The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Behind the Crumbling New York City Subways

Nov 27, 2017

June was a particularly disastrous month for riders on the New York City subway. A rush hour train careened off the rails in southern Brooklyn. After another derailment, 34 people were sent to the hospital. A track fire sent nine people to the hospital. And when a crowded train stalled in the middle of a tunnel, leaving hundreds in the dark without air conditioning for an hour, passengers beat on the walls and clawed at the doors like a scene from a real-life horror film. One person scrawled on the fogged-up window: “I Will Survive!”

After these disasters, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that the New York City subways were in a “state of emergency,” and okayed an immediate infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for the New York City subways. But this money is no gift. The public shells out 45 per cent more money to use and support New York mass transit in the form of higher fares, taxes and fees than it did 10 years ago. But over the last decades Republican and Democratic administrations at the city and state level have stripped billions earmarked for mass transit to subsidize the profits of various sectors of the capitalist class. For example, last year millions in New York City transit money was diverted to subsidize upstate ski resorts after a warm winter. Billions more have been spent on a few opulent stations and other projects in the wealthiest New York City neighborhoods that benefitted big real estate developers and banks.

By diverting billions of dollars from subways and mass transit, city and state officials created large budget shortfalls. They then used these shortfalls as the excuse to saddle the transit system with massive amounts of debt, debt that tripled in just 15 years. Some of this debt was taken out to service older loans, like using one credit card to pay off another. To service that debt has been extremely profitable for the financial sector. It has meant that the banks and big investors swallow up 16 per cent of the entire mass transit budget, almost three billion dollars every year – huge amounts of money that should be going for service and maintenance.

So, even though daily ridership doubled in the past two decades, top officials put the subway system on the equivalent of a starvation diet. New York City is the only major city in the world with fewer miles of track now than before World War II. Fewer trains are running today than in 2007, and those that are running break down more often. More than 2000 jobs in critical areas like repairing signals, tracks and cars have been left unfilled. Even simple measures to keep the city moving – like positioning medical help at busy stations to escort sick passengers off trains, or assigning platform conductors to handle large crowds, or having extra trains on standby have been almost done away with.

The main infrastructure, the very backbone of the subway system, including the century-old tunnels and the track routes, has been left to crumble. And the signal and communications system predates World War II on most lines. In an age of computers and high technology, the New York City subways still rely on mechanical switches and vacuum tubes that are linked by fraying cloth-covered cables and wires.

The subways are a part of the vital infrastructure. But what has been done to the subway system is one example of how the capitalist class uses Republican and Democratic politicians and officials to cannibalize this infrastructure, robbing the working class of its taxes and jobs, along with imposing much longer and more hazardous commutes.