Why the Return of NYC's Worst Subway Line Is Good News for Riders

For weeks now, the MTA has been trumpeting the return of the W train. Signs posted throughout the subway system portray its comeback like it’s some star-studded Broadway musical revival. Today, it’s back. After a six-year hiatus, the old yellow-line train is rumbling again from the Astoria-Ditmars stop in Queens down to Whitehall St in Lower Manhattan.

If you didn’t miss it, or didn’t even notice it was gone, there’s a good reason for that.

Prior to its retirement in 2010, the W was the worst-rated train in the entire city. “It’s important to remember that the service was pretty bad,” says Jaqi Cohen, campaign coordinator for the Straphangers Campaign. The transit-rider advocacy group annually ranks the city’s various subway lines based on MTA performance data.

For three years in row, in fact, the W fared the poorest of all 21 subway lines, twice tying other equally bad trains and once taking the title outright in 2008. To quickly sum up the W’s less-than-finer points: The W offered the least amount of daytime service and never ran at night. When it was in service, the W showed up with below-average regularity. W trains also broke down more frequently and were dirtier than average -- which is saying a lot!

On the plus side, you were more likely to find a seat on the W (probably because everyone else caught an earlier Q, N, or R train headed in the same direction).

Ample seating was no route to salvation, however. With the MTA facing a $1.2 billion budget shortfall back in 2009, some cuts in subway service were inevitable, and the W was an easy target. The "bastard stepchild" of the yellow line made its last ride on June 25, 2010.

w train
Epicgenius/Creative Commons

So why all the hype about bringing back a subpar and ultimately superfluous service like the W?

The easy answer has to do with the general state of the subway system itself, which, as any New Yorker will tell you, is an overcrowded and chronically delayed mess. Subway ridership has only increased since the W’s demise six years ago -- an uptick of almost 200 million additional trips each year, according to MTA figures. “Everybody has experienced getting on a train and having their face shoved into somebody’s armpit just to get to work,” says Cohen. “So, in that sense, any increase in service is a good thing.”

But the biggest perk about the revived W really isn’t about the W at all. It’s about a different subway line -- specifically, the hugely anticipated and long overdue Second Ave subway, which MTA aims to partially open on Dec 30th. The new subway line, which has been in the planning stages seemingly forever, is intended as the biggest solution yet to the overcrowding problem... once it’s finally completed anyway.

Here’s how it all fits together: With the W back up and running, MTA will be able to discontinue Q train service to Queens and ultimately reroute that train to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, it will run along the first section of the new Second Ave line, with stops at 72nd, 86th, and 96th Streets.

Within this greater scheme, transit advocates see the W’s return as a significant step toward the Second Ave line finally happening. “It’s a vote of confidence that the Second Ave subway will be opening soon,” says Cohen.

That's not the starring role that the MTA's marquee-themed advertisements would have you believe. Realistically, the W is more of a supporting cast member in the big transit drama ahead. But for a train once deemed totally unnecessary, it’s an automatic improvement.

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Chris Shott is Thrillist's Senior New York Editor. He lives in Brooklyn where the W train is completely irrelevant. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram