from the NYTimes:
Two of the city's subway lines - the A and the C - have been crippled and may not return to normal capacity for three to five years after a fire Sunday afternoon in a Lower Manhattan transit control room that was started by a homeless person trying to keep warm, officials said yesterday.
The blaze, at the Chambers Street station used by the A and C lines, was described as doing the worst damage to subway infrastructure since the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001. It gutted a locked room that is no larger than a kitchen but that contains some 600 relays, switches and circuits that transmit vital information about train locations.
The A line will run roughly one-third the normal number of trains - meaning that riders who used to wait six minutes for a train might now have to wait 18 minutes - while the C train will cease to exist as a separate line, at least for the time being. The C will be replaced by the V in Brooklyn. Long waits and erratic service are likely to be the norm on the two lines, which have a combined ridership of 580,000 each weekday.
"This is a very significant problem, and it's going to go on for quite a while," said Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit. He estimated it would take "several millions of dollars and several years" to reassemble and test the intricate network of custom-built switch relays that were destroyed in the blaze, which officials believe began when the homeless person - who has not been found - set fire to wood and refuse in a shopping cart in the tunnel about 50 feet north of the Chambers Street station.
The flames quickly spread to a series of electrical cables. "Those cables short-circuited as a result of the fire, causing arcing as well as fire inside a relay room," said a Fire Department spokesman, Michael R. Loughran.
The fire underscored the fragility of the antiquated equipment that keeps the subways moving and of the sensitive nodes where that equipment is stored. Officials said they believed that there were only two companies in the world that were able to repair the signals. One is based in Pittsburgh, and the other in Paris.
An expert on the city's subways expressed amazement that a single fire in a confined space could have such a long-lasting impact. "It seems astonishing that a single signal room would be so central to the operation of the line that it would take five years to recover from," said Clifton Hood, a transit historian at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. "That's about as long as it took to build that entire line of the IND."
Homeless people have been known to frequent the Chambers Street station. As a policy, the police do not eject them from the subway system during freezing weather, and the fire was an indication of the extensive use of subway tunnels as shelter. An April 2004 estimate by the city put the number of homeless people in the subway in Manhattan and Brooklyn at 582, but advocates for the homeless say there are far more.