 2 1/2 years.
The service cuts will fall the hardest on New Yorkers who work nights and weekends like Amy Malale who lives in Queens and works on Sundays at a bookstore in Manhattan.
“I question whether it is going to make the subways better,” Malale said as she rode an F train on a recent afternoon. “Two and a half years? That’s a scary thought.”
Transit workers have started to upgrade signals on the Queens Boulevard line, from Rockefeller Center in Manhattan to Kew Gardens in Queens. The F train in Brooklyn and the 8th Avenue line in Manhattan are next. Construction on the Lexington Avenue line, the nation’s busiest subway route, could start as early as next year.
But Byford’s ambitious “Fast Forward” plan will not proceed without significant new funding from state leaders in Albany. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat who controls the subway, is pressing for congestion pricing, a proposal to toll cars entering the busiest parts of Manhattan to raise money for the subway.
“If Fast Forward is going to gain momentum or if it’s going to die a painful death, it’s going to happen at the hands of Albany legislators,” Sifuentes said.
During station closings on nights and weekends, riders could have other options like extra buses, said Veronique Hakim, the managing director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Because the system is so large and interconnected, there are often alternate subway lines nearby, though that is not always the case in far-flung corners of the city beyond Manhattan.
“What riders need is certainty and information,” Hakim said. “Being able to say this particular line is going to be closed from this hour to that hour. As long as you give people that information ahead of time, they can plan accordingly.”
But despite assurances from officials that the impact of the L train repairs will be minimal, transit advocates say the contingency plans are too meager.
The tunnel between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been set to close entirely for 15 months to repair damage from Hurricane Sandy. Officials planned to offer a “busway” on 14th Street across Lower Manhattan and high occupancy vehicle rules for the Williamsburg Bridge. Then Cuomo — upending years of preparation — intervened with a new repair plan that avoids a full closure and those alternatives were abandoned.
When subway lines are closed in the years ahead, the routes should be replaced with dedicated bus lanes that prioritize transit riders over cars, said Joe Cutrufo, a spokesman for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bikers and pedestrians.
“The subway doesn’t share the tracks with cars — neither should buses,” he said.
While overhauling New York’s century-old subway will be disruptive, installing modern signals is the key to making the system reliable again. In London, another vast and aging system, the signals have been upgraded much faster. On one line with modern signals, trains regularly arrive every 100 seconds.
In New York, only the L train and the No. 7 line have modern signals, known as communications based train control, or CBTC. The installation was plagued by delays and took nearly two decades, but the L train is now the most reliable with a 90 percent on-time rate. The No. 7 line can run 29 trains per hour during rush hour, up from 27 trains before new signals were installed. Cuomo has also urged Byford to use a new technology called ultra-wideband radio that could allow the signal work to be done faster.
On the F line, where the signals are currently being upgraded, some riders understand the need to shut down parts of the route. Patrick Smith said he watched an interview with Byford on “60 Minutes” last year that portrayed him as the subway’s cheerful savior. He supports Byford’s plan to fix the subway.
“I think the crux of the situation is, how do you modernize a 110-year-old system without grossly impacting everyday life?” said Smith, who works in information technology and lives in Brooklyn.
If the subway was closed on nights and weekends, Smith said he would be fine with taking a backup shuttle bus. “Short-term sacrifice usually pays off,” he said.
Andrew Fox, who lives in Queens and works in construction on the weekend, said the subway often ran local during repair work, which made his commute a “nightmare,” turning a 30-minute trip into an hourlong ride.
“It’s only massively inconvenient,” he said. “From far out in Queens to Manhattan, a local train is just the worst.”
Sifuentes, the transit advocate, said he welcomed the disruption, as long as the authority provides “a really good bus route to compensate.”
“Shut my line down,” he said, “Give me CBTC. I want that as soon as possible.”
Regularly closing the subway on nights and weekends would be a dramatic change for New York, where many people work outside the traditional 9-to-5 schedule. Those who work at places like medical centers and restaurants commute at all hours, even between midnight and 5 a.m., said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University.
“Those are the key hours when office towers are cleaned,” he said, “when hipsters are out at comedy clubs and music venues and, of course, when the vast kitchens are baking bagels, boiling eggs and cutting up fruit.”
Christine Sherlock, a teacher who lives in Queens and teaches college classes on nights and weekends, said if she had to take a bus, instead of the subway, that could more than double her commute to two hours. Despite the hassle, she wants the subway to be upgraded.
“It would be worth it,” she said, “in the long run.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.