Wednesday, 18 November 2009:
It is easy to deride the New York urban rail system, here called the subway, as old and unreliable. Some even think it unsafe. In truth, there is much it can be proud of. It is not altogether fair to compare it to brand new systems like Singapore’s, the first line for which came into service only in 1987.
The subway’s tunnels and stations were built in a different age with different technology. Difficult as it is to dig tunnels and underground stations in a built-up environment – just think of the disruption caused when our Northeast line was being built – it is far more so expanding existing tunnels and stations while having to continue running services through them and when the surrounding area is even more built up. You’d hardly blame any administration for not even trying to do that. If so, a hundred years from now, would our tunnels and underground stations still be largely the same that we have today? Quite possibly. Who would be laughing at Singapore’s old and archaic metro system then?
So never mind the looks, does the New York system do its primary job – transporting millions – reliably? It seems to me the answer is Yes. The carriages look reasonably well-maintained, cleanliness is not a serious issue, and I don’t think crime is a significant problem. In other works, its basic mission is fulfilled.
Now and then, there are route changes, and this can get very confusing to a visitor. Signs explain that certain tracks are closed because new signalling equipment has to be installed, and so trains on that line do not run on their usual track, but on another one. If you’re not careful, you may find yourself waiting on the wrong platform.
Yesterday, I came across a variant of this problem. The platform was right, but along a certain segment of the route, the train was diverted from the “local” line to the “express” track, because work had to be done on the usual “local” line. To residents, it was reasonably clear what that meant, but to a visitor like me, it was not obvious. It turned out that when a train runs on an “express” line, it skips certain stops. You find yourself sailing by the station that you wanted to get off at.
The cosmopolitanism of New York is very visible on the subway. Unless the carriage is virtually empty, you are sure to see a mix of different races. There will be at least one Asian, one Black and one Hispanic, usually many. My rough guess is that Whites don’t even make up more the half the passengers. Of course, there’s an economic explanation for this: they are more likely to have cars or to take taxis.
Still, it was striking how, as one rode the train to the more distant and cheaper parts of New York, there were fewer and fewer Whites. Today, on the Number 7 train to its terminus in Flushing in Queens, the last White passenger left at the 69th Street station. Returning, the first White passenger didn’t board until the Queensboro Plaza station. For the last part of the journey, the majority on the train were Hispanics, with Chinese making up most of the rest.
Going to Harlem yesterday, the train was about 80 percent Black after 103rd Street. Alighting from the train at 125th Street station, I was immediately greeted by great music. A four-piece band – all Black, naturally – had set themselves up on the platform itself, bongo drums and all. It put a smile on everybody’s face.
Many Singaporeans feel angst about the increasing cosmopolitanism of our own city. Compared to the diversity of New York, we in Singapore haven’t even seen cosmopolitanism yet. Nor the joys it can bring.