Another summer has arrived in the city, and New Yorkers are once more gleefully welcoming the many pleasures the season brings———lazy strolls in Central Park, the sound of surf washing ashore at Coney Island Beach, hamburgers sizzling on rooftop barbecues, hot dogs at the ballpark.
For all its charms, however, summer in New York also brings afflictions, not least of which is one that lurks beneath the city’s streets, waiting to sabotage a trip to the ballgame, a ride to the park or a commute to work. Indeed, of all of summertime’s inconveniences, few are more dreaded than the hot subway car.
Air-conditioning breakdowns happened about 10 times a day during June, July and August between 2010 and 2014, according to analysis of Metropolitan Transportation Authority data obtained by The New York World through open records request.
In total, there were nearly 6,500 “hot cars” over the five-year period covered by the data. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those incidents occurred during the hottest months of the year.
Dog Days of Summer
Approximate number of hot subway cars by month, 2010-14
The New York World analyzed data provided by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in response to a public records request for five years of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) repairs by MTA workers. The analysis involved removing several thousand duplicate records and then filtering the remaining records to include only those where the description of the repair included the word “hot.” Though the MTA did not dispute this methodology, it is possible that some relevant repairs were omitted while other irrelevant ones were included.
July has consistently been the month with the most reported hot cars. Last year, Marla Schneider, 24, had the misfortune of finding herself on one such car on the weekend after the Fourth of July holiday.
“Oh my God, it was stifling,” Schneider said. “I was sweating so much, I couldn’t even think.”
It was Schneider’s first summer in New York, and as an unseasoned subway rider, she failed to spot the tell-tale sign of a hot train car: it was empty. The doors closed before she realized her error. With no escape, Schneider stood and sweated alone on the car until it reached the next stop, where she scrambled off and into the cool air of an adjacent car.
“If you don’t see anyone on the train, there’s a reason for it,” said Schneider, now a wizened subway veteran ready for her second New York summer. “I learned my lesson.”
Riders who find themselves on a hot car should note the line they’re traveling on as well as the car’s four-digit serial number, located at both ends of the car’s interior and exterior, and call 511 or tell the MTA on Twitter, according to Cate Contino, coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign.
“It’s absolutely horrendous to be stuck on an underground hot train,” Contino said. “That can lead to a pretty rough day.”
The MTA’s Division of Car Equipment performs daily pre-service inspections of the HVAC units on each of the subway’s 6,300 subway cars, according to an MTA spokesman. Filters for the air-conditioning system are inspected and replaced every 15 to 30 days, depending on the type of car.
During the summer months, MTA road car inspectors continuously monitor the subway air-conditioning system, and reports of hot cars are addressed by one of 13 maintenance shops, which are directly responsible for a specific number of cars on different subway lines, the spokesman told The New York World in an email.
Asked how long repairmen take to fix the air conditioning on a reported hot car, the spokesman said, “Times for repairs vary.”
The MTA data provide little guidance for straphangers seeking to avoid hot subway cars this summer. The records do not include the line on which the train was traveling when the car was reported hot. Instead, they indicate the model of train on which the repair took place.
A dozen different car models are plying New York’s subway tracks, each delineated by the prefix “R” and a number. The oldest is the R32. Built by the now defunct Budd Company and introduced to the New York transit system in 1964, the R32 had to have hot cars repaired more frequently than any other car type during the 2010-14 period.
As the system’s first car with a stainless steel exterior, the R32 was once dubbed the “Brightliner.” But after 50 years in service, the cars are better known for their shake and rattle than for their gleam, and the MTA plans to replace the remaining 222 Brightliners in the next few years.
R32 cars, which service the A, C, J and Z lines, had to be repaired 826 times from 2010 through 2014 after they were reported hot—a rate of 0.74 repairs per car.
“Don’t get me started on the C,” said Gregory Caputo, 54, who takes the C train from Brooklyn to and from his work in downtown Manhattan five days a week.
Caputo chuckled glumly as he recalled an ill-fated commute that took place one evening a few years ago. He was headed home in a C car packed wall to wall with bodies when the train lurched forward and came to a stop somewhere between two stations, delayed by traffic ahead.
If that weren’t enough, the air conditioning gave out after about five minutes. As the temperature quickly rose, so did passengers’ ire.
“People were very angry,” Caputo recalled. “A subway ride from hell, really.”
The Old and the Hot
Approximate hot car rates for subway car types, 2010-14
A dozen different subway car types operate throughout the New York City transit system. An analysis by the World revealed that some car types tend to be more vulnerable to hot cars from air-conditioning breakdowns than other car types. Older cars tend to get hot more often than newer ones.
Older car types like the R32 tend to get reported as hot and require air-conditioning repairs more often than newer ones. The recently introduced R143, R160 and R188 tend to have fewer problems with hot cars.
But there are exceptions. Two older car types—the R42, which services the J and Z lines and made its first appearance in 1969, and the R46, found on the A, F and S lines and introduced in 1975—reported below-average hot car rates. Meanwhile, the relatively new R142A and R142 reported high hot car rates for their age.
Both of those train types service the 4 line, where Randall Jefferson, 43, sat reading a newspaper on his way to the Bronx one recent afternoon. A longtime 4 rider, Jefferson recalled a trip years ago when the air conditioning on his subway car seized up as the 4 sped along its express route east of Central Park.
With no stops between 59th Street and 125th Street, Jefferson and his fellow passengers were trapped for several minutes, sweating in silence until they could rush from the car when the train finally reached Harlem.
“It wasn’t fun,” Jefferson said.
But rather than complaints, the veteran straphanger offered perspective.
“More people have gone through more hard things than this. Just buck up and stop complaining,” Jefferson said. “Life is good. The train is good. Long live New York.”
This article was produced in partnership with WNYC.