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Now that subway service has resumed to nearly normal -- several years ahead of schedule -- it is clear that last month’s fire in a subway signal room near the Chambers Street station created more than crowding and inconvenience for the public and higher expenses for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The fire also raised important questions. Why did the initial story need to be so heavily revised as the week wore on? Are there enduring lessons to be learned from this event?

First, why did the accounts of the cause and implications of the fire change so much from the initial news reports?

New York City Transit President Lawrence Reuter was initially reported as saying that the disabled lines would not return to service for three to five years. But two days later he revised his estimate to six to nine months. And on February 2-- about 10 days after the fire -- C train service resumed, and the A began running at almost normal frequency.

Officials initially attributed the fire to a homeless person setting fire to wood and refuse in a shopping cart 50 feet north of the Chambers Street station but now reportedly say they have found "no conclusive information to arrive at a definitive cause for this fire."

I think I can guess at the reasons behind these puzzling missteps. When Reuter predicted years of interrupted service, he was probably thinking how long it would take to rebuild completely the complex and antiquated signal room. But what most people wanted to know was when the trains would start running again. It appears that reporters took his response – about completely rebuilding the damaged equipment – to be the answer to their quite different question about the timeline for restoring service.

When officials attributed the fire to an unidentified homeless person rather than waiting for the investigation to be completed, they were probably thinking about the fire as just one more calamity beyond their control. Blaming the fire on the homeless matched their expectation that they could not have prevented it, and thus they looked no further for alternative causes.

Why did the press characterize the subway lines as “crippled or shut down” as though all the riders from the Rockaways to upper Manhattan would be left without any service? Part of the reason is that Reuter seemed to be saying just that. Another part of the reason is that reporters are not paid to plan subway re-routings. Any regular rider of the A and C lines knows that the trains are regularly switched to the F tracks in downtown Brooklyn during track work on the A and C lines in lower Manhattan – the exact tracks affected by the fire. Transit officials took advantage of this flexibility, and extended the V line from the Lower East Side into Brooklyn to serve C line stations in Brooklyn. They also added B service in Manhattan during rush hours to make up for the lack of C service.

What can be gained from this episode? No doubt, transit and fire department officials will be a little more focused on clear communications and not jumping to conclusions next time there is a fire or accident or other major disruption.

Another lesson is that the sprawling subway system can never be made completely secure. We do not know what started the fire, but no one is suggesting that terrorists are to blame. Whether it was, in fact, a homeless person, flammable material left by transit workers, or some kind of random electrical malfunction may never be known. It does seem obvious, however, that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new ban on subway photography would not have prevented the problem.

Perhaps the most important lesson was learned by the public, or at least graphically illustrated for the public. For months, public officials, civic leaders, and transit advocates have been discussing the transit system’s capital program, which is up for refunding this year. Reporters have stepped up coverage of these issues but lacked a way to demonstrate what is at stake. The subway fire dramatized the city’s utter dependence on switches, control boxes, electrical cables and thousands of other highly technical and largely unseen equipment in the subway system. And thus, the subway fire served as an allegory for the repair and funding issues that most of the time seem only distantly related to the public’s daily experience of transit services.

The fire also helped to educate the public about how the system operates and how decisions about maintenance and upgrades can very tangibly affect the daily commute. It came to light, for example, that 158 of 200 signal relay rooms have been modernized and upgraded since 1982 with fire detectors, fire-retardant materials, and automatic fire extinguishers – just not the one north of Chambers Street.

Would more money have helped? More than any other MTA chairman appointed by Governor George Pataki, Peter Kalikow has been forthright about the need for increased funding for transit improvements. In this instance, however, Kalikow was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “If somebody gave us $50 billion tomorrow, we could not any faster upgrade these signals.” No doubt only so many subway repairs and maintenance activities can take place at any one time. But the MTA’s own budget recommendations include funding for far more projects, both repair and new construction, than anyone has found the money for. The value of those projects may be a little bit easier to explain this month than they were a month ago.

Bruce Schaller is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation, and is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.


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