The Lost Art of MaintenanceBreaking News
tags: infrastructure, urban history, mass transit, material culture
The R32 trains, nicknamed the Brightliners for their shiny unpainted exteriors, were built to last 35 years. (Imagine that: Your lifespan stamped into metal, your death prefigured.) When they were finally retired from service in January, they had been riding the rails of New York City for no less than 58 years and were, by most accounts, the oldest operating subway cars in the world. That’s 23 unplanned years of hauling people across New York. A whole generation got to see those stainless-steel beauties creaking down the tunnel to the platform, with their crinkle-ridged exteriors and back-lit advertisements.
In a way, it was a small miracle that they lasted so long, an “anomaly,” as one mechanic told me. Except it wasn’t really. It took a lot of work from a lot of people, day after day, year after year.
I recently went to talk to some of those responsible for that work at the MTA maintenance facility in Corona, Queens. There are 13 of these massive workshops across the city, scattered from Coney Island to the banks of Westchester Creek in the Bronx. This one is in a remote pocket of the city, an area given over mostly to massive buildings and spaces: Citi Field, Flushing Meadows Park, the sprawling train yard. It’s like a hospital but an industrial one, scaled up to care for its multi-ton patients.
Standing around the break room with their arms crossed and ID badges dangling, heads full of train-talk, several maintenance workers took turns explaining the process: Railcars roll off the main tracks into a long rectangular building. The cars are lifted to eye level, inspected and repaired if needed. Most of them get to leave that day — back to work, like the rest of us. But some are moved over to a special track for trickier jobs.
We went for a walk along the service tracks in a big group, everyone chiming in, pointing to the parts that needed repairs or replacing: the truck, the brakes, the AC units. They told me the fleet is split into two camps, one called “legacy,” the other “millennial.” The former were built before 2000, the latter after. The millennial fleet is tougher to repair in some ways because there are more electronics in the cars. Maybe you’ve heard your grandfather complain about this, how engines are too damn complicated these days. Siu Ling Ko, a chief mechanical officer for the train cars, told me the shells may last 40 years. The electronics, though, not so much.
The legacy fleet has its own problems, of course, and is more prone to failures overall. Replacement parts are harder to find; the firms that made them — the Budd Company, Pullman-Standard and Westinghouse — are long gone. Many components are well past their design life, and mechanics have to pluck similar parts from retired vehicles or engineer substitutes. It’s a very ad-hoc, improvisational process that relies on the know-how that long-time employees build up over years.
But there’s a method to the madness, and a hard-earned one. Back in the 1980s, when the crumbling, graffiti-covered subway was the stuff of reactionary urban nightmares, MTA president David L. Gunn kicked off an ambitious overhaul of the system, including capital improvements, the famous graffiti removal program and more routine repairs. In 1990, this approach solidified as the scheduled maintenance system. Now, every two to three months, more than 7,000 railcars are taken in for inspection with the goal of catching problems before they happen.
That’s the difference between maintenance and repair. Repair is when you fix something that’s already broken. Maintenance is about making something last.
By that definition, the MTA is tasked with one of the most difficult maintenance jobs in the country, and its struggles are also a case study in why maintenance is such a tough sell politically. It’s not strictly necessary — or at least it doesn’t seem to be until things start falling apart. It’s chronically undervalued. The MTA is often harassed for its relatively high labor and maintenance costs.