What's Actually Wrong with the L Train Tunnel?

It seems... fine?

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Jun 29 2018, 7:13pm

Photos courtesy the MTA 

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

There are a few eternal truths that have emerged from the news of the L train shutdown.

The first is that the average New Yorker’s commute will likely be impacted—this week, Andy Byford, the president of the New York City Transit Authority, which oversees the subway system, called the shutdown the “biggest logistical, customer service, and community challenge” of his 29-year career. The second is that its effect on small businesses and real estate is still anyone’s guess. And the third is that this shutdown has to happen, in large part due to Hurricane Sandy, which devastated large parts of New York’s infrastructure in 2012.

But what is actually being fixed? As the 275,000 New Yorkers who currently take the L train between Manhattan and Brooklyn every day are aware, the tunnel seems… fine? According to MTA data, as of 2017 the L line was on-time 91 percent of the time, the highest rate of any line in the city.

To learn the nuts and bolts of what’s actually going to be fixed during the closure, I spoke to Branko Kleva, head of Sandy-related projects for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). It’s Kleva’s job to recover what was lost from the “once-in-a-century” weather event, and make sure it never happens again. In his office overlooking the Battery, where the coastal surges first came six years ago, Kleva showed me just what exactly happened when 7 million gallons of water flooded the Canarsie Tunnel—and what it’ll take to bring it back to life.

“This water is water that came from the bay, so it had salt. And salt is corrosive,” said Kleva, as he flipped through photos of wrecked gear. “Basically all of the equipment got completely shorted, and kind of burned, and damaged. It's irreparable.”

The first thing I learned from our conversation is that the damage from Sandy—and the threat it poses—is not necessarily infrastructural; it’s not that the tunnel itself is about to collapse due to water damage, but that everything inside of it that makes the trains run is essentially fried. (Although they are repairing cracks and leaks in the concrete liner during the shutdown, too.) Because inside the Canarsie Tunnel is a spider-web of electrical cables, for communications, signals, emergency alarms, and, of course, power. The emergency repairs made after Sandy were temporary, explained Kleva, which is why the L runs now. But that won’t last much longer.

“We can't simply patch those up. Because that's only going to have a short life,” Kleva told VICE. “Everything got wet, and the corrosive nature of the water is damaging all of these cables. If you leave it alone, it's going to keep getting worse and worse and worse, and some day, it'll just stop functioning.”

One of the primary targets are the Circuit Breaker Houses (CBH), which, essentially, control the electricity coming in from the nearby Con Edison plant to the train’s third rail. When Sandy struck, there were two CBHs in the Canarsie Tunnel—one at the Bedford Avenue side in Williamsburg, and one near the middle of the tunnel. The latter was wrecked by the saltwater, and basically rendered useless.

MTA workers in the Canarsie Tunnel in 2012, shortly after Hurricane Sandy

“It's a new structure with new equipment, and it'll be out of the flood zone,” Kleva told me. “So in the future, we will not get it flooded.” On that note, the MTA has additionally created closure devices that will block water from entering street-level ventilation shafts when a storm hits—which is how the tunnel was flooded in the first place.

But by and large, the biggest undertaking of the shutdown are replacing what are known as duct banks. Remember those cables mentioned before? Most of them run through these conduits; they’re protective concrete and cement liners that run along both sides of the tube, and within them are pipes that carry the cables, insulating them from fires or other damage. Not only are they corroded by salt from Sandy and falling apart, but also, they’re from 1924. So a full demolition is in order.

Now, the question is: how will all of this go down? According to Kleva, the 15-month shutdown is “sequential.” He described it to me as a Rubik’s Cube: “You have to do one thing, and then once you move this out of the way, you can do another thing,” he said. “It's done in that matter.” And with 150 contractors working three shifts around the clock in both tubes, simultaneously, there is a precise timeline for how this will unfold. (Also, yes, there are technically two tubes: one headed Manhattan-bound, and another Brooklyn-bound.)

If you’ve been around the Bedford Avenue or 1st Avenue stops of the L lately, you’ve likely noticed that work is already underway. What’s happening now is that the contractors are busy moving electrical lines, gas mains, sewer lines, and water mains out of the way to build shafts in the ground, which will have gantries to both excavate debris and bring in new material down below. Temporary cable extensions are also being installed, which will allow for the train to still run in Brooklyn, as planned. And then, in April of 2019, the tunnel will shut down.

At that point, workers will enter from the Manhattan side (which will not be in service) and start demolishing the duct bank with jackhammers at the Brooklyn end, while working backwards. In order to mitigate silica dust, the contractor had to order a machine the length of a football field from Minnesota that will contain ventilation and filtration systems to prevent the dust from escaping. Workers will also wear respirators, to protect themselves.

This was a lesson learned, Kleva said, from the Clark Street and Montague Street Tunnels, two other tunnels affected and shut down due to Sandy; there, the dust containment became an issue. With that in mind, the machine was designed specifically for the Canarsie Tunnel, and will follow the workers as they chip away at the duct banks, along with battery-operated flat cars to take the debris back to the aforementioned shafts. Throughout it all, the train tracks themselves, which are badly deteriorated as well, will be ripped up and replaced as the workers move westward.

That part of the project will take up the majority of the 15-month span. It’s also one of the reasons why, Kleva argued, a full shutdown was needed: it wouldn’t have been practical to have a train running on one track while contractors worked on another. (Originally, an alternative option offered a partial shutdown. It would have lasted three years.)

At about three months out, Kleva said, when the contractors fully finish demolition and start new installations, those shafts at Bedford Avenue and 1st Avenue will be turned into entrances, which will be equipped with ADA-compliant elevators and stairways for increased access and capacity. The shutdown window is also being used to run more communication cables to Union Square, renovate the existing pump room, add a new lighting system, and install three substations, which will generate enough power to run two more trains on the L line when it returns.

The idea, Kleva said, is to use every last minute of the 15 months to fix, and improve upon, anything that is possibly faulty in the tunnel. Of course, I had to ask the question that a number of commuters have asked me: Is 15 months realistic? Could it be done faster? And is there any chance it could go longer?

As reported in the press, Kleva mentioned how the contractor, Judlau Contracting, has agreed to incentives to finish early, and penalties if they run afoul of the stated completion date. “We are contracted for 15 months,” Kleva said. “[The contractor] has incentives to finish early—they will get additional compensation if they finish early; for every day they finish [early], they’ll get compensation. Also if they finish for any day that they is late… they’ll be paying us a huge amount of money if he’s late any day at all."

As someone who now dedicates his career to Sandy recovery, he said that the work on other tunnels has streamlined what will be going on in the Canarsie Tunnel. But just the sheer extent of the damage—and what its rehabilitation will mean for the city itself—is unprecedented.

"We already had one of these manhole fires, where the cable installations was so poor that there was a short and it started a fire,” Kleva explained. “So you cannot really predict exactly how much [longer this tunnel has]. It could happen tomorrow, or last a year. But you know it's just getting worse and worse."

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