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Here's how the MTA is working to solve its subway trash problem

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Trash causes delays, but how do you get rid of the trash?

MTA employees clean subway tracks as part of the agency’s Operation Track Sweep program.
Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

This week, the New York City subway was snarled twice in one day when track fires affected service for both the morning and the evening commutes. And in at least one case, the fire started due to a very persistent and pesky problem: trash on the tracks. According to the New York Daily News, there was at least 30 feet of unspecified refuse on the tracks near the 145th Street station, which led to the morning’s fire—and, ultimately, the hours of delays that followed.

The amount of trash that is in the subway system is staggering; the MTA removes as much as 40 tons of garbage (!) on a daily basis, and there are more than 3,500 trash cans throughout the transit system. And as commuters know, just because that much trash is removed doesn’t mean that every subway station is clean—yesterday’s fires are proof. “I want to get to the point where we have no fires in the system,” MTA chairman Joe Lhota told reporters yesterday. “These fires all start with trash being thrown down there.”

Last year, the MTA sought to address that problem by implementing a program called Operation Track Sweep, which is being rolled out in phases that include increasing how often stations are cleaned, and a 500-person-strong effort to remove trash from every subway station.

Possibly the most fascinating component is the use of mobile vacuums, which can gobble up to 14 cubic yards of trash per day—since the MTA began using them last year, they’ve helped remove more than 400 tons of trash total. The MTA says that this has led to a decline in track fires since the beginning of the year—there were 53 in June compared to 75 in January.

Larger vacuum trains will be rolled out later this year, but for now, portable ones have been in use in Queens and Manhattan, and you can get a peek at how they work in the video below:

Still, as yesterday’s events showed, this type of maintenance is key—and occasionally, more pressing issues come up. John Samuelsen, the president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 noted that “the recent derailment might have shifted priorities … with supervisors putting possible track defect repairs above routine housekeeping.”

But clearly, trash isn’t an issue the MTA can take lightly. In a statement, Lhota acknowledged the problem, and said that “we will do a better job, and we're working every single day to deliver on that promise. … The urgency to improve service is felt throughout the MTA and that's why we're moving so fast to implement new technologies to deliver for customers.”

(This is also a good reminder to commuters: use trash cans! They’re there for a reason! Do it before the MTA bans food in the subway system altogether!)