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The trains are f'ed

Started: 2022-08-04 11:11:13

Submitted: 2022-08-04 12:25:31

Visibility: World-readable

Trying to leave New York City only to be delayed by train signal problems

On our last day in New York City, our flight left JFK early in the afternoon, which turned out to be not enough time to actually do anything before leaving. I bade farewell to our hosts Bethany and Josh as they left for work, then marshalled breakfast for the kids and got them out the door around the time I intended to leave.

Second Ave and 53rd Street in Midtown
Second Ave and 53rd Street in Midtown

We left Midtown a bit after 10:00, which ought to have given us an hour to get to the airport on the train plus nearly two hours at the airport before the flight departed at 13:00 EDT. We walked a couple of blocks to catch an E train on 53rd Street. By the time I added enough value to my Metrocard to get us all to the airport, Google Maps told me that we ought to expect an E train in six minutes. An M train came and went (though it didn't seem to be following the timetable I saw in Google Maps), and the train did not arrive. The platform grew comfortably crowded with other passengers apparently waiting for the same train, including some carrying suitcases who looked as if they might be heading for the airport. I couldn't see a departure board from where I was standing on the platform, and Google Maps was not at all helpful (it continued to show the timetable as if the train were running on schedule, which it was clearly not).

The E train finally arrived, about 20 minutes late. We boarded and the train whisked us into the tunnel and under the East River and into Queens on the express service, zipping past local stations on the center tracks and stopping at Forest Hills Station, which I recognized from listening to the second season of the School Colors podcast, a fascinating and terrifying investigation into a "diversity plan" at a school district in Queens that included Forest Hills.

Then the train stopped dead in the tunnel.

I don't have a clear sense of how long the train was stopped in the tunnel because, when a train is stopped in the tunnel and one is heading for the airport and already anxious about being late, time dilates to the point where each second feels like it's a minute or longer. But objectively I think we were stopped in the tunnel for ten or fifteen minutes, while the train operator occasionally came onto the scratchy intercom to tell us we were being delayed for "train traffic" and "signal issues". (I don't know for sure but I suspect this was the continued legacy of decades of under-investment and deferred maintenance in New York's subway system.) By this point it was 11:30 and I expected that we would have been at the airport a half-hour before, not stuck in a dark tunnel somewhere underground in the middle of Queens.

At least once we screeched forward only to stop again, while trains on other tracks in the tunnel moved forwards around us. At length we pulled into a station, Jamaica - Van Wyck, and stopped at the platform for another interminable wait. We had cell coverage in the station (the coverage in the tunnels was usually spotty, but the stations generally had good coverage) so I checked my map and saw that we were a half-mile walk from the end of the line, along surface streets along Jamaica Ave in Queens. I debated getting out and walking, and thought that was probably a silly idea, but I had absolutely no idea when the train would start moving again, so I eventually decided that a ten-minute walk was my least-bad option.

As we walked along the sidewalk, there were other people who were clearly pushing their own suitcases, having made the same decision I did. I had some trouble getting Julian to keep up in the hot mid-day sun (and Google Maps probably sent me down a side street that was not actually the most direct way to get to the real station entrance), but presently we reached the station complex serving the metro and Long Island Railroad and the AirTrain. I found the AirTrain concourse and platforms on the opposite side of the station, swiped my Metrocard on the fare gates, once for each of the three people in my group (and in my haste I swiped too fast and had to swipe again) and found a train waiting for us at the platform. It was just after noon and our plane departed in less than an hour and I was trying not to freak out about what would happen if we missed our plane and had to be reaccommodated on a later flight.

The AirTrain left shortly after we boarded and whisked us towards JFK airport on an elevated viaduct. I watched the minutes tick away as we approached the airport and stopped first at the rental cars then at terminals 1 and 2, then terminal 4, then terminal 5, and finally terminal 7. I told Calvin and Julian that we were especially late and we should hurry and they took this to heart and ran ahead of me across the bridge connecting the train station to the terminal. It was after 12:15 and I wasn't sure what Alaska's rules were for the latest time that I could check my bag so I rushed to the check-in counter, printed a bag tag at the kiosk, tagged my bag, rushed it to the counter, and handed it off to the agent, who took the bag and told me I ought to hurry to catch the flight.

The next step was security. I had neglected to load Calvin and Julian's boarding passes on my Apple Wallet on my iPhone because I thought I would rather used printed boarding passes from the airport (back when I thought I would have more than 42 minutes to make it from the curb to the gate before the flight departed). Alaska had sent me an email with links to add the boarding passes, so I clicked on those links on my phone as I walked towards the security checkpoint and got all three boarding passes ready to go on my phone by the time I reached the perimeter screening.

Then I got to hurry up and wait for the TSA.

I am used to TSA agents at security checkpoints proceeding with a certain efficiency to get passengers through the screening process. This efficiency was not in evidence at JFK Airport's terminal 7 at noon on a Tuesday, and I don't think it's just because I was anxious to make my flight so I was perceiving time differently. The ID check line took longer than necessary (but I did, at least, see a passenger I recognized: a young guy in a blue UCLA t-shirt who had boarded our E train in Midtown). Then we got to the x-ray machines, where the agents rejected two-thirds of the bags that went through for additional screening. (Because I was traveling with Julian, we did get to skip the body scanner and went through the metal detectors instead. I did not see a TSA Pre-Check lane, which might have expedited our experience through security.) My bag and Julian's bag were selected and the languid TSA agent behind the barrier languidly picked up one bag at a time (several were ahead of us) and languidly pulled out items and languidly walked them back to the x-ray machine for a second trip through the belt. I was pretty sure I'd still make my flight but the time was ticking down. They finally made it to my bag and Julian's bag and (surprising no one) the bags made it through.

We gathered our bags and headed into the concourse to find the gate. Our flight was already boarding as we ran to the gate, and when we finally rounded the corner with twenty minutes to go before the plane left there was a long line of people waiting to board and I have never been so glad to see a long line in my life.

We boarded the plane without further incident and sat waiting to actually depart. Presently we pushed back and taxied to the runway and took off; and as we departed I could see Manhattan in the distance, with two big groups of skyscrapers downtown and Midtown, with a sizable gap between them.

A321 wing climbing out of JFK
A321 wing climbing out of JFK

It turns out that North America is a big continent when one is flying from one end of the continent to the other. One of the things I missed in my mad rush through the airport was the acquisition of snacks. I had some snacks left over from the flight out, and I was able to buy some snacks on-board, and those combined were enough to feed us until we landed. I spent most of the flight reading the book about the New York subway I bought at The Strand. Calvin and Julian watched movies on the stream-to-your-device in-flight entertainment, which worked better when I knew the PIN to override parental controls.

A321 wing over Utah
A321 wing over Utah

We landed early and then spent twenty minutes waiting for the gate to clear and for ground staff to arrive so we could actually depart the plane. At baggage claim I was briefly worried whether my checked luggage had made it onto the plane with us, but it eventually arrived. (I did see the guy in the blue UCLA t-shirt on the other side of baggage claim; he'd come all the way from Midtown on the same plane.) We ate supper at Chipotle in Milbrae then drove the rest of the way home to Santa Cruz, only slightly jet-lagged from flying across the country.