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Subway Fires on the Rise in Pandemic-Plagued System

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FDNY members respond to an incident on 42nd Street, Dec. 31, 2020.

automatix6/Shutterstock

During the Tuesday evening rush, trains on the No. 2 and 3 lines were delayed by a track fire at the Central Park North-110th Street stop.

On Monday night, E and F trains were slowed by flaming debris at the Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street station in Jackson Heights, Queens.

That morning, service had been suspended on the A between Inwood-207th St. and 168th St. after the FDNY put out another debris fire on the tracks near the Dyckman Street station in Upper Manhattan.

“I’ve been delayed by all kinds of things, so I went to a zen place in my mind and chilled,” said Liz Marcello, who waited while trying to go from 181st Street to her job near Penn Station. “But it was not a pleasant way to start the week.”

MTA figures show there were 1,006 subway fires on tracks, in stations and on trains in 2021 — up 12% from the previous year and a 40% increase from 2019, even as daily ridership remains about half of what it was prior to the pandemic. 

This week has seen multiple fires along the No. 1 line, including one that an FDNY spokesperson said broke out around 11:24 a.m. Wednesday on a platform at the 181st Street stop in Washington Heights.

“It’s not just a cause of delay, it’s a cause [for] concern,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “We’re seeing an increasing amount of distressing incidents in the subway that are just going to cause people to stay away at the exact time we need people to come back.”

‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Back’

The 2021 numbers are even higher than the 964 fires in 2017, when the so-called Summer of Hell, marked by service disruptions of all sorts, led the MTA to increase its number of track cleaners, buy new vacuum trains and test portable track vacuums to suck up trash, a frequent source of tinder.

The number of fires dropped to 878 in 2018 and fell again to 718 in 2019, before climbing to 900 in 2020.

“It’s one step forward, two steps back,” said Carlos Albert, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 chairperson for New York City Transit employees who clean and inspect subway tracks. “It was all for naught.”

An MTA spokesperson said the agency has had its three vacuum trains in service since late last year. But Albert said the portable vacuums are “collecting dust somewhere.”

“Management, for some reason, isn’t using them,” Albert said.

The aftermath of a deadly 2 train fire at 110th Street, March 27, 2020.

Obtained by THE CITY

According to the MTA, 91% of the 1,006 subway fires last year did not disrupt service, damage New York City Transit property or require a response from the FDNY.

And the transit agency said the 2,077 train delays caused by track fires in the second half of 2021 dropped from the 2,390 fire-related delays earlier in the year.

Numbers provided to THE CITY by the MTA show that 581 fires occurred along subway tracks last year, while 280 were in stations, 142 on trains and three elsewhere in the system.

Vandalism and Carelessness

The MTA acknowledged that many debris fires in stations are attributable to acts of vandalism, and the agency last month put together a task force to find ways to cut into the increasing number of track trespassers

“It makes me mad at the fellow New Yorkers throwing trash on the tracks,” said Marcello, 38, who was late to a 9:30 a.m. meeting because of the 1 line track fire Wednesday. “There are garbage cans in the stations or you can take the trash with you.”

The MTA is also contending with incidents that officials say stem from larger societal problems that spill into the subway system. Among them was one last Thursday in which an agency source said a man tried to light himself on fire on a 1 train at 23rd Street.

“Underlying mental health and homelessness issues are responsible for recent high-profile incidents involving intentionally set fires and excessive belongings that should not be in the subways and that ignited,” said Michael Cortez, an MTA spokesperson. 

“We are encouraged by the commitments from this governor and new mayor to implement new social services and policing solutions in order to deliver results for the millions who every day rely on the MTA to get where they’re going quickly and safely.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams last month announced plans to send more mental health workers and police officers into the subway system.

‘I Pray for Their Safety’

In March 2020, subway motorman Garrett Goble, 36, was killed in a fire that prosecutors say was sparked by a man lighting a shopping cart on a No. 2 train that burst into flames as it pulled into Central Park North-110th Street. After his death, the MTA board voted to ban shopping carts from the subway,

His mother, Vicki Goble, told THE CITY on Wednesday that she is “extremely upset” over the increase in subway fires, especially those started on trains.

Garrett Goble’s mother, Vicki (left), and widow, Delilah Rodriguez Goble, speak at a memorial ceremony at the Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn College station, Dec. 21, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Every morning and every night, I pray for the workers,” she said. “I pray for their safety, that their days will be easy and that they can get home to their families.”

She said Garrett Goble’s widow, Delilah, and the couple’s two sons are forever scarred by the death in the early days of the pandemic.

“I don’t want to see another family go through what Delilah and the boys and I have been going through these last 22 months,” Goble said. “It’s horrifying.”

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