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New York's New Weapon in the Battle Against Subway Trash

The city hopes to declutter its 662 miles of track to prevent train-delaying debris fires.

MTA

To the people who throw candy wrappers and coffee cups onto New York’s subway tracks: No, your garbage does not gently decompose, providing nutrients for furry moss, strange fungi, and other subterranean flora.

Rather, city workers regularly go around picking up the trash and dead rats that accumulate on the tracks, using a combination of elbow grease, “vacuum trains,” and now a bunch of experimental, super-sucking hose-boxes.

MTA

The “Vakmobile” devices, which look like metal cabinets with thick tubes that workers aim at garbage, are portable enough to be transported by train to different stations. They run on rechargeable, lithium-iron phosphate batteries and, to judge from the below Metropolitan Transportation Authority video, appear powerful enough to drain a small swamp.

The vacuums are the latest phase of the city’s Operation Track Sweep, an effort to keep its 472 subway stations clear of the 40 tons of crap they accumulate daily. It’s not just an aesthetics issue; fires from detritus on the tracks are a repeat cause of subway disruptions. The vacuums are being deployed in Manhattan and Queens, with a possible expansion to other boroughs in the near future. If the city likes the results, it plans on buying more and using them throughout the system.

The next development in Operation Track Sweep will be the addition of three new track-vacuum trains to the subway’s fleet in 2017 and 2018. These vehicles scoot from station to station to gobble up as much as 378 cubic feet of trash in a day. If you haven’t had the luck to see a vacuum train in operation, here’s one dully roaring through Brooklyn last May:

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.