Decoding subway-speak

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How the MTA uses jargon to camouflage the real problems


  • Governor Andrew Cuomo boards an E train at Chambers Street for the ride to Penn Station in September 2014. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA, via Wikimedia Commons  

Derailment. Track fires. Signal failure. Power outages. Inoperable switches. Hourly breakdowns. Sardine-like overcrowding.

Meaningless, crackling, inaudible messages about “train traffic ahead.” Unannounced, unexplained, multi-minute, mid-tunnel stops between stations. And the blowing of swamp-like air from air-conditioning ducts.

Those are the 10 plagues afflicting the city’s subway system, and absent locusts, pestilence and wild beasts — at least so far — it still sounds positively biblical.

But there is an 11th plague, under the radar, largely unexamined, just as toxic, which also must be addressed: Obscurantism.

This is the deliberate use of language to mask or obscure facts from becoming known. It’s the practice of evading clarity in communications and suppressing or inhibiting the dissemination of knowledge.

It is actually one of the rare things at which the MTA excels. And no, it doesn’t cause cascading delays. But it camouflages them. It’s not the source of ineptitude, human error or mechanical failure. But it conceals them.

As Joseph Lhota reprises his role as MTA chairman, he must curtail the jargon and bureaucratese that bars a fuller understanding of the history, causation and nature of a dysfunctional system.

Start with a single overused word. “Disinvestment.” Yes, cash for capital projects has been withheld for decades. But when MTA Communications Director Beth DeFalco claims the subways are hobbled due to the “sins of 1970s neglect and disinvestment,” she is eschewing responsibility, shamelessly finger-pointing, and basically saying, “Don’t blame us for today’s conditions, it happened 40 years ago.”

Likewise, when Governor Andrew Cuomo’s chief spokesman, Richard Azzopardi, tracks the “rapid acceleration” of MTA woes to ex-Governor George Pataki’s “disinvestment” in the system, here’s what he’s really saying:

“Even though we’ve run the subways and controlled the MTA since Cuomo took office 6.5 years ago, it all went to hell in the 1990s.” It may be unkind to note that when Pataki was elected in 1994, the incumbent he toppled was Cuomo père, the liberal lion his son calls “Mario.”

In his spare time, Lhota should pick up the MTA glossary, read it, junk it and start afresh. Where to begin? Try these imprecisions:

* “Dwell time” and “throughput.” It may not be particularly helpful, but here’s how the words are used in MTA-speak: “Increased dwell time leads to a degradation of throughput,” an online agency report says.

What this means is that a train on the Lexington Avenue corridor that’s scheduled to dwell for 30 to 45 seconds, to alight and load passengers, may in fact take one to two minutes or longer, thus reducing the number of trains per hour than can pass through a station.

* “Guideline capacity” and “crush capacity.” As used in a hypothetical sentence: Ideally, the No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 trains should operate at guideline capacity, but unfortunately, they’re now likely to operate at crush capacity.

Guidelines call for three square feet of space for every standing passenger, something you might possibly see at the Whitehall Street station of the R train at 3 a.m. on a Sunday. At more common crush times, a subway train’s maximum physical capacity is utilized or exceeded.

If guidelines were met, there’d be 1,400 to 1,450 people on a typical A, B, C, D, E, F, G, J, L, M, N, Q, R and W train, according to the MTA’s online glossary. At crush capacity, the so-called lettered trains can and do pack in a suffocating 2,010 to 2,300 riders or more.

* “Something that did not go well.” This translation is easy: An inexplicable, indefensible nightmare underground.

Wynton Habersham, acting vice president of MTA subways, used those words to describe a June 5 incident in which riders were trapped for 48 sweltering minutes on an F train with no power, air or lights — and no live announcements, only a bogus recording about “train traffic ahead.”

The bottom line: Lhota’s mission is to rescue the rush hour — and order his apparatchiks to stop calling it “concentrated commutation time.”

Now, tell us what subway-speak, language, terminology or bureaucratic jargon you find most objectionable. Write Douglas Feiden, at To brush up on the lingo, you can consult the MTA’s own online glossary,

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