New York’s Subways Get Back on Track — Sort Of

This intrepid TIME reporter tried getting into Manhattan twice in Sandy's aftermath — once with considerably more success.

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Richard Drew / AP

Passengers exit a downtown-bound, west side subway train in New York's Times Square, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

I’ve never been a superstitious man. But I subconsciously held my breath as my Manhattan-bound N train descended into the 60th Street Tunnel Thursday morning, just in case something had been misjudged over the rush to reopen a transit services and our train ended up plunging into a flooded tunnel.

But there was no giant wave that rushed over us like the drop at Splash Mountain. Nor were there slow zones, stoplights or workers toiling away beneath the East River, simply the whoosh of steel wheels on rails. Everything seemed normal, and in what felt like record time we had crossed from the borough of Queens to the island of Manhattan.

(PHOTOS: After Sandy: Scenes of Wreckage and Recovery)

Among Sandy’s many victims — the massive storm claimed at least 80 lives (and counting) in the U.S. alone, caused tens of billions in damage and left as many as 6 million residents without power — was New York City‘s subway system, upon which 8.5 million riders depend every day. The city proactively shut down the entire network on Sunday before Sandy hit, but the massive storm surge flooded tunnels and rendered large parts of the network unusable. And most of lower Manhattan remained without power, making it impossible for trains to travel south of 34th street or 42nd street. So it was something of a blessing to be back on public transportation on Thursday, after limited service was restored to parts of the city.

It was certainly a far cry from my experience the day before, when in a fit of optimism and cabin fever I decided to hop a cab into Manhattan. I fairly flew from my home in the comfortable middle-class neighborhood of Astoria onto the Robert F. Kennedy Triboro Bridge — and headlong into epic gridlock. My taxi took two hours to go 60 blocks — a total journey of about three miles, which on an average day would take 30 minutes. I ended up walking the final mile and a half. And it was much faster.

On Thursday morning, however, my subway conductor had no other traffic to contend with, and an understandable need for speed. The stops flew by like highway exits until we reached midtown, where skyscrapers 50 stories tall, after resting empty for the first half of the week, were beginning to fill up again.

Nick Carbone / TIME

The N line from Queens to Manhattan at rush hour on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

I couldn’t say the same about my subway car. During Thursday morning rush hour, this N train was nowhere near capacity. At stations along the line, where on any given weekday there’s a clamor to board the train and commuters squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder, few people were waiting. On board there were even a few seats available.

(MORE: Sandy’s Destruction: Live Updates on the Superstorm’s Aftermath)

I was one of the lucky ones. The majority of the city’s subway lines remained shut or experienced limited service, making travel difficult if not impossible for millions of New Yorkers. In Brooklyn, travelers had to abandon subways for what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called “bus bridges” — a series of shuttle buses — to take them into Manhattan. At 8 a.m. the lines for the bus, hard by Brooklyn’s brand new Barclay’s Center arena, snaked around surrounding blocks. Police had to set up barriers to control the lines, Gothamist reported. Some commuters ended up waiting up to three hours for a bus that took up to 90 minutes to reach lower Manhattan, after which followed the hassle of finding a cab or bus to their final destinations.

The photos of overwhelming swarms of commuters waiting  patiently (apparently) in Brooklyn for buses were shocking to those who not braving the city’s public transit system. For many, it was the mere ability to leave their homes that inspired them into action. Bus service throughout the city resumed Wednesday, with all fares suspended by Gov. Cuomo in an effort to encourage the use of public transportation and to speed up the boarding process. It was an enticing offer, indeed: yesterday, before I hopped into that cab in Queens, I considered taking the bus, which stops just down my block. But when I saw a winding line of more than 50 people queued up waiting, that idea was quickly snuffed out. So I sat in the traffic gridlock created by the millions who evidently had the same idea as me. Even Mayor Bloomberg was apparently frustrated with his inability to get anywhere. By midday, with traffic jams still plaguing the city, Bloomberg announced that any vehicle carrying fewer than three people would be turned away from attempting to enter Manhattan. It was an order in effect for the four East River bridges and the Lincoln Tunnel across the Hudson.

This morning, with the limited subway service (and free fares here as well), I left the house with a rocky feeling. I even told myself that I’d gladly work from home yet again if there was a similarly extensive line to ride the rails as there was for the bus yesterday. But when I climbed the stairs and walked onto the platform, seeing just handfuls of people waiting where I expected hundreds, showed that perhaps we hadn’t learned from Wednesday’s commuting horrors. Because just beyond the tracks, 30 feet below me, was the on-ramp to the Triboro Bridge. And traffic was snarled for as far as the eye could see.

(PHOTOS: Capturing Sandy’s East Coast Devastation)

The souls, like me, who decided to brave the unknowns of the subway service this morning seemed like their minds had been erased of the insanity of the past few days. We New Yorkers, craving this small return to normalcy, had our earphones in, reading feverishly on our iPhones, and generally avoided eye contact with each other. Most of us genuinely appeared to be just waking up — as is normal every morning.

MORE: A City of Light and a City of Darkness: How Sandy Created Two Manhattans