Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty)

The New York City subway’s array of problems—dysfunctional signals, relentless delays, overcrowded trains—is well-known, but the Village Voice has another premise to add to the list, and it makes a whole lot of sense: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the system, is literally running the trains slower.

In a sprawling feature that hinges on set of MTA internal documents, the Voice discovered a significant decision was made following a fatal 1995 crash on the Williamsburg Bridge. In 1995, a Manhattan-bound J train crossed the bridge and rear-ended an M train that had stopped, leaving the operator dead and more than 50 people injured.

As the Voice recounts it, The National Transportation and Safety Board primarily blamed the J train operator, but it also included a list of potential issues, including that the subway’s signal system contributed to the accident.

Here’s more from the Voice (emphasis mine):

“They slowed the trains down after the Williamsburg Bridge crash,” a veteran train operator who asked not to be identified told the Village Voice. “The MTA said the train was going too fast for the signal system.” As a result, the MTA, quite literally, slowed all the trains down, issuing a bulletin informing employees in April 1996 that their propulsion systems would be modified so they could achieve a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, down from the previous high of 50 to 55 miles per hour on a flat grade.


The MTA pushed back on the Voice’s reporting, but the story offers a ton of illuminating insights. Brief delays—sparked by the slower speeds—pile up and create bigger logjams, creating a scenario where the MTA’s planned $836 million effort to fix the system, in fact, solves little-to-nothing at all.