Anatomy of a New York City subway crash: Dozens of decisions and a derailment

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By Dan Sears

This column originally appeared in On The Way, a weekly newsletter covering everything you need to know about NYC-area transportation. Sign up to get the full version in your inbox every Thursday.

Last week’s subway crash on the Upper West Side gummed up commutes for thousands of New Yorkers — and prompted federal regulators to launch an aggressive safety probe that gained new urgency after an F train derailed in Coney Island on Wednesday.

Unlike many collisions and derailments in the subway’s 120-year history, last Thursday’s calamity didn’t happen in a flash. Rather, the slow-moving crash was the culmination of dozens of decisions over nearly an hour.

Internal MTA records obtained by Gothamist, accounts from the National Transportation Safety Board and interviews with transit employees offer a detailed timeline of events leading up to the Jan. 4 incident.

2:10 p.m.

A 10-car train on the 1 line comes to a screeching halt near the 79th Street station. The train operator alerts the subway’s rail control center that “unruly persons” made their way into an unused conductor cab and activated the emergency brakes. 

2:15 p.m.

The train’s operator and conductor go onto the tracks and reset the brake valve on the subway car, but the train still isn’t working. They tell the control center they suspect a homeless person pulled the brake and request additional help. 

2:35 p.m.

An inspector on the scene alerts dispatchers that multiple emergency brakes have been activated on the train. Transit workers attempt to reset all the tripped brake valves, which takes at least eight minutes. The brakes on the third car from the front of the train cannot be reset. 

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Transit managers decide to fully deactivate the first five cars on the train. That means a supervisor must drive the train blind from the sixth car. An operator in the front car serves as the supervisor’s eyes and ears, directing him over radio. The train pulls into the 79th Street station to let out the passengers. 

2:47 p.m.

The crew continues north, with plans to park the train beneath 103rd Street on a track not used for passenger service before eventually continuing to the 240th Street subway yard in the Bronx. 

2:59 p.m.

Just north of 96th street, the supervisor – who is driving blind and relying on the operator – begins to transfer to the unused track.

A 1 train carrying roughly 200 passengers is moving through the same crossing, transferring from the express track to the local track. The disabled train passes through three signals designed to stop trains when they don’t have clearance. The two trains crash into each other at a slow speed.

The disabled train is shoved into the tunnel wall, and its front car is lifted upwards. The train with passengers aboard is also shoved off the tracks. 

“I told you to stop and stay,” the operator at the front of the disabled train says.

At least 24 people are injured.

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5:15 p.m.

Hundreds of riders are escorted out of the subway tunnel. The scene is flooded with FDNY and MTA crews. 

The aftermath

National Transportation Review Board investigators are on the scene the next day. NSTB Chair Jennifer Homendy makes comments that raise eyebrows among transit insiders. Her team’s investigation will not be limited to the Jan. 4 derailment. “This is the second accident on New York City Transit’s property in 37 days,” she said, referring to a subway track worker who was dragged and killed by a train near the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station on Nov. 29. 

“We are going to want to look at the entire system, including how it is managed and supervised,” Homendy announces. 

Full service won’t be restored on the 1 line until late Saturday night.

The following Wednesday, a train on the F line derailed in Coney Island, jumping the tracks and landing just feet from the edge of the line’s elevated structure.

“Derailments do happen. They shouldn’t, but they do from time to time,” NYC Transit President Richard Davey says after the F train derailment. “Customers should feel safe taking the subway.”

Curious Commuter

Question:

Why are trains in other large cities more reliable and run more often than here? Such as in London, Paris, Barcelona. It seems in every other place I visit, I don’t have to wait more than 3-5 minutes for a train but wait times here can sometimes be 12-25 minutes.
– Maureen from Manhattan

Answer:

MTA officials often make the point that none of the cities you mention have 24/7 subway service. New York City’s around-the-clock system hinders its ability to perform maintenance on its tracks.

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There’s another key difference between our subway and the ones you listed: The vast majority of the trains in New York’s system are staffed with two crew members: An operator who drives the train, and a conductor that opens and closes the doors. London, Paris and Barcelona all staff their subway trains with just one crew member. And New York’s policy of two-person train operation effectively doubles the cost of running more frequent subway service.

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You can also email [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject line “Curious Commuter question.”

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