The New York City subway, the largest transit system in the US and the main transportation artery for millions of people every day, could take weeks to become fully operational again due to the heavy flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy, but some limited service will resume Thursday morning.
“The MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) faced a disaster as devastating as it has ever faced in its history,” said Joseph Lhota, MTA chairman, on Wednesday. “Sandy wreaked havoc on the entire transportation system…in every single borough of the city and county of the MTA region.”
Seven of the city’s subway tunnels located under New York’s East river flooded during the hurricane, halting transportation for the 8.5 million customers that use the 108-year-old transit system daily.
MTA employees working around the clock have already pumped water out of three of the city’s seven flooded tunnels, allowing limited service to be reinstated to 14 of the 23 subway lines starting Thursday morning, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Wednesday.
Transportation to areas that the subway can’t access will be supplemented by shuttle buses, and the city is already “pretty much back to full service on buses with the exception of areas that are flooded,” said Deidre Parker, MTA spokeswoman, in a phone interview.
It could take weeks before full service can be restored to the subway, because billions of gallons of water will need to be pumped out of the New York’s subway tunnels. The city is using portable “heavy duty” pumps that attach to trucks and trains to draw water out of the subway into the city’s sewer system, Parker explained.
“No subway system is designed for a flood of this magnitude,” said Nasri Munfah, chairman of tunnel services at HNTB Corp., a Kansas-based infrastructure construction, design and consulting firm in an interview with Bloomberg News. “I don’t think it’s going to be a matter of a day or two. It’s a big job.”
MTA officials also have to inspect 600 miles of track and the transit’s electrical systems before the subway can be fully operational again.
The extent of damage is still unknown and won’t be fully assessed until the water is completely pumped out and the debris and garbage are removed from the tunnels. Thousands of connections in the subway’s signal systems will also need to be cleaned and tested before trains can be back running on a full schedule again, according to MTA officials.
The water that has seeped into the transit system is salty, which could also prove to be a problem. Each connection and component will need to be salt free to prevent short circuits in the system, because “when hot electrical equipment hits cold salt water, that is a bad combination,” said Cuomo.
If some parts need to be replaced that could also delay the transit’s repairs, since the system is antiquated, according to Kathy Waters, vice president for member services at the American Public Transportation Association.
“The New York system, although there are some components that have been upgraded over the years, has a lot of antique components where the vendor has been out of business for 50 years,” Waters said in an interview with Bloomberg News.
Officials are also unclear how much it will cost to clean up the subway, but the decision to end train service and move equipment to safety before the hurricane hit prevented the damage from being worse, said Parker. “We took every precaution we possibly could.”