Expert panel to warn of ‘dangerously hot’ subways

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A newspaper vendor wipes sweat off his face while working in the Times Square subway station. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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Climate change doesn't just heighten the risks of subway system flooding, as Hurricane Sandy so neatly demonstrated. It also threatens to create "dangerously hot" conditions on subway platforms, according to a draft report from a panel convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo to help the M.T.A. prepare for the challenges of the 21st century.

"Flooding is not the only climate change risk to the system," according to a section of the draft report acquired by Capital. "Extreme temperatures, particularly rising temperatures in the summer months, can stress the M.T.A. system. At higher temperatures, expansion joints on bridges and highways are stressed, and the instance of rail track stresses and track buckling increases. Underground, subway platforms and stations could become dangerously hot for riders."

In May, following a couple of disastrous years for the region's sprawling mass transit system, Cuomo convened a star-studded panel of transit experts to think about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's future and recommend ways for it to prepare for the exigencies of global warming. 

The M.T.A. is expected to release the "reinvention commission" final report shortly, and it had no further comment.

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Richard Barone, the director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, described the station heat issue as a "big problem." 

"Go to Union Square on not even a really hot day," he said. "Just because the way the station is designed. It’s a steamer."

Barone said excessive heat has been a problem as long as there's been a subway in New York City, and that it would have to get worse as outside temperatures rise.  

"When it was first designed, it was too hot," he said. "They had to actually poke holes in the sidewalks" for ventilation.

Independent of climate change, the subway system already produces far more heat than it used to, thanks to innovations like subway-car air conditioning and electronics, which together throw off energy.

"There comes a breaking point for us, as far as people fainting, health problems, people getting sick," Barone said. "At some of our stations, we’re close to that tipping point where it’s unbearable for the customer."

Heat is bad for the system's equipment too, as the report notes. Electronics are both increasingly prevalent in the system and, according to Barone, even more sensitive to heat than the older, less sophisticated equipment.

New York City is not the only city to have dealt with this problem. London has been investigating ways to reduce heat in its subway system too.

One option they're investigating? Lighter trains.

"Lighter trains would require less energy to operate, and they should also produce less heat," Barone said.

Other options that Barone thinks might be worth looking at include platform screen doors in some places, to facilitate air conditioned platforms, cooling stations for the young and elderly, and more active ventilation systems, like the sort the 7 train extension and Second Avenue Subway will have.

At the present, Barone knows of only one subway platform in the subway that's air-conditioned: the 4, 5, 6 platform in Grand Central Station.

It doesn't work very well.

"It’s very inefficient, because the air just kind of escapes through the tunnels," he said.