For over a century, there has been no more sheepish, if reliable, self-defense than this for the tardy New York City traveler: The train was late. There was nothing I could do.
But in a city where "train traffic," that villain of automated subway announcements, can be too faceless a culprit, most riders know nothing of the system to officially assign blame, with a simple note.
Since June 2010, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has given more than 250,000 such notes, titled Subway Delay Verification, to riders, determining whether their trains had in fact come in behind schedule, or if, perhaps, the agency had been unjustly scapegoated by a harried commuter.
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Passengers are asked to provide information like their subway line and the times and locations of their entries and exits. And then, maybe hours later, maybe days, the authority returns with its judgment — the transit equivalent of a doctor's note, if a bit more bewildering.
"There was a disruption in service, specifically signal trouble, sick customer, brakes in emergency and track circuit failure, which caused massive service delays, reroutes and/or trains to be discharged on the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, A, B, C, D, F, J, L, M, N, Q and R lines," one recent response read, in part. "As a result, any one delay lasted up to 82 minutes."
Forms, to be presented eventually to bosses or clients, have been solicited by employees of the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Police Department, medical trainees who sleep in and actresses with appointments far across town.
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The Swedish Institute in Chelsea has advised massage therapists to bookmark the delay verification page, reminding them, as one administrator said in a recent interview, that punctuality — or, failing that, proof of good intentions — was critical to succeeding in an industry powered by restless New Yorkers in robes.
Even the city's young educational elite, assured that lateness will beget punishment, have petitioned school staffs to accept the authority's certificates as exculpatory.
"You know men," said Mary Brockmeyer, an administrative aide at Regis High School, an all-boys school on the Upper East Side.
Though a version of the program has existed for decades, enlisted chiefly by municipal workers who were paid according to a punched clock, the authority said that requests had nearly tripled since the service first became available online in 2010. In October, when over 156 million subway trips were taken, according to preliminary agency data, the authority issued more than 8,200 responses to riders who asked for the documentation.
"We'd rather be at 100 percent on-time performance," said Paul Fleuranges, the authority's senior director of corporate and internal communications. "But nobody's perfect."
A survey of other major transit networks suggests that the authority is uniquely dedicated to charting its imperfections. Officials in Boston, Chicago and Washington said their systems offered no such service online, though riders can ask for a delay to be confirmed through customer service channels.
Passengers on the London Underground are refunded, according to the system's website, if delays exceed 15 minutes "for reasons within our control."
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Perhaps only the transit minds of Japan, where a train's punctuality is often treated as a given, can supplement the New York authority's zeal for detail with a dash of genuine guilt. Delay certificates, issued at ticket gates for the Tokyo Metro, have been known to include messages of apology.
Still, many New Yorkers seem to have used the notices to their advantage. Marcus Greer, who travels from South Jamaica, Queens, to his job as a security guard in Midtown, said the service had helped keep punctuality-related blemishes off his permanent file. Workers who accrue too many can be fired, he said.
"Before the system was in place, they would give you a write-up right off the bat," he said. "Even if you were late by the train, it just goes in your folder."
In recent years, Mr. Greer said, the notices have served a dual purpose: absolving guards on particular mornings — typically involving the E and No. 6 trains, in his case — and proving to supervisors that employees probably should have been taken at their word all along.
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"You have the proof," he said. "That means they can trust you."
Tom Weppler, 48, an information technology engineer from City Island, first asked for a delay verification in October 2012, hoping to piece together a morning in which he reported to work an hour late. (Because he had to leave early that afternoon, he recalled, he had "begged" his boss days earlier to let him start at 8:30 a.m. instead of 9:30 a.m.)
In fact, Mr. Weppler was told one day later, train trouble had touched 16 subway lines. "As a result," the authority's response read, "any one delay lasted up to 395 minutes," or 6 hours 35 minutes.
"I could have gone to see a really long movie and had lunch if I'd known I was going to be excused for that long," he said.
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Some riders wondered if the generous delay estimates had compromised the notification system's credibility, though shorter delays have also posed a potential problem.
The authority said it considered any train that reached its terminal destination "no more than five minutes late" to be on time, suggesting that any smaller holdups might go unrecorded. A spokesman added that the agency could not recall receiving a request to confirm a delay of less than five minutes.
For many New Yorkers, the greater deterrent appears to be social acceptability. One morning in May, after a breakfast meeting had been foiled by the Lexington Avenue line, Maris Kreizman, 35, an editor from Brooklyn Heights, wrote on Twitter that the authority "should issue late passes" that read, "It's not my fault that I missed the 9 a.m. meeting."
Informed that such a service existed, Ms. Kreizman reconsidered. "A note from your mom about being late works in junior high," she said in a recent phone interview. "I don't know if it actually works in real life."
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At Regis High School, where Ms. Brockmeyer said administrators had once valued the authority's certificates, a different shortcoming has been exposed.
The sentence for a late arrival is often afternoon detention on the same day, Ms. Brockmeyer said, meaning that any student's claim of faultlessness would need to be appraised within hours.
The authority's notices, she said, did not arrive in time.
—By Matt Flegenheimer of The New York Times.