Tag Archives: New York

Workin’ for MTA

14 Sep

Somebody else seems to be as intrigued by New York subway signs as this blog is:

It does make a good poem, probably entitled “Z”:

To Jamaica Center

Weekday afternoons.

Express to Myrtle Avenue,

PM rush,



Other times,

All stops

But for a public information notice, it is, as we have had occasion to discuss before, a bit short of words. And this time we’re dealing with the kind of comprehension-bending complexity that only the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can produce. If you find the semi-fast service to Amersham a bit confusing, get a load of this, and imagine trying to put it on a sign:

“The J operates at all times while the Z, operating internally as its rush-hour variant, runs with six trips in each peak direction on weekdays; both services run through the entirety of the BMT Archer Avenue and Jamaica lines, via the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Nassau Street Line between Jamaica Center–Parsons/Archer in Jamaica, Queens, and Broad Street in Lower Manhattan. When the Z operates, the two services form a skip-stop pair between Sutphin Boulevard–JFK and Myrtle Avenue-Broadway. In addition during rush hours and middays in the peak direction, they run express in Brooklyn between Myrtle Avenue-Broadway and Marcy Avenue, bypassing three stations. At all other times, only the J operates, serving every station on its entire route. (per Wikipedia)

So, what we have is:

• a platform from which two services run along the same line, the Z train and the J train


• the Z train is an express that misses out stops, and the J train is a “local” that stops at all stations. Fine.


• The Z train only runs in rush hour, on weekdays, and it only runs in the peak flow direction (ie into Manhattan in the mornings, out of Manhattan in the evenings)


• When the Z train is running, it affects the J train’s schedule: the J train then misses out some (but not all) of the stations that the Z train stops at, and ceases to be a true “local”. They become a “skip-stop pair” (try saying that three times quickly).


• There are three stations that neither the J or the Z stop at, but only during weekday rush hour, and only in the peak direction. At other times the J train will stop there.

So, to return to the sign: this is Essex Street station in lower Manhattan, and trains from this platform are heading to Jamaica Center in Queens, ie, out of Manhattan. This platform is therefore not affected by the Z train in the mornings, but is affected by it in the evenings (the “PM rush”), when the skip-stop comes into operation. Essex Street station also comes just before the three stations that get missed out altogether in rush hour, so trains from here are “express” (ie almost non-stop) as far as Myrtle Avenue station in Brooklyn on weekday afternoons (but only afternoons).

So after an hour’s research, you can start to see what they mean. I still think there’s a problem with the sign, though: for one thing, the Z bullet at the start makes you think that everything that follows applies only to the Z train. In fact, crucially, the J train becomes a skip-stop train too. But the second sentence gives the impression that you can always rely on the good old J to stop everywhere (which you can’t), or maybe that Z trains run in the peak and J trains in the off-peak (which isn’t the whole story either).

Can we do any better with the wording? Last time, we had some success in inserting a few existential clauses, but that won’t cut it this time. Get me rewrite.

Judging by the length of the longest line, I reckon you could get 125 or so characters on the sign if you fill all three decks. Maybe it could say something like this?

Z J to Jamaica Center. Both trains express to Myrtle Ave wkday afternoons and skip stops in PM rush. J all stops other times

At least I think that’s what it means. Input and commentary from people who, unlike me, know what they’re talking about would be very welcome.

And with that bit of wish-fulfilment out of the way – no New York for me this year, what with the global emergency and all – TMPD is off for its late summer break. See you when the leaves are falling faster.

No verbs downtown after 36th St (eves/wkends)

9 Oct

Subway sign

Well, that was exciting. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from New York, but I got it. I saw Lower Manhattan and Battery Park retreating in the sunlight from the back of the Staten Island ferry while powerboats and bulk carriers crossed in our wake. I watched the Hudson River passenger boats tail-slide gleefully into their piers, load up in three minutes and bellow away downriver past the chess players in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I got hustled through the checkouts at Zabar’s so fast it was like there was an evacuation drill going on. But nothing felt more like New York than going down into the subway.

It’s deafening. Walking down the little spiral staircase into 79th St station, the noise that greets you puts The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to shame. When the uptown and downtown expresses pass through at the same time on the centre tracks, the simultaneous BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG/BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG completely drowns out the sound of your local train arriving. At South Ferry, the station is built on a curve so tight that little metal gratings have to extend outwards to the doors to bridge the gap between train and platform, and the squealing of flanges when the next service arrives verges on the ultrasonic.

