NEW YORK — The city that never sleeps is waking from its monthslong coronavirus hibernation this week, but the central artery of New York City’s 24-hour lifestyle, its underground train system, will remain dormant overnight — and the longer it does, the more people wonder if it will ever reopen.
For the first time in nearly a century the biggest and most comprehensive subway system in the U.S. shut down from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. indefinitely starting in April. The reason at the time was to remove homeless people from trains and disinfect every car for the next day’s run.
Transit advocates and officials were aghast.
“I am shocked and stunned,” said MTA board member Andrew Albert in an email to fellow members. “I hope this is not used as an excuse to ‘save money’ and make it permanent.”
Now, with the city slowly reopening offices, restaurants and shops, many are pressing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to restore nightly service as soon as possible. The trains typically move the city’s single most important commodity — its workers — at all hours. Without them, the economic recovery of the city, the region and by extension the U.S. will be slowed or stunted.
But Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the MTA, has given no indication of when overnight service will resume.
And with a system that has suffered from years of neglected maintenance, archaic signaling systems and chronic delays, some have dared to ask if it may be a good idea to keep subways closed overnight.
“Everyone we’ve talked to on the contracting side has said it makes it much more difficult to do maintenance and repairs and upgrades with the existing 24/7 [model],” said Tom Wright, president and CEO of the Regional Plan Association — one of the region’s oldest planning groups. Since the closure, “it sounds like the cars are much cleaner, that the MTA is able to get a lot more done, and so it ought to be something that’s considered.”
Cuomo said the MTA is already accelerating $2 billion in capital projects during the period of reduced ridership and has extolled the virtues of the subway closure.
“The subway cars are cleaner than they have ever been in my lifetime,” Cuomo said at a press conference earlier this month.
Riders agree — 72 percent of more than 10,000 customers surveyed who have used the subway since the overnight closure went into effect said the system was cleaner than before, said Abbey Collins, a spokesperson for the MTA.
New York is something of an anomaly in offering overnight service. Most subway systems — from Singapore to San Francisco — shut down most of their lines either at midnight or 1 a.m. until the early morning hours.
Experts say the closures help get critical work done to both improve reliability and the rider experience.
“They use this time for maintenance — for maintaining the trains, but also the tracks, the stations [and] cleaning the infrastructure,” said Mohamed Mezghani, the secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, based in Brussels. “That’s what most metros do during the night.”
But New Yorkers consider 24-hour train service sacrosanct in a city known for its nightlife and 24-hour work schedule.
“It’s considered part of the birth rite of New Yorkers to ride the subway at all hours of the day anytime they want,” Wright said.
He first floated closing down the subway on weeknights in a 2017 proposal, a few months after the “summer of hell” when the transit system suffered severe reliability issues. The proposal noted only 1.5 percent of weekday riders use the system between 12:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., and that “track work is complicated and expensive on a 24/7 system.” It advocated for new bus service to make up for any service suspension. (Buses currently move passengers in the hours when trains go dark.)
The idea drew swift rebuke from many corners of the transit world, including from some members of RPA’s own board, who argued it would be a detriment to the city’s economy and burden workers who commute then.
“I was pilloried everywhere,” Wright recalled.
Many transit advocates argue the purported benefits of a nightly shutdown don’t always add up.
“We can’t forget the real motivation behind closing the subway overnight, which was to disrupt the pattern of homeless people living in transit,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance. “We agree with the governor that the subway is not a good place to live, but we haven’t yet seen is the governor demonstrating a sustainable, humane plan for safe private places for the homeless to be rather than in transit.”
“[Cuomo] has to figure out a way to keep trains clean enough while also keeping them running to serve people’s basic commuting needs,” Pearlstein added.
A five-hour closure also leaves relatively little time to get work done, especially since train operators still use the system during that time and have to ramp up service toward the end of the closure to prepare for rush hour, said John Samuelson, the president of the Transport Workers Union of America.
“There would be a way for them to get more production, but it would be incremental,” he said. “It wouldn’t be massive noticeable production increases. There would still be train traffic.”
Samuelson, who sits on the MTA board, said he supports the closures for the duration of the pandemic, but that overnight service must eventually return.
The head of the city transit system agrees the four-hour window is relatively narrow to make major gains in maintenance.
“There are a lot of systems outside of New York who feel it’s important to close for at least a portion of the night. Many have spent that time getting maintenance and work done,” Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of the New York City Transit Authority, said in an interview. “The reality is … 1 to 5 is not a lot of time to get actual work done. But it’s certainly better than nothing.”
Subway ridership has been rebounding since hitting record lows at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a total of 800,000 riders using the system at the beginning of June. But that’s still just 15 percent of regular ridership compared to last year.
There was an initial uptick in bus ridership at the start of the public health crisis, though it has leveled off slightly, Feinberg said. The MTA expanded bus service at night to account for the subway closure — adding overnight service to 37 bus routes and providing more frequent service on 61 bus lines, many of which stop at hospitals around the city.
Union leaders say so far they haven’t heard complaints from essential workers commuting to work at dawn.
“I think it’s manageable,” said Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, which represents many hospital workers. “It will remain to be seen [when] the whole complement of the workforce comes back. But for now it remains manageable.”
As of now, there doesn’t appear to be a rush.
“I think New York is the city that never sleeps,” Feinberg said. “I think 24-hour service — returning to 24/7 service — is inevitable at some point. I don’t think anyone knows when that point is right now.”