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The Better Way - New York - 'The man who saved subways'

David Gunn brought his New York magic to TTC

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter
Toronto Star - Monday, November 2, 1998



he makes sure subways run on time - and stop.

NEW YORK - Eight years after he left his post in the Big Apple, New York newspapers still quote David Gunn - favourably. 

And the reason for this continuing respect isn’t hard to fathom. In a 1990 farewell editorial to the city’s departing transit chief, the New York Times put it simply: David Gunn, it said, was “the man who saved the subways.” 

Since leaving as president of the New York City Transit Authority after a six-year term, the TTC’s retiring chief general manager remains an authoritative voice from the past on all things transit in New York.

To this day, Gunn’s program of subway salvation remains the underpinning of an immense transit network that, by most accounts, he rescued from disaster.

“There’s a legacy from Dave Gunn’s time here; he started it and it’s been kept going,” says Joseph Hofmann, senior vice-president of subways for New York City Transit. “And I don’t want to think that the other presidents haven’t done anything, they’ve done a good job. But he was the one who started it all.”

What he started in New York, Gunn continued in Toronto.

And that was a back-to-basics “state-of-good-repair” policy. It concentrated on the nuts and bolts of a steel on steel and rubber hits the road, motorized system of point A to point B travel.

Make sure the vehicles can run, he said. Make certain they can stop.

A simple philosophy to be sure.

But it’s one that had been largely ignored for decades in New York city to the detriment of one of the world’s largest and greatest transit systems.

With political will and adequate funding, Gunn says Toronto, too, will have a successful transit story like New York’s to tell. But as he heads into retirement next spring, he worries that potential cuts to maintenance funding, under the pressures of provincial downloading, could see Toronto’s system slip backwards.

“This is a great transit system,” Gunn said of the TTC in a recent interview. “It would be a real crime against the city if they let it go.”

Here, however, is how the New York story came about.

Before Gunn, the Times wrote in 1990, the New York subway was “a municipal embarrassment.” The 468-station, 22-line system was “a shabby symbol of a city in decline.”

Derailments were commonplace before Gunn: New York Post

The New York Post also weighed in on those pre-Gunn days in its own farewell tribute. “Derailments were commonplace, track fires constant and trains that ran on time genuine rarities.”

The most visible symptom of the system’s decline, however, was the subway graffiti that marred its cars, its stations and the city’s reputation.

“That was one of the things that David Gunn really preached when he first came,” Hofmann says. “He said, ‘We’ll get rid of the graffiti.’

“Well, the reason he did that was to show he could do what he said. Then he got his credibility and once he got his credibility then it was easier to get money for other things.”

Taking advantage of the 24-hour service, vandals often scrambled late at night into tunnel sidings to spray paint the out-of-service trains that sat idle during non-peak hours.

So Gunn ordered the subway cars out of the tunnels, where they were usually parked overnight, and into newly expanded train yards protected by transit police and razor wire. Then the transit authority initiated the use of solvents in its cleaning process and a policy of removing graffiti immediately to dissuade would-be “artists.”

Hofmann says Gunn’s graffiti battle was far more concerned with reputation than beautification.

“He needed that reputation to get what had to be done, done,” Hofmann says.

Because what had to be done - in New York in the 1980s as in Toronto in the 1990s - was mostly below the surface and mostly boring and politically unrewarding for the elected officials who held the purse strings.

Fix rails. Fix signals. Fix connections and switches and motors and brakes. And once they’re fixed, make sure they stay that way with capital-intensive, ongoing programs of rebuilding and repair.

These are not the type of things that call for photo-op, ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

But they are, Gunn argued, the only sure things that can keep riders moving in a reliable and safe direction.

“Since he (Gunn) came, New York has created basically a new subway system and the way he let us do that was to actually let us manage our systems,” says Hofmann, who oversees a fleet of 5,800 subway cars. “We weren’t allowed to in the past. We never saw a manager in the field.”

Not only were managers absent from the field, they were largely unaccountable for the damage and decline that went on in their absence.

What Gunn created, in New York and later in Toronto, was an organizational hierarchy that divided up specific responsibilities among a streamlined cadre of managers, who had detailed goals and budgets within their own jurisdictions.

“Now we have managers with responsibilities, with budgets, with goals,” says Hofmann, who hefts barbells in his office to relieve the pressure those things have brought.

“We never had goals, we never had objectives, we never had a budget. I never even knew what my budget was.”

He does now. He also knows, as do his subordinates, that it’s their necks on the line if those goals and objectives aren’t met.

“He (Gunn) didn’t care if we wore a suit or tie as long as we did the job. He gave us a lot of power,” says Hofmann. “I was in charge of accepting cars at the time and I once stopped a car contract 14 times until the vendor gave us the right one.”

Not only were the managers given power, however, they were given priorities. And those priorities were to replace or refurbish an aging and often faulty infrastructure and fleet.

“When Dave left, the subway cars were just about all done, the track was on its way to being done and we were starting the stations back then which now we’re pretty well into,” Hofmann says.

“We’re at a steady state of good repair, we have major track jobs going on but it’s planned work. As a rule we’re not doing track because track is falling apart, we’re doing track because we plan on changing the track, we plan on upgrades. We’re in good shape.”

This steady “state of good repair” - one Toronto is hoping to reach on most subway systems over the next four years - can be seen in action out at the New York City Transit’s 30-hectare Coney Island overhaul complex.

1,000 cars a week go through the wash to keep them clean

“We overhaul approximately two cars a day here,” says Frank Silecchia, general superintendent of Coney Island’s 360,000-square-foot facility, one of two in the system. “It’s an ongoing program that does every car (in the system) every six years.”

Here, in a shop that employs 700 workers on three round-the-clock shifts - one of the city’s largest industrial facilities - motors, air conditioning units, valves, wheels and brakes are all repaired or replaced. As well, 1,000 cars a week go through the shop’s car wash system, to keep them clean and graffiti free.

Aside from scheduled car maintenance, Hofmann is also replacing the fleet. Indeed, he and his colleagues last year completed the largest subway car purchase in history by initiating a bidding war between Canadian-based Bombardier Inc. and Japan’s Kawasaki.

The end result of this sales scramble was to acquire 1,080 new cars - all built in New York state - for the $1.45 billion price of the original 740 they had sought.

“We sat down negotiating and we negotiated very hard. We negotiated up 340 cars,” Hofmann says. “We sat one night … first we sat down with Bombardier, then with Kawasaki, then with Bombardier, then with Kawasaki, and one went lower, then the other went lower, and it became a bidding war. And then we got a good price.”

But Hofmann might have set himself his biggest “Big Apple” challenge formulating his next priority: to make an inhospitable, confusing subway system user-friendly and polite.

“Our priority at this point is to change our people’s attitudes towards the customer,” he said. “They have to understand that without customers we have no jobs and that they’re the only reason we’re in business.”

Hofmann’s strategy will combine new electronic information systems with interpersonal development to make subway travel a less confusing and more humane experience.

“If there’s a delay, tell your customers why there’s a delay,” he says. “If people come on the train and they don’t know how to go, tell them where to go. We’ll have recorded voices in our cars and electronic signs giving all kinds of information about upcoming stations. And also we’ll tell (employees) they can smile once in a while.”