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Trouble on the "Immigrant Express"

by Larry Tung, Feb 05, 2008
 

After three weekends of disrupted service between Woodside and Flushing because of installation of new signaling and track switches, the 7 train resumed local service in February, to the huge relief of commuters and immigrants getting ready for the Lunar New Year celebration. Express service remains suspended until March for the entire line.

Running along 19 miles from Times Square to Flushing, Queens, the 7 train serves 24 stations and nearly 400,000 riders a day. It is known as the "immigrant express" or "international express" because it goes through neighborhoods occupied by people representing more than 150 nations. While politicians and local merchants welcomed the return of the 7 train, many who depend on the subway fault the crowding and delays and think, even when it is running at full service, the train leaves a lot to be desired.

Back in Service

The return of service is particularly good news for residents in Flushing, a primarily Chinese and Korean enclave, as well as other immigrants who travel to specialty stores there to prepare for the Lunar New Year, which falls on February 7 this year. John Liu, the City Council member who represents Flushing, told the Daily News that the area's economy would have taken an even bigger hit if the 7 train had not run the first two weekends of February, the biggest shopping days of the year in the area. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's move was in response to requests from local politicians and.

"The MTA is understanding and cooperating with the businesses," Liu said.

"Our track department performed above and beyond our expectations," Steven Feil, senior vice president for subways at NYC Transit, said in a press release. The repair work, originally scheduled for five weekends, was completed ahead of schedule due to favorable weather.

During the first weekend with the 7 train back in service, Flushing was in chaos as many people rushed back to do their Lunar New Year shopping. According to the Chinese-language World Journal, a parking space was hard to find while the streets were filled with traffic and frustrated drivers. Some people did not know about the restored service and boarded the Long Island Rail Road without a ticket, thinking it was still free between New York Penn Station and Flushing.

The installation of the new equipment represents the second phase of a $76 million capital program to improve and upgrade the subway infrastructure along the Flushing line.

To provide alternative service when the 7 was not in service, the MTA ran shuttle buses between Woodside and Flushing. The Long Island Rail Road provided free rides between New York Penn Station and Flushing. The disruption confused many passengers, but most were able to find their way to the shuttle bus. Bilingual MTA workers were available to help riders who speak little English.

Chronic Pain

Even when it runs on weekends, a ride on the 7 train is never exactly smooth. Riders' blogs on the Straphangers website offer an array of complaints about the 7 train.

"At 6 p.m. today, I was at Grand Central station and there was hardly room to move on the platform," wrote Averie. "I don't mind the wait as much as I saw the safety hazard that prevailed on a crowded platform since both the Times Square-bound and Queens-bound trains both were not there to alleviate this human gridlock."

"One of the worst trains ever, and the only train out of Flushing forcing those of us that live there to take his horribly over crowded, smelly train," wrote Jen W. on Yelp, a review Web site on New York. "It's never on time. There are always delays. I don't care that you apologize for the delay, how about you apologize to my boss for me getting there late? Are you going to subsidize the pay my boss is going to dock from me? Probably not."

Some bloggers believe that the riders of the 7 train are underserved because they are mostly immigrants and working class.

"The subway system in New York City is unlike any other. It's a subway system in which people's livelihoods depend on - rich and poor," wrote a blogger named Cheeseburger 9000. "The subway was built for everyone, not simply for the rich folks living on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side that have to get to their important jobs in midtown and downtown."

"What is not recognized and valued is that thousands upon thousands of the city's workers come in from Queens," wrote Mariposa7 on the Straphangers blog. "This is not racism on the part of the MTA. This is classism, which unfortunately reeks of racism because the poorer class in this city is mostly made up of black and Latino citizens, immigrants included."

Service Improvements

In an effort to make things better, the MTA last December named a general manager for the 7 and the L trains. The move is part of an overall effort to decentralize the system by appointing managers who are responsible for virtually all elements of the day-to-day operations of the lines, overseeing everything from announcements to station cleanliness.

The MTA has also been asking riders to grade their subway lines. In the rider survey conducted last year, the 7 train received a C minus, with most riders citing severe crowding at rush hour. Among the 24 subway lines, only the C, E, W, G and the Rockaway Shuttle trains received a worse grade.

Lou Brusati, the line general manager for the 7 train and a veteran MTA supervisor, said he thought the 7's grade was fair but declined to give the train a grade himself. "New Yorkers are a tough crowd...in a good way," he said. "People have high expectations and they feel that we can do better."

Brusati added that he would focus on station cleanliness and the reliability of service. Starting next month, he will conduct a series of "meet and greets" at various stations and listen to the riders' concerns.

Larry Tung, a native of Taiwan, teaches media and film courses at Kean University in Union, New Jersey. A resident of Brooklyn, he is also a documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on immigrant and Asian American issues.  


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