Bringing the world to Queens

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The No. 7 line is the fourth largest transit system in the United States.
THE COURIER/Photo by Noah Rosenberg
The MTA has installed line General Managers, like the No. 7’s John Hoban, as part of a more decentralized, hands-on transit system.
THE COURIER/Photo by Noah Rosenberg
The No. 7 is the choice line for MTA veteran operators like Manny Zayas, who appreciates the open air and the views that come with it.

The No. 7 line may be short, but it is fierce. Six hundred and twenty-eight trains, the most across the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) New York City Transit (NYCT) system, traverse the line’s 18.9 miles of track and 21 stations each day.

The No. 7 alone, excluding the rest of the city’s subway lines, amounts to the fourth largest transit system in the United States – larger than Philadelphia’s, San Francisco’s and Atlanta’s. At least 450,000 riders use the train between Manhattan’s Times Square and Flushing’s Main Street on a daily basis.

“I think people need to understand, this isn’t your father’s transit authority,” exclaimed John Hoban, the General Manager of the No. 7 line, after pausing to welcome a straphanger onto the train recently during a behind-the-scenes press tour. And, Hoban knows full well that the modern transit authority isn’t his father’s either; having grown up with a dad who was the head of PATH, Hoban vowed at a young age to stay out of “the family business.”

Twenty-five years later, and still with the MTA, Hoban extolls the virtues – and challenges – of a revamped and decentralized transit system that he considers more “flexible, responsive and nimble” than its antecedent.

“My charge is to treat the No. 7 line like it’s my own railroad,” Hoban said, underscoring the increased accountability that the relatively new General Manager program places on his and other line GM’s shoulders.

“People get frustrated with us when we have issues with delays; when their trains are late or dirty or they don’t get good information during a delay, and we’re trying to deal with that,” Hoban said of the program, noting that even the not-so-polite rider feedback he receives is advantageous.

Recent initiatives include the MTA’s Rider Report Card, which Hoban established at the request of MTA NYCT President Howard Roberts. Subsequently, Hoban’s No. 7 line received the second highest grade citywide in terms of subway car cleanliness.

The No. 7 was also the pioneering line for MTA’s volunteer translator program, which dispatches MTA employees from the central office to provide passenger assistance in Chinese, Spanish and Korean.

According to Hoban, the program is extraordinarily effective on the No. 7. The train accesses entertainment venues like Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Citi Field and the USTA National Tennis Center, and transcends diverse immigrant neighborhoods like Flushing where, Hoban said, the Main Street station sees 30,000 people during the half-hour rush on weekday mornings. 

Most recently, Hoban integrated a new signage system onto the sides of No. 7 cars so that with a quick glance riders could differentiate between an express – a red diamond around the “7” – and a local – a “7” encircled in green.

Throughout the tour, Hoban showed no signs of the wear and tear of a job he says is “eight-days-a-week, twenty-five-hours-a-day.” He routinely awakes at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for a conference call to review overnight incidents and is often still up at 1:30 the following morning for security walk-throughs.

Over the year he has been at the helm of the No. 7, Hoban said there have been less and less incidents to report. In January of 2008, there were 1,500 weekday delays on the No. 7. This past January, the line was delayed just 550 times during the week, and, despite occasional fluctuations, the trend line continues in the right direction, he said.  

Some inconveniences are unavoidable, Hoban admitted, referring to the General Order – or maintenance project – that put the No. 7 out of commission on weekends from the beginning of this year through March 1.

“If you wear the same shoes everyday, what happens?” Hoban asked rhetorically before detailing the track and tunnel work necessary to keep the No. 7 rolling.

Also pivotal to the No. 7 are MTA employees or “stars” as Hoban calls them, like operator Manny Zayas. Zayas, whose twin brother operates on the same line, has worked every other subway in the city, and he said nothing compares to the No. 7.

“It just gives me peace – every time I look at something like this,” Zayas said, gesturing at the Manhattan skyline spread out before him as the train approached Queensboro Plaza. 

Having led the members of the press up to the 111th Street Tower – the No. 7 nerve center in Queens – Hoban described the Computer-Based Train Control (CBTC) system the MTA hopes to implement on the No. 7 some 10 years down the road. The automated operation system, with a $1 billion price tag for the No. 7 alone, would not take train operators like Zayas out of the equation, but would limit “human intervention,” as Hoban phrased it. The system is currently in place on the L train.

CBTC, Hoban said, would someday guide No. 7 trains into Manhattan’s 34th Street and 11th Avenue station, which, set to open in 2013, is projected to be the busiest subway stop in Manhattan by 2040.

Those hundreds of thousands of riders who depend on the No. 7 are Hoban’s motivation to come to work every morning – his reason for carrying on his father’s tradition after all. 

“Part of the legacy of the family business is realizing you have an effect on the lives of a lot of people,” he said, “and that’s a privilege.”