Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It’s not too late to support our Spring Fundraiser! Make your pledge of support today!

A day in the life of a New York City subway rider trying to break a record

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The New York City subway system has 472 stations laid out across 665 miles of track, and it runs 24 hours a day. For decades, people with travel inclination have made a sport of visiting every station as quickly as possible. From member station WNYC in New York, Stephen Nessen tagged along with somebody trying to break the Guinness World Record for the subway challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Watch your step, please. Watch your step.

STEPHEN NESSEN, BYLINE: It's just past 1 o'clock in the morning, and I'm standing on the elevated A train platform in Far Rockaway, Queens. The air is salty. That's because we're near the Atlantic Ocean, just next to JFK Airport. This line has 45 stops and runs to the top of Manhattan.

DANIEL WELLS: All right. I think we're good to board the train here.

NESSEN: Twenty-nine-year-old Daniel Wells has been studying the train schedule and the map, which resembles a multicolored pile of pasta dumped on the ground. He has his route all planned out.

WELLS: This one was a lot of guess and check. When can I make these transfers? It's going to take me x number of minutes to make it from this stop to this stop by running.

NESSEN: And there are rules. He needs to take a photo of each station. He documents what time doors open and close. He also needs video evidence of every transfer, and dangling from his neck is a stopwatch with his overall time. But already there are two problems. First, the A train hasn't left yet. It's running more than 10 minutes late.

WELLS: It's New York. It's crazy. Weird things happen. A lot of it's just luck, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC TONES)

NESSEN: Second, when Wells started planning this trip in February, he believed the last time the record was broken was seven years ago. That's before the system got three new stations. So Wells thinks as long as he finishes, he'll be the record holder by default. But a few days ago, Guinness crowned a new champion. Kate Jones, a former New Yorker living in Switzerland, completed the subway challenge in 22 hours, 14 minutes and 10 seconds. I break the news to Wells.

WELLS: Wow. I haven't even seen this. All right. I didn't realize I had competition. You know, I'll probably sprint a little faster.

NESSEN: The subway challenge isn't just about speed. It's finding a way to hit all 472 stations using the 22 subway lines. It's also about changing plans on the fly.

WELLS: Feel like running? We're going to call an audible.

NESSEN: OK. Wells thinks he can shave 20 minutes off his time if he takes the streets, running past three stops he's already been to.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANGING)

WELLS: All right. It's one mile.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)

NESSEN: He makes it, but it doesn't actually save any time. The train is running behind schedule.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Stand clear of the closing doors, please.

NESSEN: And three hours later, we pull into the last stop in Upper Manhattan.

WELLS: Off the train. Thank you. A train adventures are over.

NESSEN: That's just one line completed. In the coming hours, he'll walk briskly through the deserted streets as rats scurry from bags of trash. He'll visit Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. He'll catch transfers and miss transfers. He'll elbow past commuters glued to their phones and slump on the floor of a train with no seats available.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AUTOMATED VOICE: Thanks for riding with us.

NESSEN: Nearly a day after he started, Wells finally checks in with his time. He finished, but it took 23 hours, 27 minutes and 9 seconds. Kate Jones remains the undisputed champion. And racing season is coming to an end. This summer, some lines will close overnight for the installation of new digital signals that will speed up the trains. But that work may make it easier for the next challenger to break the record.

For NPR News, I'm Stephen Nessen in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephen Nessen