L Train Slowdown: First Weekend Disruption Is Frustrating, but Not Disastrous

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The crowds? Large, but not mutinous. The annoyance levels during the inaugural weekend of the L train slowdown? Present, but predictable.

So went the first two nights of the plan designed to avoid the dreaded L train apocalypse: a partial shutdown of the subway line that carries 400,000 riders each weekday. The repair work, which began on Friday, means significantly fewer trains will run on nights and weekends while the line’s key tunnel linking Brooklyn and Manhattan undergoes an overhaul to fix damage from Hurricane Sandy for the next 15 to 18 months.

Work is expected to halt by 5 a.m. Monday, but the impact on the morning rush remains an open question.

Despite doomsday predictions of long turnstile lines, closed station entrances and dangerously crowded platforms, the L train’s first rehab weekend went as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority could have hoped.

Crowds grew, but then dissipated. Friday night hitches were smoothed by Saturday. Trains ran consistently, usually arriving every 20 minutes, as promised, lending tentative optimism to anxious riders.

“The trains are running. It’s not so bad,” said Melissa Lindstrom, 46, who caught a Brooklyn-bound L train out of Union Square Saturday night.

Weighing heavily in the M.T.A.’s favor was its near miss with a complete shutdown of the transit line — a far more disruptive initial plan. An 11th-hour proposal from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to shut down each of the tunnel’s tubes one at a time, and to limit work to nights and weekends, was hastily adopted in January.

The bait and switch left even this weekend’s most annoyed riders grateful to have avoided the alternative.

“It’s a huge inconvenience obviously,” said Trell Chandler, 25, a Bushwick-based graduate student. “A complete shutdown would had been worse. So this is better.”

“But I’m still annoyed.”

The worst of the slowdown’s impact came Friday night. Trains fell behind scheduled arrival times, leaving platforms crowded and riders late and angry. Tension was particularly high in Manhattan as straphangers were making the workday trek back to Brooklyn.

Matthew Ming, 35, was trying to get across the river from a crowded Union Square station, which saw rush-hour size crowds late into the night on Friday. Arrival clocks were not working, many trains were late or were held at stations to let other trains pass through.

The work trains also clogged tunnels, adding to the congestion and headaches.

“This is the worst train in the world,” Mr. Ming said. “There is always a problem. Now I have to wait 45 minutes. They said train delays are 20 minutes. They are lying.”

Still, M.T.A. officials seemed pleasantly surprised that the slowdown’s opening night went off without a major hitch. Andy Byford, president of New York City Transit, an arm of the authority that runs the subway and buses, said Friday that he was “pleased” with the rollout, and expected problems with schedules and arrival clocks to be fixed by Saturday. For the most part, he was right.

“I’m grateful to New Yorkers for their patience and good humor while they got used to the revised service,” he said on Sunday in a statement.

It was the first weekend in what will be an extended hiatus for the L train’s regular service. Struggles remain, and they are not all train-related: During planning, transit officials said they were concerned that tunnel repairs could produce dangerous levels of silica dust, an airborne mineral that can cause lung cancer. The M.T.A. has since said it is confident the work will not pose a risk, but it has not allayed all riders’ concerns.

How riders will handle the long-term adjustment remains to be seen. The repairs are scheduled to take nearly a year and a half, but one M.T.A. worker at the Bedford station said this weekend what many riders were thinking: These things never stay on schedule.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

Ali Watkins is a reporter on the Metro Desk, covering courts and social services. Previously, she covered national security in Washington for The Times, BuzzFeed and McClatchy Newspapers. @AliWatkins

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