In 2007, MTA created a job position to give each subway line a point person while simultaneously serving as the face of each train. The Line General Manager for the historic “International Express” train is John Hoban. Born in Corona, the son of a PATH train civil engineer, John says “Transit is in my DNA”. John was kind enough to take a few minutes from his busy schedule to trade emails with Queens Art Express.
1)John you are the Line Manager on the 7 train: I bet you have hundreds of stories over the years working at MTA–what is the most memorable thing you saw on the train or subway platform?
I like to tell people that every one of the millions of people who get on our subway system daily has a story. Some of them end happily, like parents re-united with lost children or the excitement and anticipation on people’s faces when they alight at Willets Point for the Mets game.
Some of the stories have tremendous pathos like the incident alert page that I received on my Blackberry as I was about to say grace before our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner. The page reported that the body of a homeless man, identity unknown, had been discovered deceased on the subway platform at 179 St. That message was shared with my extended family and that poor man’s soul was sent onto God with our fervent prayers. That was a far more meaningful Thanksgiving than I ever recall.
The mundane day-to-day scenes are also memorable. I love to watch the little boys (mostly) peering through the “fan” window of the front of the train as rapt in their attention of the passing subway “landscape” as their fathers are. The families on outings to Flushing Meadows or dressed up for church or a special event and sitting placidly as the train takes them safely to their destination is very rewarding to me.
Many of my most memorable stories have to do with days where things went very wrong and it took the heroic efforts of our employees to set them right. August 7, 2007, a freak rain storm dumped a prodigious amount of rain in a very short time and flooded the system in several critical places. The tens of thousands of gallons of water in the tunnel at 36 St and Northern Blvd had actually boiled to a froth energized by the third rail power. Imagine a pond that looked like a cafe latte in a confined tunnel with steam rising off of the surface. That was memorable. The train stopped by the rising water had been safely evacuated and the coffee colored water was pumped out and service restored for the end of the evening rush hour. Similar scenes to that happened all over the system that day.
2) Where are you from?
I was born in Queens and have either lived, worked or gone to school (sometimes all three) in every borough of the city.
3) I understand the line manager is responsible for making judgment calls-What is the most challenging (and rewarding) part of being a line manager?
Transit is in my DNA. My father John Hoban, Sr., was the Vice President and General Manager of the Port Authority Trans Hudson system. He joined the PATH team as a civil engineer shortly after the Port Authority was tasked with running the bankrupt Hudson & Manhattan Railroad between New York and New Jersey. I accompanied him on many trips into the PATH facilities, towers, a car barn with dirt floors, and one memorable trip to see steel running rails being poured and forged in a steel rolling mill in Bethlehem, PA.
I never intended to follow in his footsteps but things happen. Now I run the equivalent of the fourth largest transit system in the United States in terms of daily ridership. My Dad never knew that I went into the “family” business as he died before I took my first job with MTA New York City Transit in 1980. I think he would be amused and hopefully proud of my continuation of a family tradition of public service. So on one level the rewards of being a General Manager are personal.
The 7 Line Team carries over 450,000 customers every weekday and not much less on a weekend. Outside of New York City, only Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston carry more people than the 7 line. That is a real challenge as our line is only 18.9 miles in length with just 21 stations.
Other transportation properties count their ridership over their entire systems, which can be spread out over networks in whole cities. The way we “compete” is to run more trains than any other line in the NYC Transit system. The headways are very close and when things are “pumping” a customer never waits long for a train. This intensity of service means that if we have a problem, it is like tailgating at high speeds on the highway. Our problems pile up quickly often to the dismay and annoyance of our regular riders. Keeping things “pumping” like a heartbeat is my number one challenge.
We try and minimize delays by working almost every night of the week in the tunnel sections to inspect and repair tracks, switches, signals and infrastructure. Finding time to do repair and maintenance work on the rest of the line is also a challenge. When track and signal maintenance is being done on other lines on weekends when ridership is lighter, we host the Mets, the US Tennis Open and major festivals in Queen’s crown jewel – Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
We have to perform our track work on the elevated structure sections of the line during daylight hours. People frequently ask me “isn’t that track work done yet?” to which I answer “it will never be done.” If you wore the same pair of shoes every day what would happen? You don’t service your car just once. The more you drive, the more frequently you service your car if you want it to perform reliably.
Speaking of reliable cars, the 7 line fleet is celebrating an anniversary this year. The current R-62A fleet was introduced as the first “new tech” cars 25 years ago. They are running more miles between failures today (187,460 miles) than they were a year ago (149,506 miles). And they’re running a lot better than the year they were new.
I am very proud to be associated with people who put out the type of service the 7 line provides day in and day out. I get a lot of satisfaction from mastering the challenges involved in meeting our rider’s expectations.
4) How do you like working every day on the “The International Express” train?
I love to travel and in fact, although I was born in Corona and had family for many years in Jackson Heights, I lived for a period of time in Austria. Every day, my encounters with our customers and their cultures are rewarding. In fact, I laughingly tell people that I am always hungry when I am out on the line taking in the aromas of the various ethnic cuisines that are traversed by our 18 mile system.
I helped to harness the talents of Transit’s employees on and beyond the 7 line by asking that a Volunteer Translator Program be created to more effectively communicate with our customers for whom English is a second language. The Volunteer Translators are deployed during planned service diversions to provide information that people will understand. We pulled from our ethnically diverse population within the Transit Authority to staff this program. We routinely deploy Volunteers speaking Spanish, Chinese and Korean.
They are augmented by brochures and signs in these languages. We provide two basic products, transportation and information. When we are not providing first rate transportation, we have to provide high quality information. This is one step in a multi-layered challenge.
5) What are your earliest memories of working at MTA? Where did you start?
I have worked in the executive offices at MTA and Jay Street, on Staten Island for the Staten Island Rapid Transit, and in Surface Transit (Buses). When I started there were tokens, graffiti, frequent mainline derailments, and the cars would only go a few thousand miles between failures. We have come a long way since then.
I worked for the premier transportation engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff for a number of years before returning to the MTA at Metro-North Railroad where I worked for 17 years in a variety of areas including 12 years in the main repair shop at Croton on Hudson. I returned to Transit two years ago.
6) What do you do to relax in Queens or the Metropolitan area?
I have a pretty demanding job but I try and find time to grow tomatoes, take walks on the beach, and read books on history. I love being out on the system and feed off the energy of our great city.
7) How often are on the 7 train?
Howard H. Roberts, Jr., president of NYC Transit, told the General Managers that he wanted us out on our lines everyday. I feel like I’m letting him down if a day passes and I am not out somewhere on the line. I hate to let Mr. Roberts down and don’t do it very often. I have my office on a platform at a station on the line. So as I write this there are trains pumping by outside my door. During nightly shutdowns I get a kick out of doing my walking inspections from Queens to Manhattan under the East River. I enjoy the fact that I am probably the only person in New York City having my own unique New York moment.