I-Team: Despite Hundreds of Subway Fires, MTA Falls Short on Clearing Track Garbage

Trash-strewn subway tracks are havens for rodents and a prime cause of fires inside stations, which prompt thousands of delays throughout the transit system and fear among commuters disturbed by the billowing smoke. Despite this, an I-Team investigation found the MTA fails to meet its own benchmark for cleanings at more than 80 percent of its underground stations.

In 2014, the MTA reported 525 track fires throughout the subway system -- 329 involving debris, grease, garbage and other material, according to a review of data from July 2013 through June 2014 conducted by the I-Team and NBC 4 New York partner WNYC.

The MTA's benchmark for cleaning tracks is 17 times per year -- or once every three weeks, according to an audit by the Office of the New York City Comptroller.

The I-Team review found nearly half of the agency's underground stations had fewer than 10 track cleanings. Seventeen percent of the underground stations were cleaned five times or less.

The I-Team found some stations were cleaned only once over a one-year period, including the 138th Street station in the Bronx, the Hunters Point Avenue station in Queens and the Morgan Avenue station in Brooklyn. The Court Street station in Brooklyn had only two cleanings in the time period reviewed. Overall, the I-Team found the MTA failed to meet its benchmark at 81 percent of stations.

Check the last time your subway station was cleaned using WNYC's interactive map here.

While waiting at the Montrose Avenue stop on the L train line, passenger Ron Garness said he was not surprised to learn those tracks were cleaned only once in a year.

"This is pretty clean today, most of the time this is full of garbage, people just throw garbage here like it's a garbage can even though there is a garbage can right there," he said.

The Main Street station in Flushing, Queens, was among the top five stations for most fires in 2014. It had 15 tracks fires, and according to the I-Team's investigation, was cleaned only 13 times between July 2013 and June 2014.

Twelve track fires erupted at the Euclid Avenue station in Brooklyn in 2014. That station was cleaned only 13 times in the period the I-Team reviewed.

The comptroller's audit determined the city's cleaning efforts to be “insufficient.” The audit also included before and after photos of tracks that clearly showed garbage left behind, even after the trains used to clean tracks, which are called vacuum trains, passed through.

Maurice Jenkins, vice president of TWU Local 100, says the issue is a matter of manpower.

“When you don't have enough personnel to get your cleaning initiative done then you're going to have dirty stations," he said.

According to the comptroller’s audit, the number of track cleaning personnel was drastically reduced between 2008 and 2013. The number of employees assigned to the MTA's track cleaning unit dropped from 323 to 148 -- a 48 percent decrease -- in that span. During that same five-year period, the number of operation supervisors decreased from 59 to 26 -- a 56 percent decrease.

The percentage of the MTA's operating funds spent on station maintenance and cleaning decreased from 6.3 percent in 2008 to 5.4 percent in 2013, the audit found.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz says he doesn't believe it is acceptable that some tracks were cleaned only once a year, regardless of the reason. He says the MTA is making immediate changes, like increasing the number of cleanings and buying new vacuum trains, which will not be ready until 2017, to address the problem.

“The challenge is enormous,” said Ortiz. “We can have a crew make a pass and within an hour it’s like we haven’t been there."

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