R Train Riders Contend with Unreliable Service

R train riders say they often face delays and unreliable escalator and elevator service.

Article and photos by Farah Javed | Feb. 5, 2021

The recent scene at the R train’s 77th Street subway station in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was all too familiar to regular commuters. Rushing to work, they ran down the station’s steps, swiped their MetroCards and hurriedly passed through the turnstiles, noting that the countdown clock indicated the next train was eight minutes away. 

Sighing with relief, they slowed their pace down the 22 wide steps to the platform only to see an R train pulling out of the station. The clock was wrong and they had missed their ride.

While each subway line operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has its own set of problems, riders of the R line say it has become synonymous with unreliable service. 

“The MTA app gives us no sense of direction, R train clocks are always wrong, no sense of what’s happening, when the train is coming. Then the lady that does announcements doesn’t help since we can’t hear her anyway,” said R train rider Mangy Monah. 

Monah, 31, said her R train commute from Bay Ridge to her job at a Manhattan hospital is riddled with obstacles. She leaves her home early to arrive at her evening shifts on time, but coming home, nothing can be done to avoid reaching home by 1 a.m., much later than if service ran smoothly. 

At the 59th Street station, R train riders say they sometimes have to wait up to a half an hour for service during off hours.

“When I come home late nights from the hospital, the R train only comes to 59 Street, switches tracks and starts going uptown again. So, the downtown people are waiting for the train, but it never comes,” a disgruntled Monah said after getting off the R train and waiting for the N train to arrive at the 59th Street.

From 1997 to 2016, NIRPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign, a transit interest group, published a “State of the Trains” report, ranking New York City’s 20 subway lines on cleanliness, train breakdowns, crowding, the regularity of service, and in-car announcements. Its last report was issued in 2016

The C train was rated the worst line six times, with its biggest issue being that the cars tended to break down at over twice the rate of the system average. But the 2016 report found the R train scored below average in three more categories than the C train.

In announcements, the R scored an 84 percent in accuracy compared to a system average of 91 percent and had 74 percent of trains arrive on time compared to the system’s 77 percent. 

“I’ve taken the R train and it’s pretty bad to be honest,” said Suhaib Qasim, a 22-year-old Queens resident who rides the subway often for work as a deliveryman.

Countdown clocks are often incorrect or not working, commuters say.

This article’s author carried out an informal comparison of R and C service, traveling to every stop on both lines throughout November. The author saw the countdown clock showed the time of arrival correctly more times for the C train than it did for the R train. The clock for the R train was late or early at some stops, but at the 95th Street stop, for example, the clock completely cut off the time.  

The MTA hosts public hearings to share complaints, and one regular attendee is former 46 District Leader, John Quaglione. Over the years, he has heard many complaints, specifically with the R train, and has had his own negative experiences.

“It comes down to luck. I know the MTA system is doing the best it can, but there have been times that I’ve switched from the N to the R at [59th Street], especially in the summer when it’s so hot, and it feels like the train is never coming and you’re just at the mercy of the transit system,” Quaglione said.

Riders care most about the time they lose due to subway delays.

“No train is as bad as the R,” said Gaston Xie, a 20-year-old Brooklyn resident. “I went to high school in Staten Island and I’d rather take the Staten Island Railway to get the ferry to Manhattan to hang out with friends than the R train into Manhattan. If I missed the ferry, I would have to wait an extra 30 minutes and it would still be faster than the R.”

Stairs descend to the platform at the R train stop at 77th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Many riders also are concerned about accessibility. The 59th Street station only became accessible for those unable to climb up and down staircases, like the elderly or disabled, last November. Many other R train stops lack escalators or elevators, and in those that do have them, they often operate with limited hours.

According to the MTA’s website, of the 45 stops on the R line, only 13 have elevators or ramps.

With the pandemic, it’s unlikely that these issues will be resolved any time soon. MTA coronavirus data indicates that overall ridership decreased by more than 50 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. On Nov. 23,  the MTA processed 1,649,060 riders, 71.2 percent less than the previous year. The following Monday, November 30, ridership dropped even more to 1,459,200, a 72.3 percent difference from 2019

The decrease in paid train fares contributes to the MTA’s growing debt. A financial report from the state comptroller’s office said: “[the MTA’s debt] is projected to be 19.4 percent in 2020 and 25.7 percent in 2021 before declining to around 23 percent for 2022 through 2024.”

More debt translates to less money available for other priorities, like revamping the R train. 

“If the R train isn’t a must in your commute, I’d definitely look for an alternative,” said Manhattan resident Kamilla Sharipova.

Dollars & Sense reached out to the MTA for comment but received no response.