LA VIA DEL TREN SUBTERRANEO ES PELIGROSA. The sign appears in nearly every subway car along New York City's 230-mile system. Literally translated from Spanish, it means, "The subterranean train track is dangerous." Though it refers to the electrified third rail and not to the dangers inside the trains, few New Yorkers would argue with its broader implications. Fewer still, however, have seen the sign recently. It has been obscured in most cars by coat after coat of indecipherable graffiti.
New York City's subways, the subject of innumerable horror stories, conjure up hellish images in the minds of out-of-towners. But while many crimes occur in the tangle below ground, the 81-year-old, 24-hour-a-day system faithfully carries about a billion riders a year, three-quarters of the nation's rapid- transit passengers. An average of 38 felonies are committed each day, only 2.6% of the city's total crime.
Lurking behind the statistics are daily degradations that account for the dread most New Yorkers feel upon descending into the underworld at any hour. It is astounding that residents of one of the world's greatest cities must submit to a daily assault of subterranean sights, sounds and smells so fraught with menace. At rush hour in the Times Square station, where eight of the city's busy lines converge, a man urinates against a wall, loudly talking to no one in particular. On one platform, waiting passengers cover their ears as a mass of hurtling steel comes screeching from the blackness of the tunnel beyond. Smoke from a fire on a distant track wafts through the station. A crowded train from the Upper West Side sits simmering on another track for 20 minutes while static from a broken speaker drowns out the conductor's incomprehensible explanation. "I'm afraid to get in that subway system even when I'm with my bodyguard," says Senator Alfonse D'Amato, a Long Islander. "Even my bodyguard is afraid." Although it was clearly an overstatement ("I think he should change his bodyguard," retorted Mayor Edward Koch), New Yorkers know what D'Amato means. Since the city's fiscal crisis and the cutbacks of the 1970s, the elderly subway system has been in decline. A report done by the Straphangers' Campaign, a consumer-advocacy group, showed that one out of five cars had bad lighting. Ridership on the system is down by about half since it peaked at 2 billion in the late 1940s. The National Transportation Safety Board announced last week that the system is courting catastrophe because of its failure to deal with track fires. Last month alone, there were at least 465 of them.
Since February, transit police have guaranteed that there will be one officer on every train from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. They have instituted sweeps of subway stations, a kind of underground rapid-deployment force that in 33 months has detected 9,000 incidents of crime. The current transit police force, which has 3,800 officers, is the largest ever for New York and the biggest in the country. Meanwhile, with subway workers threatening another strike, passengers are just hoping the trains will keep running. "The subway system?" said one young rider. "It's New York."