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Surge in Ridership Pushes New York Subway to Limit

For New Yorkers who rely on the 86th Street subway station on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the morning commute is a humbling experience. An endless stream of people funnel onto the platforms. Trains arrive with a wall of humanity already blocking the doorways.

As No. 6 trains pull into the upper level of the station, riders scan for an opening and, if they can, squeeze in for a suffocating ride downtown.

"You can wait four or five subways to get on, and you're just smushed," Cynthia Hallenbeck, the chief financial officer at a nonprofit, said before boarding a train on a recent morning.

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The Lexington Avenue line is the most crowded in the system, but subway riders across New York City are finding themselves on platforms and trains that are beyond crowded. L train stations in Brooklyn are routinely overwhelmed. In Queens, No. 7 train riders regularly endure packed conditions.

A woman waits for a subway train in New York City.
Robert Nickelsberg | Getty Images
A woman waits for a subway train in New York City.

Subway use, now at nearly 1.8 billion rides a year, has not been this high since 1948, when the fare was a nickel and the Dodgers were still almost a decade away from leaving Brooklyn. Today, train delays are rising, and even a hiccup like a sick passenger or a signal malfunction can inundate stations with passengers.

Delays caused by overcrowding have quadrupled since 2012 to more than 20,000 each month, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The crowded trains can make for tense commutes, contributing to an uptick in assaults among disgruntled passengers, the transit police say. With crowds lining the platform edge, some riders and train operators worry that someone could fall onto the tracks.

And with summer approaching, the imposed intimacy will soon be even less welcome, as platform temperatures climb into the 80s and 90s.

"In terms of physical discomfort and feeling that life stinks in the subway, this is the No. 1 culprit," said Gene Russianoff, the longtime leader of the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group.

Subway ridership in New York is in the midst of a resurgence almost unimaginable in the 1970s and '80s when the system was defined by graffiti and crime. Ridership has steadily risen to nearly six million daily riders today from about four million in the 1990s.

But the subway infrastructure has not kept pace, and that has left the system with a litany of needs, many of them essential to maintaining current service or accommodating the increased ridership. The authority's board recently approved $14.2 billion for the subways as part of a $29.5 billion, five-year capital spending plan.

On the busiest lines, like the 7, L and Q, officials say the agency is already running as many trains as it can during the morning rush. Crowds are appearing on nights and weekends, too, and the authority is adding more trains at those times.

The long-awaited opening of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side this year will ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue line. Installing a modern signal system, which would allow more trains to run, is many years away for most lines.

In the meantime, the agency is doing its best to keep trains moving on the century-old system. Workers known as platform controllers have been deployed at busy stations like 86th Street to direct crowds so that trains can depart more quickly.

Subway guards, the early-20th-century forerunner of today's platform controllers, were posted at busy stations the last time the system had this many riders, during the Great Depression and World War II era. That role, The New York Times noted in 1930, required the skills of "a football player, a head usher, a stage director, pugilist, circus barker and a sardine packer."

That year, the city's health commissioner criticized the "indecency of present overcrowding" and warned of protecting riders from contagious diseases. A video from the New York Transit Museum's archive shows subway riders scrambling onto crowded trains in the 1940s.

Another big city currently grappling with huge crowds is London, and there the Tube has taken drastic measures: Stations simply close when they get too crowded. The busy Oxford Circus station in that city's West End was closed more than 100 times over the course of one year, officials said, leaving hordes of riders to mill about at street level.

It is difficult to imagine New Yorkers patiently waiting at roped-off subway entrances.

Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority, said such restrictions were not necessary in New York City — at least for now.

"At this point, we don't feel there are any current safety issues associated with overcrowding, but it's something we will continue to monitor as ridership grows," Mr. Ortiz said.

The authority has weighed several proposals, including buying trains with open pathways between cars that can carry more riders and installing platform safety doors, like those on the AirTrain at Kennedy International Airport, to serve as a barrier to keep riders from falling onto the tracks.

Brussard Alston, a train operator for nearly two decades who has worked on the C line, said operators were instructed to approach crowded stations slowly, at about 10 miles per hour.

"When you're bringing the train into the station and you see the station is packed, you always have that on your mind — the possibility that somebody could be pushed or someone could fall or trip or faint," Mr. Alston said.

At the 86th Street station, riders stood away from the platform edge because of such concerns. Parents with young children held on extra tight.

"I worry about that all the time," Wendy Baez, an officer manager at a law firm, said. "That's why I always stay in the back."

As Tara Salvemini arrived on the platform, she said she left for work early to avoid the crowds.

"People are trying to walk back because they don't want to get too close to the edge, and they're pushing you forward," Ms. Salvemini, who works in the entertainment industry, said. "People can be very aggressive."

Nearby, a platform controller gave stern directives over a microphone: "Do not block the doors!" "Step all the way in!"