November 27, 2001
TUNNEL VISION: PATH Trains
No Longer Genteel Ride
By RANDY KENNEDY
Compared with the New York City subway, the PATH system has
always seemed a little like an exhibit at a world's fair, titled
"The Fabulous Future of Commuting!"
PATH trains are whispery. Their tunnels are honeycombed, like
something designed by Buckminster Fuller. The stations are long
and silvery, equipped with television screens that scroll the
morning headlines. (Yesterday, one could learn from ABC about
the plight of emu farmers: "Emu meat. It's Not What's for
If there was a problem with the system, many riders said, it was
that it seemed to be operating in a future that had just passed,
with stations a little too small and trains a little too
infrequent to handle the new people who have packed the suburbs
that rely on the system.
Since Sept. 11, and the loss of two of the PATH's 13 stations,
those shortcomings have stood out in sharp relief. And every
weekday morning for the last several weeks, the human reminder
of the shortcomings has also stood out, on the sidewalk, in
front of the Christopher Street station. He wears a dark blue
Port Authority police uniform and a sidearm and a stern
expression. His job is to block people from entering between 7
and 9:45 a.m., because there are simply too many people
downstairs during those hours just trying to get out.
"Sorry, sir," said Officer John Noble, who was doing
the job yesterday and intercepted an elderly man in mid-jog
toward the stairs. "Can't come in here until 9:45."
The man looked around, as if he had just been told that the law
of gravity was being rescinded. "What do you mean?" he
asked. "I've got to get uptown."
Officer Noble, a very large man with a very sympathetic tone in
his voice, told him the very unpleasant news: he could wait 45
minutes or he could get a train farther north at the Ninth
Street station, which is less crowded. The man spun on his heel
and hurried indignantly along Christopher Street. "He's one
of the few," Officer Noble explained. "Most people
already know by now."
What they know, is this: While it might not look like it, or
sound like it — and usually does not smell like it — the
PATH now feels a lot more like the overcrowded subway during
rush hours and sometimes even long after. Until repairs are made
in Lower Manhattan, which could take two years, the resemblance
between the two systems will probably only increase.
And Christopher Street, which has become the southernmost
station in the city and is absorbing many of the 66,000
passengers a day who once used the World Trade Center stop, will
probably feel worse than any subway station.
As Officer Noble stood upstairs outside the station yesterday,
the scene downstairs was beginning to look like a big tube of
There is only one exit from the station, a narrow one at the
front end, reached through three turnstiles. By 8:30, as trains
from Hoboken and Newark began to arrive with more and more
people, many of them pressed like specimens against the window
glass, one trainload had not yet had time to make its way
through the turnstiles and up the long staircase before another
load poured out of the next train and stacked up behind
The crowds have become so thick near that end of the station
that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs
the system, recently removed benches on the platform, so people
would have more room to stand. Quick adapters have learned to
ride near the front of the train and to sprint to the turnstiles
when the train doors open, which can save more than a minute as
the commuters slowly ascend to daylight.
Others have not managed to adapt at all. One woman squeezed out
of the back of a packed train about 8:15 and promptly sank to
her knees on the platform, lightheaded because of the crush.
Officer Noble helped her up.
"The PATH, to me, has always been a little more, I don't
know, genteel than the subway," said John Rohde, an
official with the city's Human Resources Administration, who
rides in from Newark. "Not anymore." In the late
afternoon, when the flow of commuters reverses, the same scene
develops along Christopher Street,
as people line up down the block and around the corner, waiting
to go downstairs to catch a train. "You should have seen
it," said one Village resident, who did. "It looked
like somebody was handing out free tickets to `The Producers' in
Mr. Rohde, 57, who has been taking the PATH since 1985, tried
his best to act as if it all did not bother him so much. Then he
was honest. "I'm only a couple of months away from
retirement," he said.