UCSB Grad Student Sets NY Subway Record

“I have now had a personal history with every subway station in New York,” said Stefan Karpinski after finishing a 24-hour odyssey of the city’s convoluted railway system on December 29, 2006. rtc453.jpgTwenty-four hours, 54 minutes, and 3 seconds, to be exact. This time allows the six riders claim the Guinness World Record for the fastest transit stopping at all stations in the New York subway system. The previous record-holder, Kevin Foster, made the trip in 26 hours, 21 minutes, and 8 seconds.

Karpinski, a doctoral student in computer science at UCSB, is one of six members of the team submitting their extensive documentation to the Guinness Book of World Records. They was brought together by classmate Bill Amarosa, described by Karpinski as obsessed by the subway system. The team attended high school together in Manhattan, at St. Regis, and rode the subway to school, sporting events, social occasions, and to visit each other. Even in high school Amarosa displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of the subway system. “We used to be awestruck in when Bill would be able to randomly name the seventh stop on a particular route; but that was child’s play, we later realized,” Karpinski recounted. “On the challenge ride, Bill kept us entertained with a steady output of subway trivia and history.” Karpinski related that Amarosa could name everything from the exact length of the subway cars (60.2 feet), which cars deviated from the norm, and why a subway platform was wider in a specific station. He knew the history, architectural details, and names of designers for many of the stations.

In high school, Amarosa talked about challenging the world record for a subway transit. He even put in a stint working for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. At St. Regis’s 10-year high school reunion, which took place June, 2006, people asked Amarosa about his subway-riding dream. This initiated the December event. Amarosa, Karpinski, Andrew Weir, Brian Brockmeyer, Jason Laska, rtc421.jpgand Michael Boyle all entered the subway on Thursday, December 28, in Queens’ Rockaway Park.

Before stepping on the subway car in Queens, hundreds of hours of planning took place over several months. Eschewing computer algorithms in favor of taking advantage of Amarosa’s nuanced knowledge, paper and pencils were used to map routes through the system’s 660 miles and 468 stations. They planned to traverse all the stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. (The fifth borough, Staten Island, is not connected to the rest of the New York subway system.) While many details of their plan are on their Web site (subwaytransitchallenge.com), they kept the exact route secret.

Their intentional design included some flexibility, to accommodate last minute changes or on-the-route service issues. During the ride, minor interruptions were the only snags, after two riders (Karpinski and Weir) arrived late to Rockaway Park, due to service interruptions on their way. Even so, timetables were subject to human variation, particularly in the middle of the night, when train conductors are less concerned with starting exactly on time. “We watched conductors moseying down the stairs, already three minutes rtc90.jpglate,” Karpinski said. On the road to a world record, three minutes can be significant. Those were the gambles, Karpinski said. “If we had gotten 23 hours in and were stuck on a train for an hour, it would have messed up our plans.” After all, if everything ran perfectly, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

One challenge Karpinski anticipated before the trip was boredom. Twenty-four hours riding the subway is a long time to be stuck underground. But this was not the case. They had to keep extensive documentation to convince Guinness, including a detailed time log and witness signatures. Additionally, Amarosa spouted off trivia and Boyle updated their Web site when they had a wireless signal. They took pictures and shot video, enjoyed phenomenal company, chatted with subway riders, and made mad dashes through stations. At 3 a.m., Karpinski remembers looking over at Weir and exclaiming, “I never thought I would be having so much fun.”

They became minor celebrities on the ride. A Daily News article appeared Friday morning, while they were still riding the subway, leading to more than one subway rider looking up from a newspaper and recognizing them. On some trains, the conductor would announce to the other riders that they were witnessing a historic occasion.

Not all fun and games, serious issues like bathroom breaks were carefully calculated and adhered to. Only five scheduled breaks meant there were as many as seven hours between relief stops. In order to make this work, neither caffeine nor alcohol was consumed on the ride. An estimated half-hour queue at the Times Square station was deemed unacceptable; fortunately the next station’s bathroom was available.

The more than 24 hours on the ride were spent completely within the subway system. Although the Guinness rules do allow for riders to walk from one station to another, that “seemed unsporting,” according to Karpinski. Because they never exited the system, they only needed one fare-two dollars-to traverse the entire distance of the four boroughs. There were stretches of this distance, and even trains, these veteran riders had not ridden before the challenge. Karpinski and two other riders were self-described G train virgins. The G runs from the Bronx to Brooklyn, hence it is a route most Manhattanites seldom have the chance to ride. The six saw a lot of New York outside of Manhattan, as what seemed like an unfathomable 18-hours of the trip involved completing stops in Brooklyn and Queens.

Even with that 18 hours, they still finished the entire route in record time, ending at 4:37 p.m. at the 241 Station in The Bronx. They were met by friends, family, and reporters with congratulations. While some of the guys went home to sleep, others headed out to the afterparty to enjoy their hours in the spotlight. Karpinski took a break from the subway for a day or so, and was then back in the old routine to celebrate New Year’s. He continued to ride while still on break from the UCSB schedule. Even after the 24-hour voluntary confinement, he feels the subway represents freedom. “I was struck by the freedom granted to me when I started using the subway.” It’s six hundred miles of freedom with which the six riders now have a new personal relationship.