Noise on tracks is falling through cracks


By Chad Smith

A straphanger turns his back to the tracks and plugs his ears at the cacophonous Spring and Lafayette Sts. subway station.

A grumble at the end of the tunnel builds into a roar, then a thunder. It’s a familiar noise in many New York City subway stations, the sound of an approaching train. But at the 6 subway station at Spring St. the noise doesn’t end there. Instead, at this station with four separate tracks, when the 4 or 5 train whizzes past, or when the 6 train halts at the platform, the screech of the trains’ wheels against the metal tracks is so loud that conversation is inaudible, and people plug their ears while others wince.

With such an expansive subway system — which, in many places, is more than 100 years old — it’s hard to make sure every station is free of intensely loud noises, transit officials say. Progress in abating the noise has been made over the last 30 years, when legislators began paying serious attention to noise issues. But without any current laws governing the noise levels in the subways, the issue can easily be abandoned. Experts say the screeching and squealing may cause hearing damage over time, though the piercing noise at Spring St. has already, at the very least, left many riders unhappy. “Horrendous” is how a man who gave only his first name, Chris, a 40-year resident of Soho, described the noise of a 4 express train that had just passed as he waited on the Uptown Spring St. platform last week. Because the station has two local tracks and two express ones, trains pass or stop almost every minute, making the overwhelming screeching noise seem constant. “I travel all over the city,” added Chris, 63. “I’ve got a monthly MetroCard, and the noise is completely the worst down here.”

Others on the same platform agreed, describing the earsplitting racket of a 6 train as it braked at the platform as “overwhelming.” Yoji Kido, a 17-year-old high school student from Westchester, said that the noise “killed his ears.” He and a group of friends with whom he traveled all cupped their ears as a 5 train raced by. Kido, like many others who use the station, doubted anything could be done about the noise.

Charles Seaton, a spokesperson for New York City Transit, said that the station at Spring and Lafayette Sts. had received complaints, and that the transit authority was looking into the problem. Seaton said trains pulling up to or passing this station first round a curve, which causes screeching, and that this factor makes the noise hard to mitigate.

However, Seaton pointed to some of the noise-abating structures already in place on almost every city train, such as “ring-damped” wheels. These features, when fitted on the trains’ wheels, calm their vibrations. Those vibrations cause sharp noises, because, much like a bell, when a wheel vibrates, it rings. Seaton also spoke of rubber pads under the rails that quiet rumbling by reducing vibrations. Also, at the Spring St. station, 41/2-foot walls are in place that separate the express and local tracks, and should thereby absorb noise.

In 1982, after a deluge of noise complaints, the New York State Legislature passed a law called the Rapid Transit Noise Code Act, whose provisions monitored and attempted to keep noise levels down in the subways. That law, which expired in 1994, required transit officials to write annual reports to the governor and State Legislature detailing the authority’s efforts in abating subway noise. Given that no similar law has been enacted since the Rapid Transit Noise Code Act’s expiration, critics argue there is little incentive for transit to abate the loud noise in the subways.

“If no one is keeping tabs on the noise, then how can any problems be fixed?” asked Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist and member of New York City’s Council on the Environment, on which she chairs the Noise Committee.

Besides writing reports to the Legislature under the 1982 law, transit had to insure that many of its subway stations’ noises remained under certain decibel levels. (A normal conversation registers at 60 decibels, a car alarm, 80, and an electric drill, at 95.) Anything over 85 decibels, whether listened to continuously or in broken periods, can cause permanent hearing damage over time, according to Bronzaft and other hearing experts.

Transit, however, doesn’t keep decibel readings on file for its stations. Therefore, without numbers for comparison or cross-reference, it’s difficult to prove to transit that there really is a problem and that noise levels are unsafe. Transit spokespersons were vague on whether the authority does any decibel readings at stations nowadays.

“Data is what you need in these situations,” said Bronzaft, a lifelong anti-noise advocate whom transit once employed to help study and address the subway’s noise issues. “It’s what the city lacks [decibel readings], and that’s just embarrassing,” she said.

Transit officials say that, although they don’t have any legislation regulating noise and don’t keep records of decibel readings, they still care about the issue. James Anyanfi, another transit spokesperson, said he couldn’t supply a list of decibel readings for the Spring and Lafayette Sts. station. However, he pointed to other noise-reducing measures at the station, such as lubrication at the north end of the tracks. This lubrication, Anyanfi said, gets continually pumped onto the tracks by a mechanical plunger and prevents friction when metal wheel meets track. He also spoke about “rail fasteners,” which tighten the tracks, closing slight gaps, thereby making the ride smoother and quieter.

Anyanfi said transit maintains these structures and that legislation may not be necessary. When asked why, then, after all those measures, the tracks still screamed out as trains passed by, Anyanfi said he wasn’t sure. However, he did add, “The health and safety of our employees and riders is first and foremost.” But judging by the level of noise filling the station, hearing health may still be in jeopardy.

Since transit doesn’t keep decibel readings of its stations on file, this reporter, last week, brought a sound meter, purchased from Radio Shack, into the subway station at Spring and Lafayette Sts. As the 6 train halted at the platform, the sound meter averaged 99 decibels. As the 4 or 5 express trains passed the station, the sound level meter averaged an even-higher 105 decibels.

These numbers were 10 to 15 decibels higher than readings taken at other subway stations around the Village and Soho. All measurements were taken under similar conditions — at structurally comparable stations, with four separate tracks, two express, two local.

“The disparity in sound level is remarkable and harmful,” said Bronzaft when she learned of these readings. “When you’re talking about more than a 10-decibel difference, the ear recognizes that as a doubling in the noise level. It can be painful,” she said.

Transit had no comment on the sound readings.

At this rate, for the everyday commuter who listens to a 105-decibel noise one or two minutes each day, the noise can do permanent hearing damage over time, according to Dean Mancuso, an audiologist and manager of aural rehabilitation at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. However, Mancuso noted, the token booth attendants at Spring St. are at greater risk, because they are exposed to the noise for hours each day.

When asked about the constant, high-pitched screeching from the 4 or 5 train — measured at about 103 decibels near the token booths, an unacceptable amount of constant noise, according to hearing experts — token booth operators on both the Uptown and Downtown platforms said they’ve grown accustomed to the trains’ noise.

“I just tune it out,” said a 24-year transit employee who gave his first name, Bob, who works at the Spring St. station five days a week. “But,” Bob conceded, “it is really loud. The glass doesn’t do a thing, but I’m used to the noise by now.”

However, the fact that Bob and the other token booth attendants said they were “used to it,” doesn’t mean the noise isn’t doing damage, hearing experts say.

William Hal Martin, Ph.D., a professor of otolaryngology and public health at the Oregon Health and Science University, and who works for the Web site DangerousDecibels.org, compared a token booth operator’s reaction toward loud noise to that of someone’s attending a noisy nightclub.

“When people first enter a nightclub, they often grimace and reel back at the intensity of the sound,” Martin said in an e-mail message. “But after 5 to 10 minutes, they also ‘get used to it.’ That is probably an internal, volume adjustment done by the brain. It has nothing to do with the damage being incurred. It’s amazing what we can tolerate if we have to. Therefore, it’s not all right for token booth operators to be exposed to such noise levels just because they have perceptually adapted to it.”

Mancuso at Columbia Presbyterian, when told that three employees at the Spring St. station said they were “used to the noise,” said, “They’re losing their hearing. I’ve had patients who have given me that exact line.”

Transit spokesperson Seaton said, “If the noise really bothered them [token booth employees], they could complain to their supervisor.”

Although transit does have standards for its employees’ hearing health — they follow the codes of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor — those standards may not be strict enough.

“OSHA is a governmental agency, not a scientific institute, and the OSHA requirements are heavily skewed by the politics of economy,” Martin said.

Added Amy Boyle, director of public education at the League for the Hard of Hearing, “It doesn’t matter who is standing at the platform or further away from it,” she said. “These noises [ones that registered between 103 to 105 decibels] are cumulative and they will damage someone’s hearing over time. The transit authority should follow the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s standards.”

The regulations of NIOSH — also a federal agency, though a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — call for a lower amount of high-decibel noise per day, and NIOSH affirms that continued exposure to 100 decibels for more than 15 minutes a day could put workers at risk for permanent hearing loss.

If NIOSH’s standards were enforced, hearing health would improve, experts say. However, it would be harder to impose NIOSH’s standards, because, for many businesses, they may seem impractical.

While many at the Spring St. station suggested that the transit authority use rubber tires on the trains, the type usually seen on the trains in Europe, Seaton said rubber tires aren’t possible for New York City trains.

“There’s too much wear [overall use] on the trains,” he said. “Plus, our trains are too heavy for rubber wheels.”

A track maintenance official, who asked not to be named, said that for the worst-screeching trains, transit might put a device on the tracks called a water sprayer. As its name implies, water is sprayed on the tracks and works to lower the screeching, thereby lowering the decibel count. The drawback to this method, however, is that the tracks rust from the water and eventually need replacement.

Although hearing issues in the subways have been ignored by legislators for more than a decade, Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill last December overhauling the noise code for the entire city — this bill has a provision in it to remedy the excessive noise in the subways.

At a public hearing about this future law, which goes into effect in July 2007, the mayor described the city’s existing noise codes as “old, archaic and out of date.” The new code would require the Department of Environmental Protection’s commissioner to study noise abatement for rapid transit.

Although D.E.P. already has city noise-code inspectors, as of now, they don’t monitor the subways. The new law would essentially force D.E.P. to re-evaluate the noise at subway stations such as the one on Spring and Lafayette Sts. This legislation, though not as demanding as the 1982 Rapid Transit Noise Code Act, has been commended by even the city’s toughest noise critics.

“They’re taking a step in the right direction,” said noise expert Bronzaft, in reference to Mayor Bloomberg and D.E.P. “The transit authority has the potential to be the best transit system in the world. Let’s see if they can do it.”

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