The 7 Train Blues: Commuters Get a Voice

How social media gave Queens riders a way to improve transit and keep each other up to date

Commuters enter the 7 Train towards Flushing, Queens.

Commuters enter the 7 Train towards Flushing, Queens. (James Farrell)

 

For three days last week, the MetroCard machines at the 40th Street subway station along the 7 train’s route stopped reading credit cards, taking only cash and coins. For the members of 7 Train Blues, a social media campaign that chronicles the problems plaguing 7 train commuters, this was a key discussion topic.

In the 7 Train Blues Facebook group, members posted updates and pictures and issued warnings to other travelers to make a trip to the ATM before jumping on the MTA. Melissa Orlando, the group’s founder sent a message to the MTA. She encouraged members to reach out to authorities on social media. “Thanks for the update,” she said in a comment responding to a February 10th post about the machines. “Pls tweet NYCT if you can, as a follow-up to my message to them earlier,” she said, referring to New York City Transit, the wing of the statewide MTA that is specifically in charge of New York City. The group’s Twitter had already tweeted at NYCT the day before, along with the MTA and local council member Jimmy Van Bramer, asking, “Any ETA on the fix?” Later on February 10th, the MTA responded, and Orlando updated the group. “NYCT says they are sending a supervisor to investigate,” she wrote in a comment.

Orlando’s group has become harder to ignore. Over the past year, 7 Train Blues, the social media campaign of Orlando’s larger organization, Access Queens, has peppered local leaders with letters and social media posts about what its members say is a severe decline in service quality along the 7 line. And they are starting to see results. Last Tuesday, Van Bramer co-sponsored a rally with Access Queens, calling on the MTA to do a full-line review of the 7 train and meet with community members at a town hall. Van Bramer has been a longtime proponent of improving transit in Queens, and the 7 Train Blues social media campaign has caught his attention.

“That’s really what you want out of social media,” Orlando said. “Every day people are asking each other, ‘How’s the train?’”

Orlando started the group as a blog in response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to build more than 11,000 units of affordable housing in Sunnyside Yards, a large railroad yard in Sunnyside, Queens. She decided to document the problems already present in the transit system to warn against the effects of a large population increase in the area. Upon seeing the response, she moved the blog to Facebook.

According to Orlando, social media serves two purposes for her work: it puts pressure on local leaders to act, and it allows commuters to share up-to-date notifications about travel conditions. The group has more than 1,500 members, and many of them post on a daily basis. “For us, social media did everything,” Orlando said. “I don’t think me as one individual would have been able to get my message out so quickly in such a far-reaching way.”

Commuters on the 7 Train Blues page agree it’s a valuable resource. Jimmy Chen, a fire safety director in Manhattan, only joined the group last week, but he has already posted a few times and turns to it as a daily source of information. “That’s my every-morning routine now,” he said. “It’s real time, up-to-date.” Russell Bleakney, a project manager at Siemen’s Health Diagnostics, has been a member since the beginning. He lives near the Court Square stop, so his commute isn’t particularly long, but he posts frequently to alert others of problems. “There’s so much frustration from further out from Court Square,” he said, citing unexpected track work delays and unexplained stoppages on the track.

The members of 7 Train Blues keep track of issues that they encounter on the 7 line. Pictures show overcrowded platforms with no place to stand. Signal malfunctions and other maintenance issues slow trains frequently, members say. But the most concerning element, according to Orlando, is the lack of communication from the MTA. Many delays come up without clear reason, she says, and MTA resources are often unhelpful. Before joining the group, on slow-moving days, Chen would check in with the MTA. “If you go to MTA info, they’ll say, ‘good service,’” he said, even if the service seemed worse than usual.

But the commuters of 7 Train Blues aren’t the only ones noticing problems. Council member Van Bramer is a longtime resident of Queens and has been aware of his constituents’ concerns even before 7 Train Blues, according to his press secretary, Jason Banrey. In fact Van Bramer holds annual rallies to address problems with the 7 train. And even before Orlando’s work, Banrey says, Van Bramer used social media to stay attuned to commuters’ concerns. “The council member is quite active on social media,” Banrey said.

Still, as 7 Train Blues grew and evolved into Access Queens, Van Bramer took notice. “He’s got a great team and he’s really responsive to people,” Orlando said of Van Bramer. At his rally this past March, members of 7 Train Blues attended and spoke. And at the rally last Tuesday, they co-sponsored it, demanding an in-depth review of the 7 line and a town hall where the MTA could speak to riders about concerns like ongoing maintenance and transparency.

“Enough is enough,” Van Bramer said at the press conference. “Riders need relief now. The MTA cannot continue to neglect hard working New Yorkers who pay for subpar service.”

When asked about the press conference, MTA spokeswoman Amanda Kwan said that the MTA has been working to address all of its riders needs. “We are fully committed to conducting line reviews of all of the system’s lines,” Kwan said in an e-mail. She also said that the MTA has added personnel and enhanced inspections to improve response times to incidents, but added that there have been some major incidents over the past few weeks, including a broken rail, that have slowed things down.

Over the past few years, the MTA has been making capital improvements on the 7 Train that Kwan says, in the long run, will “mitigate these major incidents” like broken rails. These improvements include making repairs on tunnels affected by Superstorm Sandy, replacing segments of track, and implementing an updated signal system, known as the communications-based train control system (CBTC). In a December press release, NYCT acknowledged the maintenance can often be intrusive, since the 7 Train is always so busy.

Banrey, the spokesman from Van Bramer’s office, said that delays caused by maintenance have been a problem for years. He also added that maintenance work often happens at unscheduled times, and the explanations to riders can be vague. “These are hardworking New Yorkers that need to get to their jobs, and a lot of these people can’t rely on the 7 train,” he said. At the same time, he expects continued participation with the MTA. “To their credit, they have worked with us in the past,” he said.

Not everyone is so hard on the 7 train. Back in September, the Straphangers Campaign, a group that monitors MTA performance, ranked the 7 train as the best subway in New York City. The report used data collected by the MTA measuring the regularity of service, cleanliness, and frequency of repair. But Orlando believes that this data does not tell the whole story, saying that a train may finish its route on time, but that its timing at individual stations is not as closely monitored. The Straphangers Campaign did not respond to several phone calls or e-mails.

In response to the Straphangers ranking, the 7 Train Blues Facebook page erupted with disagreement. Orlando wrote an op-ed in the Sunnyside Post. “On next year’s Report Card, we’d ask to see a greater focus on rider reported data and would be happy to help in that regard,” she wrote.

Brandon Mosley, the Creative Director of Access Queens, agrees with Orlando that the social media aspect of 7 Train Blues has the potential to be part of a more accurate system of accountability. “We’re kind of, in a sense, gathering our own data through social media,” Mosley said, referring to the myriad of delays and overcrowded platforms logged on the Facebook page. “Social media has given a voice to people who ride the 7 train.”

Orlando understands that solutions for an easier commute won’t come easily, and she doesn’t see the MTA as an enemy. She just thinks they could do a better job communicating with commuters when problems do come up. “That would buy them so much goodwill,” she said. Last she heard, the machines at the 40th street station were working again. And while she can’t know the extent her group played in prompting the change, she knows its voice was heard.

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