The vistas, the noise, the lights, the heights: it was all fantastic. The only thing that was slightly lacking was verbs.

The subway service mutates dramatically at weekends as a matter of course: services stop short, start at different places, come in on different platforms (and that’s before you even factor in the engineering works). There are, therefore, lengthy signs everywhere to that effect: the one above is a typical (and not the most complicated) example.

Perhaps it was the jetlag, or years following terse instructions on the Underground, but I didn’t grasp them at all. I instinctively assume that signs are written in the imperative and, if there are words missing, supply understood commands to suit. So my first take on the sign, as someone who knew nothing about the system, was “[TAKE] Broadway Local to Whitehall St weekdays and eves [BECAUSE THERE IS] no late night service on this platform.” But that doesn’t make sense. The same approach works deceptively better with the next one:  “Wkends [TAKE] R to Bay Ridge-95 St on N platform.” But the last sentence on the sign actually includes a “take”, as though it alone were a command. It took me four or five reads to grasp that these messages are almost entirely descriptive or existential: [THESE ARE] Broadway Local trains to Whitehall Street. [THERE IS] no weekend or late night service on this platform. And so on.

That’s not how we do things here at home. The Underground service never mutates as much as the subway’s, but even at Camden Town, the most potentially confusing station in London, signage for the Northern Line (which is almost two separate lines in one, with two northern branches and two routes through the city centre) is kept to a minimum – you’re told “Bank branch” or “Charing Cross branch” and given the train’s destination, and it’s up to you to plot the route from there. No one attempts a platform-level description of all the possible permutations, and certainly not without verbs. It’s probably just as well. If you did, the sign might look like this:*

Edgware and High Barnet trains alternately via Bank or Charing Cross peak times. Off peak all Charing Cross trains to Kennington, all Bank trains  to Morden. Peak Charing Cross trains also to Morden. Off peak Mill Hill East shuttle service to Finchley Central,  some peak Mill Hill East trains to and from Morden (some via Charing Cross).

No one would get to the end of it; it would make even confident out-of-towners start to doubt themselves. The best way of catching the right train on the Tube is still the old-fashioned way: stick your head in the door, bellow “TOTTERIDGE AND WHETSTONE?” interrogatively and wait for someone to look up from their Financial Times and say crisply: “no”.

* With thanks to describe-online.com for the (fully verbed) source material.

The Battery’s down

1 Oct

Off to New York this week for a break. Never been. I’ve travelled all over the US, including Hawaii, but nearly always in the west or south: Memphis, the Redneck Riviera,  Route 66, Oregon, Pasadena. I’ve heard the late-night Santa Fe DJs fade into the static as you cross the desert to Roswell, but I’ve never seen Times Square. The eastern seaboard’s been flyover country to me. Can’t wait.

But my Americanophile reputation at work would have taken a serious dent if I’d ever come across this in copy, because I’d have missed it completely:

Picture 595

The clues have always been there. Senator Joseph McCarthy. The House Un-American Activities Committee. It’s so obvious when it’s pointed out. But McCarthy and Huac go together in my mind like salt and pepper. If it had been me editing a similar piece, I might have got lucky and used a conjunction after McCarthy instead of a possessive (“McCarthy and Huac”, not “McCarthy’s Huac”), thus leaving open the possibility of disjunction and sparing the worst of my blushes. But really, it would have got right through me.

Who was the chairman of Huac, then? Rep Edward J Hart took the role when it became a permanent committee after the war – I’ve now, finally, looked it up. (Why isn’t it called Hartism?) I imagine this is the kind of classic save American national editors make in their sleep, the same way foreign news subs stoop wearily to take the stray “s” off “Talibans” in home writers’ copy (“Ah, you don’t speak Pashto? Well, Taliban is the plural. The singular is Talib. Try to remember.”)

Newsrooms are full of sharp and literate people. When I was chatting with the business reporters last week, somebody asked what poujadisme meant in relation to Ed Miliband and almost everyone on the economics desk simultaneously chimed in to explain. It was a splendid working-on-a-broadsheet moment.  But crushing, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God corrections such as on the Huac article are a reminder, not just that there’s so much we’ll never know, but that there’s always so much we ought to see and never do.

Saved from my embarrassment this time, at least, I’m on my mettle now. Ceaseless vigilance is the watchword. Apparently, New York’s so good that it’s been named twice. I aim to crack down pretty hard on redundancy like that.