Becoming a subway motorman one multiple choice question at a time.

(New York Times, November 2003) (Link to story at nytimes.com)


EVEN AFTER waiting outside in an insistent wind for more than two hours, Jeffrey Babbitt was eager to talk to strangers about the first time he drove a New York City subway train. It was in the early 50's, on one of the old low-voltage IRT expresses, and the motorman let him work the controls from Franklin Avenue to Borough Hall in Brooklyn, or maybe even all the way up Lexington Avenue and into the Bronx. He couldn't remember exactly; he was only 3 at the time.

Mr. Babbitt told his story while waiting in line for the New York City Train Operator test, Exam No. 2085, which was offered on Oct. 25 to more than 14,000 people at 14 locations across the city. He was there because he wanted to drive the subway again. "My ideal job would be motorman," Mr. Babbitt said before correcting himself: "Motorman instructor."

As exam time approached, the line grew backward from where Mr. Babbitt stood, at the entrance of James Madison High School on Bedford Avenue in the Madison section of Brooklyn. It stretched all the way to Avenue P, then wrapped around the corner and kept on growing for several more basketball court lengths of schoolyard fence. People stood and leaned, some sipping coffee or nosing through green "Train Operator" study books.

Exam No. 2085 is only the fourth most popular test New York City Transit offers, after Bus Operator, Train Conductor and Station Agent. But for reasons that almost certainly include the relative security of a city job in a bad economy, the number of people taking these tests is rising: Approximately 40 percent more people turned out on this day than in January 2000, when the Train Operator test was first offered publicly. Each applicant spent $50 to file for the test back in May, some shelled out another $27 for the study book, and a few, like Mr. Babbitt, spent hundreds on prep courses.

"It's a good job, good benefits," explained Brandi Reid, 19, echoing the sentiments of many people in line, as she waited with her father, Stanley, who has been a train operator, or, motorman, as everyone still seems to say, for three years. But the appeal of driving the subway is more than monetary.

"People who grow up in New York taking the train, those people, most of them think about driving it," said a Brooklyn man named Jimmy who was taking the test. Another man spoke proudly of the trains he had taken when growing up in Nigeria, his native country. "My family lived on opposite ends of the country," he said. "I used to travel three days on the train. I would like to drive the subway, too."

It was already 15 minutes past the time printed on the yellow carbon-copy notices mailed to every exam-taker when the line started inching toward the door. Of course, the yellow notices were already suspect, since they had advised test-takers to go to the Kings Highway station by way of the D or Q trains, and the D train hasn't been running that route since 2001.

"I can't wait, I can't wait," said Mr. Babbitt, who had been passing the time by describing his favorite train lines (BMT), his favorite subway cars (AB standard and B types), and insisting that he is not a train buff but rather a "train historian" and a member of New York Railroad Enthusiasts, the second largest such group in the city.

"They just know I'm going to ace this thing," he said of his friends in the group, which meets every fourth Friday at the Masonic Hall on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. "I remember all the equipment. I have super memory on stuff like that."

Finally, 32 minutes after the scheduled time, the line picked up speed, and test-takers filed through the lobby, past the weathered wood doors and up four flights of stairs to their appointed seats.

Being a train operator requires mastering a dizzying amount of arcane information, but taking the exam to be a train operator requires only reading some of that information and immediately regurgitating it in multiple-choice format.

The test explained, for instance, that a double buzzer sound means that a train is cleared to leave the station. It also outlined permissible excuses for being late to work and the meanings of various radio codes, from A25 ("Emergency") to the more ominous E20 ("Passenger Under Train"). After each nugget of train knowledge, the test then asked, in reading-comprehension format, what the information had been.

Aspiring motormen had to evaluate actions like wearing a political button supporting a mayoral candidate while on duty (incorrect) and refusing to talk to a reporter about a passenger accident (correct). Using information provided, they had to select the minimum number of hand brakes needed to secure a 10-car train parked on a grade for more than 30 minutes (five), and the number of R28 subway cars in a train consisting of five two-car units that would extend beyond the end of a 450-foot platform (two).

In this way, the exam was both easy and esoteric: highly specific, yet trivially so. If the questions had been about gardening, the same people would have done just as well.

As people seated in uniform rows of wrap-around desks leafed through their exam booklets, chewed their No. 2 pencils and worked their calculators, proctors moved around, taking fingerprints of each applicant's right hand with ink that left no visible trace on the fingers. In at least one room, test-takers were informed that people who did not submit to fingerprinting would be disqualified and escorted from the exam. Everyone submitted.

THE EXAM, which had 70 questions, was scheduled to take three hours, but few people worked through to the final bell. Instead, they trickled out of James Madison and compared pink backup answer sheets covered with penciled letters.

"Pretty good so far," Geraldine Johnson said to her friends as they matched answers. The three of them grew up in the Marcy projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and they were, as they put it, aficionados of the subway system. Ms. Johnson actually worked as a token booth clerk for several years so that she could take the train operator's test, which was closed at the time.

The Nigerian man emerged with an enormous smile. "It was mostly rhetorical," he said. "Very easy, very easy." At the curbside, a woman and a young boy waited in an idling car to pick up a man, presumably the father. (Boy, excited, from car window: "How'd you do? How'd you do?" Dad, even more excited, opening car door: "Good, good. They gave you the answers.")

Mr. Babbitt, however, was a little disappointed. "They didn't have many questions on air brakes," he complained. "Not much about trains specifically, except a few. Some questions stumped me, but once I got down to it, I think I did pretty good." Now all he has to do is wait to see if the city calls, something that could take up to two years.

Contented, Mr. Babbitt walked to his car for the drive home. "I would have had to take two buses and a subway," he said, explaining why he hadn't taken mass transit from his home in Sheepshead Bay. "It's a Saturday, and I wanted to get here on time."

Sam Schechner wrote this piece in 2003. He is currently a reporter at the Wall Street Journal.