Thousands of subway trips in New York City have been canceled in recent weeks because the pandemic and a related hiring freeze have battered the work force and left a shortage of train operators, conductors and workers.
And with fewer trains, many passengers on the largest transit system in North America have seen their commutes become less reliable and take noticeably longer. Nearly 11,000 trips were eliminated last month alone.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s subway and buses, expanded an existing hiring freeze in the early days of the pandemic to include operations workers like train operators. The agency made the move as it faced financial calamity, after more than 90 percent of subway riders disappeared and critical revenue vanished.
It was the first time the agency had included such workers in a hiring freeze. Since then, the work force has been whittled down by scores of retirements prompted in part by worries over the coronavirus, job changes and the deadly outbreak, which has killed at least 168 workers.
Though the hiring freeze was lifted for operations workers in February, after $14.5 billion in expected federal pandemic relief stabilized the agency’s finances, officials said it would take time to hire and train new workers, including up to nine months for train operators.
Until then, canceled train trips will likely continue. That will mean longer waits for trains for months to come, even as public schools fully reopen after Labor Day and many companies welcome back office workers for the first time since the pandemic shut down the city last March.
“It does take a long time to dig out of a hiring freeze in this transit space because of training requirements,” said Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit, which is part of the M.T.A.
With pandemic restrictions lifted, the agency is pushing to train more workers by increasing instructors and classes, she added.
That is little consolation for frustrated commuters.
Kim Wren has waited so long for the A train recently that she has been repeatedly late to work.
So now Ms. Wren leaves her home in Queens a half-hour early to make sure that she can get to her job as a surgical technician in Washington Heights by 7 a.m.
“It’s absolutely horrible,” said Ms. Wren, 28. “I’m miserable.”
About 3 percent of the transit agency’s nearly 22,800 positions in subway and bus operations remain unfilled, including 263 vacancies for train operators and 119 vacancies for train conductors. The agency had 3,166 operators and 3,041 conductors over all as of May.
Across the nation, transit agencies are scrambling to hire more workers and return to full operations as prepandemic life comes rushing back.
In Los Angeles, transit officials are hiring more than 500 new bus operators to restore bus service that was slashed during the pandemic.
Boston transit officials have budgeted for 912 new hires, up from an average of 651 new hires in the last two years, including many for rail and bus operations.
In New York, the staffing shortage is another hurdle for a transit system that was decimated by the pandemic. Though subway ridership has rebounded to more than 2 million weekday riders, that is still less than half of the prepandemic peak of nearly 5.5 million.
During a meeting in May with transit advocates, Demetrius Crichlow, the acting executive vice president of subways, acknowledged the challenges facing the agency.
“You have a lot less people than what you need to maintain your daily service,” he said, “so it becomes a juggling act of, you know, how do I best cover the vacancies or choose which jobs are not covered?”
In June, 10,829 train trips were canceled because of a lack of crew members, according to M.T.A. officials. That was up significantly from the 748 crew-related cancellations in June 2019, but still well below the peak of 30,470 crew-related cancellations in April 2020, when New York was an epicenter of the pandemic.
The canceled subway trips in June accounted for close to 5 percent of the nearly 225,000 trips that were scheduled that month.
The A line was the hardest hit by the staffing shortage last month, with 945 canceled trips, followed by the 1 line, with 857 canceled trips, and the N/W line, with 768 canceled trips, according to The City, which first reported on the cancellations.
Ms. Feinberg said most riders are being minimally inconvenienced and have to wait only a few extra minutes, because transit workers can reroute trains and adjust schedules to help cover the gaps. “We are running huge amounts of service and the operations team is doing a great job of minimizing impact,” she said.
But advocates for riders maintain the waits have been lengthy. Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the M.T.A., a watchdog group, said she waited 18 minutes for an F train at the Bryant Park station in Manhattan during a weekday rush hour.
“We’re now seeing the results in real life of what the pandemic will continue to mean for riders in terms of delays and longer commutes,” said Ms. Daglian.
Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy group, said that complaints over longer commutes and subway waits have increased significantly among riders, eclipsing even recent concerns about crime on the subway. He added that some riders have shared stories of waiting as long as half an hour for a train.
“This is a genuine crisis because people who see a train coming every 20 to 30 minutes are going to be much less likely to ride trains at all,” Mr. Pearlstein said. “It couldn’t come at a worse time because the city is opening up and people want to travel around. New York’s recovery hinges on public transit.”
Carolyn Holman, 42, a home health aide, said subway service had became so inconsistent that she would switch to Uber if she could afford it. She has even considered walking about 50 blocks to work in Upper Manhattan because she thinks she can get there faster. “It’s frustrating,” she said.
The bulk of vacancies among train operators, conductors and signal tower operators are the result of more than 300 retirements since the start of the pandemic, many of which were prompted by concerns over being exposed to the virus, said Eric Loegel, a vice president of rapid transit operations for Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents transit workers.
“We’re not anywhere close to having replaced those 300-plus retirees,” he said.
As the M.T.A. hires new workers, Mr. Crichlow said it was focusing on high-priority positions, including train operators and conductors. Salaries start at $36.48 per hour for train operators and $23.67 per hour for train conductors.
Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a government watchdog group, said the staffing shortage highlighted the importance of the M.T.A. finding ways to operate more efficiently.
The agency spends more on operations every year than it brings in and is projected to exhaust its federal aid and face a $2.4 billion budget gap in 2025, especially as continuing pandemic-related expenses and lower revenues exacerbate its financial challenges.
In a recent report, the commission suggested making changes to work rules and operating practices to increase productivity, including expanding one-person train operations, which are used in other rapid transit systems around the country.
New York trains usually have two workers — an operator and a conductor — except for a limited number of single-person trains that run on shorter lines at night and on weekends.
“I think this is an important reminder we could be running an efficient system with fewer people,” Mr. Rein said. “We should take this opportunity, because when the federal money goes away, we’re going to have bigger problems than this.”
But transit union officials have adamantly opposed the idea of switching to single-operator trains, arguing that it would result in thousands of job losses and raise serious safety concerns in a sprawling, complicated subway system.
For riders, the transit staffing shortages have upended their schedules.
Yaninda Ventura, 30, a hospital worker who commutes on the A train, said that she now leaves home earlier than usual to factor in longer subway waits. Even so, she said, she still sometimes ends up late to work.
“It’s not better,” she said of the wait time between trains. “What can I do?”
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