When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

25 January 2005

(Don't) Take the A Train

From yesterday's New York Times, a story to serve as a morning meditation on the fragility (and the longevity) of technology:

A fire that began with a homeless person trying to keep warm by igniting wood and refuse in a shopping cart has crippled two of the city's subway lines, which might not be restored to normal capacity for three to five years, officials said today.

The Sunday afternoon blaze in Lower Manhattan was described as the worst damage to subway infrastructure since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It gutted a locked room that is no larger than a kitchen but contains some 600 relays, switches and circuits that transmit vital information about train locations.

"This is a very significant problem, and it's going to go on for quite a while," said the president of New York City Transit, Lawrence G. Reuter. He estimated that it would take "several millions of dollars and several years" to reassemble and test the intricate network of custom-built switch relays on which the two lines rely.

In the meantime, long waits and erratic service are likely to be the norm on the A and C lines, which have a combined average weekday ridership of 580,000 passengers...

Here's the bit that really made me sit up and take notice:
The fixed-block signaling system in use today is substantially the same one that existed when the first segments of what are now the A and C lines opened in 1932. The transit agency has invested $288 million on its first computerized signaling system; it is scheduled to debut on the L line in Brooklyn and Manhattan in July.

Dozens of signal relay rooms like the one destroyed on Sunday are scattered throughout the 722-mile subway system, and it is impossible to fireproof them...
As a technical writer, I've worked with engineers, programmers, and scientists my entire adult life. It's a certainty that the guys who designed that original 1932 fixed-block system are long gone, but if they were still around, I'm sure that they would have the same reaction I'm having right now.

They would be immensely proud that their design was good enough to continue working under the harshest conditions imaginable for over 70 years, while simultaneously being horrified and appalled that no significant technological improvements (or security improvements, obviously) had been applied in all that time.

It's actually a horrifying story on a lot of levels.

Since 9/11, and especially since the Madrid train bombings, we have had an elevated police presence in the subway system. During periods of high alert, we've even had so-called "Atlas teams" (police toting automatic weapons, sometimes accompanied by similarly-armed soldiers in uniform) underground.

So, was it one of Osama Bin Laden's buddies who wound up laying us low, doing essentially permanent damage to a vital piece of NYC infrastructure?

No. It was, evidently, some poor penniless wretch trying to keep from freezing to death on the coldest day of the year.

There is probably a moral to this story about how governments allocate resources in times of crisis, but I think I need more coffee before I contemplate that.

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