The New Ghost Trains

At 11:35 p.m., Darnell Wilson opened the door between two cars on the 1 train, threw out a Coca-Cola can, and closed the door. He shook his head to the loud hip-hop music in his earphones, like nothing happened. The can disappeared in the dark tunnel, waiting to be picked up by MTA track cleaners, or one of the three new vacuum trains that the MTA just bought.


Trash problem of NYC’s subway system is serious. It causes fire and the accompanying delay, and the trash can be the feast of rats living in the subway tunnels. To solve the trash problem, MTA has signed a $23 million contract to purchase three new vacuum trains. In two years, they will take delivery of the new vacuum trains to replace the existing two they currently have, according to the MTA spokesman, Kevin Ortiz.


The two vacuum trains MTA currently has are called VakTrak, manufactured by NEU International Railways, a French company. These vacuum trains also operate in subway systems in cities like Paris London, and Montreal. The first VakTrak was put in use in 1997, costing about $15 million each at that time. According to the MTA info, VakTrak is a five-car, self-propelled work train equipped with a vacuum cleaning system designed to suck up trash and steel dust from the concrete-ballasted subway track.


And, according to some, these trains really do suck.


“They are horrible. They do nothing,” said Paul Navarro, the track division chairman of TWU Local 100, a transport workers union in New York City. “My workers (MTA cleaners) still have to work in front of the train.”


According to Navarro, the main problem is that the vacuum trains cannot recognize rocks and concrete from trash. Human track cleaners still have to bend down and pick out the rocks and concrete from the hoppers that store the waste in the front of the train.


“It’s a waste of time,” said Mr. Navarro.


A long with monotony of picking up trash, the track cleaners are exposed to noise and fume pollution from the vacuum trains. The noise level of normal subway trains is 92 decibels to 102 decibels, which can damage a person’s hearing in as little as 15 minutes, according to Journal of Urban Health, published by the New York Academy of Medicine. And the average noise level of a vacuum machine is about 70 decibels.


In fact, some local residents call VakTrak “the ghost train.” One reason is that the train rolls through the system overnight between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., when few riders can see it. The other reason is the noise of the vacuum train. “I barely could hear my metal music on my Bose headphones,” said Chi-An Wang, who saw a VakTrak at 11 p.m. at Times Square station. The track cleaners work every night, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., seven days a week, with 30.95 dollar per hour’s wage. Usually there are three to four cleaners riding the vacuum train.


For stations like 125st Station in West Harlem that are designed in double-layers outdoors station, “it’s the best place to run the vacuum train, but they don’t,” said Mr. Navarro. The reasons that it is not used there is few rocks and dust fill in between the outdoor tracks, and the platform is too dangerous to have huge heavy vacuum trains running on it.


Scott M. Stringer, the New York City Comptroller, said on a press release on May 14, 2015, that the vacuum trains constantly break down and only clean one third of each track. The trains fail to pick up debris on the track 70 percent of the time. And in total, 12 percent of the stations examined were not cleaned at all by a VakTrak, instead of twice a year as the standard required.


The three new vacuum trains were purchased from the French company NEU, after two other competitors (Oregon Iron Works Inc. and Schorling kommunal GmbH) were eliminated due to overprice and relatively inferior technology. According to the MTA Transit and Bus Committee Meeting report released in October 2014, the three new vacuum trains will take place of the existing two, which have now reached the end of their useful lives. Also, it requests Board approval to increase the scope of the Purchase Vacuum Trains Project in the 2010-2014 Capital Program from two to three vacuum trains.


The new vacuum trains will not be self-propelled in order to eliminate dependency on its own propulsion system and maximize availability, which means that they will save more energy and make less noise. Additionally, the new vacuum trains will employ improved debris agitation and suction systems to advance vacuuming efficiency in a single pass and enable NYC Transit to increase the amount of track bed to be cleaned and maximize the speed and effectiveness of the cleaning operation.


“I believe the new technology will help improve the situation,” said Mr. Navarro. Each train will be moved through the system by NYC Transit locomotives.


“We keep telling people not to litter. And they shall listen,” said Daniel Meredith, the media liaison of Metro-North Railroad. It’s true that littering causes trouble to both New York City’s image and the operation of train. Last year, more than 1,400 tons of trash was created underground. And in 2013, 563 track fires were attribute to trash, resulting in over 7,200 train delays.


“It’s an obvious excuse,” said Mr. Navarro. “If everyone does not crime, we don’t need police, or jails. It’s pointless what she (Daniel) said.”


And to respond to riders’ littering, MTA decided to remove trash cans from a total of 39 subway stations as a pilot to see if the amount of trash collected would decrease. Sounds counterintuitive, yet it is claimed to actually work. The result of the ongoing MTA New York City Transit pilot shows a 66% reduction in the number of bags collected at Phase 1 and Phase 2 stations, and a 36% reduction in the number of bags collected at Phase 3 stations.


“This pilot appears counterintuitive but when we placed notices at the pilot stations indicating that the cans had been removed and asked the customers for their cooperation, it looks like they listened,” according to New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco. “Given these results, we’ll continue the pilot and monitor and collect additional data at stations.”


But Mr. Navarro said that the intention of removing garbage cans was not to control the litter, but to starve the rats. “Then the rats won’t have any food,” said Mr. Navarro, with mocking smile on his face. “But we still have a lot of rats. They can find the food on tracks now, because without the trash cans, people just throw the trash to the tracks.” Mr. Navarro said as far as they knew, removing the cans has not controlled the trash problem at all, but on the contrary, more track fires happened. MTA did not reply to TWU Local 100’s comments.


Even though people did litter less in some stations, back in the dark tunnels, the trash problem is still startling. In the tunnels, water leaked from the ceiling and walls, running in the middle of the tracks. The trash brought by the fast running trains will be stuck in the water, decaying and breeding bacterial and vermin, or even plague, which can be dangerous to the homeless who are forced to live in the tunnels.


However, as the trash problem getting worse, MTA slashed track-cleaning workforce by nearly 50%, according to a press release by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer on May 14th, 2015. The cutting workforce led to only three percent of the tracks in 276 underground stations were cleaned, and 269 of 276 underground stations were cleaned less than once every three weeks. About 88% of stations were cleaned less than eight times per year. And according to the MTA’s standards, cleaning crews are expected to visit each underground station and clean track beds once every three weeks.


Another approach MTA made was to launch a plan called “Fastrack,” in which segments of subway lines are shut down at night to perform maintenance, cleaning and repair. Despite MTA revenue grew 34% between 2008 and 2013, the percentage of revenue spent on cleaning station fell from 6.3% to 5.4%. The plan failed to solve the trash problem as the fare kept increasing.


“They should fine people who litter,” Mr. Navarro suggested. “Just like the traffic policemen.” And according to the MTA Rules of Conduct and Fines, those littering, urinating, defecating, spitting, or unauthorized removing trash will be fined $50. However, during the 20 years of Mr. Navarro’s duty in the transportation maintenance area, “I’ve never seen any ticket, or staff who takes charge of it.” Mr. Navarro believes that with cameras all over, it’s possible to catch people littering or smoking.


“It’s just a coke,” said Darnell Wilson, with a puzzled look on his face after being forced to take off the earphones. The door between cars is not allowed to open, and there should be another $75 fine on Mr. Wilson’s behavior, according to the MTA Rules of Conducts and Fines. “What can I do, dude?” said Darnell Wilson.