The City That Never Sweeps?

March 9, 2017
Portable vacuum prototypes absorb New York City’s “specific” trash problem, with innovations that could carry.

Infamous filth along New York City’s subway system is in the process of an extensive cleansing that benefits from new power and portability. Transit officials expect the shine to last – and maybe even extend to other systems.

NYC Transit is finalizing enhancements for a fleet of portable track and station cleaning vacuums in an effort to cut grime and reduce track fires in a way that doesn’t cause track or train delays. Two $320,000-a-piece vacuum prototypes were constructed and tested in recent months as part of a push by the NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office dubbed “Operation Track Sweep.” With about one month of regular track cleaning, transit officials said the difference is visible.

“We finally feel like they have a weapon to get over the hump and clean the tracks,” said Edward Brennan, assistant chief of the power maintenance division at NYC Transit and the lead on the track cleaning initiative.

The prototype portable vacuums were “over-engineered” in an effort to remain in use, and may be joined by up to one-dozen more similar units, Brennan said. Transit officials spent the start of 2017 meeting with vendors on improvements to specifications like dust filters, and reviews to see the best places to assign and store additional units. Brennan said transit officials are already looking to neighbor tracks like Long Island and considering how the units could be modified for other subways or rail depots.

Those opportunities are further out. But they stem from two prominent features of the prototypes. As fuels and exhaust were a no-go underground, batteries of specific size and output were a must-have for the vacuums. It was incumbent that the vacuum vendors figure out the battery situation, which reduced the field of possible providers from two-dozen down to two, NEU, a French company, and VAC-U-MAX, from New Jersey. In the end, lithium ion phosphate batteries that held charge and were protected by a homemade management system provided adequate charges during cleanings.

Secondly, the movement and heavy-duty suction hose of the vacuums can be handled by a few employees and ride on passengerless cars to destinations. Kind of like a metallic bookshelf, the vacuums are nimbler than the system’s VakTrak cleaning trains and don’t lead to any station or track closures.

In December, after months of testing and prodding – including visits to European and reviews of cleaning initiatives there – the city had its “new tools”: two, 1,000-pound, 6-foot-by-6-foot-by-3-foot mobile units. Transit crews took the prototypes for a trial by fire at, in some cases, the first substantial cleanings in decades for certain lines of the 472 station, 662-mile New York City system, which already annually picks up dozens of tons of waste and suffers more than 700 annual track fires.

“No other system has such a problem with trash on the tracks,” said Dominic Renaud, an outside consultant hired by the transit system who specializes in track efficiency and cleanliness. “It is probably why there isn’t a system like this somewhere else. The level of the problem is specific to New York.”

Brennan recalled one track cleaning at a station at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue. Between one of the new machines, operated by one-to-three employees, and about 10 other hands-on cleaners, transit crews collected 496 contractor-sized bags of dust, bottles, tossed newspapers, cans, mud and more. What made these patrols so extensive was the reach and power from the six-inch hole connected to the new vacuums.

“It’s not so much like they pulled Jimmy Hoffa up. Nothing like that,” Brennan said, joking about the vanished former union boss rumored to be buried everywhere from New York to Michigan. “But it’s one of those things where you work at a job for so long at something that it frustrates you and … now, there’s a sense of accomplishment, that they’re digging down deeper and when they’re done they have a finished product.”

Brennan repeatedly noted the willingness to use the machines by transit employees, who took pride in the thorough cleaning of the city’s iconic transit system.

To add to the final tally of portable systems, the transit system is scheduled to bring on three new subway vacuum cars, which will complement those existing cars still operating though they have “lived past their expectancy,” according to Brennan said. Aesthetically, cleaner tracks should work in parallel to other messaging efforts to encourage rider tidiness across the system, transit officials said.

About the Author

Justin Kern

Justin Kern is a writer and nonprofit marketing manager who lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats.