Decades of mismanagement forced the MTA into a costly cleanup of subway drains — a multi-million dollar repair job necessary to speed trains and improve service.
For years, water hardly flowed through the system’s 10,000 drains, which are meant to pump 13 million gallons of water out of the system on dry days, and millions of gallons more when it rains.
The bulk of the drains were filled to the brim with several feet of mud, silt and trash.
“The whole system was ineffective,” said a high-ranking MTA source. “The water didn’t get to the end, where it’s got to go.”
Excess water on the 418 miles of underground track can make sensors and switches malfunction. It can spark track fires when it hits the third rail. “It f---s everything up,” said an MTA superintendent.
The MTA was urged to solve the problems in a February 2006 report by its inspector general, completed a year-and-a-half after the subway flooded when two inches of rain blasted the city in just an hour.
“Transit didn’t even have good maps of where their drains and check valves [that prevent water taken out of the system from flowing back in] were located," said Beth Keating, an IG employee who worked on the report.
"We went into archives and into engineers’ basements. We found the drainage locations and started taking people out with us to look at them,” Keating said.
But the Inspector General’s work came to naught. MTA officials didn’t keep the IG’s drain map, and system engineers were back at square one a decade later as the subway fell into a crisis.
MTA managers were not proactive about clogged drains. When standing water was spotted on the tracks, crews would clear the drain and move on. Few records were taken, and there was no master plan to clear the pipes.
“There was a lack of a sophisticated maintenance management system,” acknowledged Sally Librera, NYC Transit’s head of subways.
“The clogged drains were a symptom of a system that’s diseased,” said Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen. “The reason the drains got clogged to begin with is because there were no resources being pumped into the subway.
“The cleaning of the drains became less of a priority than something that could trigger a derailment,” Samuelsen said.
Some of the $836 million Subway Action Plan — established two years ago to save the subways from looming disaster — was devoted to fixing the problem. The plan included $198 million for track and maintenance work between 2017 and 2019, part of which went to the drainage project.
MTA officials say the drainage system — in places more than a century old — has been mostly repaired. Crews have cleared out 99% of the subway’s drains over the last two years, and have set up a system to keep track of them.
Managers now have a comprehensive database of the drains, and use modern mapping software to pinpoint their whereabouts. The system will help managers determine how often each drain needs to be cleared and which spots are most prone to clogging.
"Now we’re doing a sampling program that tracks how silt and debris affects different key [drain] boxes so that we can put effective cycles in place to maintain these improvements,” said Librera.
Some gunk flows from the 46 miles of underground “ballasted” track that sits on gravel instead of concrete. Some of it seeps through old tunnels beneath the water table and have a 100-year-old waterproofing system comprised of brick and tar. Trash thrown from platforms also helps clog drains.
The MTA has sent bags of subway dirt to labs in hope of learning more about where it comes from.
Cleaning out gummed-up drains is a big task. The Daily News recently watched one cleanup that required crews to shovel gunk into 25 sandbags before they reached the drain pipe. The team then finished the job with a giant vacuum rigged up aboard one of the agency’s work trains.
The MTA’s vacuums are big — but they don’t always suck.
One of the hoses last week could not pull out a thick chunk of silt and rock. Workers had to wait around for an hour while the problem with the vacuum was fixed.
A few drains are so densely clogged that crews must clear them with a jackhammer. Sometimes, workers must replace entire sections of mucked-up pipe.
Roughly three-quarters of the drain maintenance work completed under the Subway Action Plan was done by private contractors, said an MTA source. Union officials agreed to that arrangement as a one-time deal in what Samuelsen said was “the spirit of getting the subway back into a state of reliability.”
It’s unclear who will maintain the drains moving forward. TWU Local 100 is in the middle of contract negotiations with the MTA, and drain work is a part of those talks.
The MTA will have money to continue to pay for drain maintenance and other essential upkeep. Some $300 million will be allocated to the Subway Action Plan each year, thanks to a surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles that went into effect in February.
It’s more important than ever for the MTA to keep the subway dry. NYC Transit President Andy Byford is preparing to speed up trains by rapidly upgrading the system’s signal system with equipment that is not waterproof.
“Signal systems are sensitive to water," said Keating. "No doubt that’s something you want to invest in — keeping water out to protect the equipment.”
But history shows that subway managers will have to take care the drain system does not lapse again into disrepair.