Home Capital Program 2010-2014 IRT stations may get train arrival boards by 2011

IRT stations may get train arrival boards by 2011

by Benjamin Kabak

Other cities have enjoyed train arrival boards for years. (Photo by flickr user NYCArthur)

When the MTA first proposed bringing train arrival boards into its system, the original target date for an A Division — that’s the IRT numbered lines in NYC Transit lingo — roll-out was 2006. As I reported last year, the MTA had since pushed back that date to 2011 for a delay of five years. In the latest Q-and-A sections about the 2010-2014 Capital Program, the MTA confirmed that the train arrival boards will make their A Division debuts in 2011 as long as the current schedule holds.

While an on-time date one year later is good news, the surprising development to many riders is that many of the components are already in place. Take a walk around many of the IRT stations — Bergen St. and Grand Army Plaza near me in Brooklyn come to mind — and wrapped LCD signs dangle from the ceilings. Those signs will, in around 14 months, usher in a new age of technology for the MTA.

To implement the countdown clocks, as the Q-and-A (pdf) says, the transit authority must implement a two-tiered technology structure. First, either Communications-Based Train Control, a state-of-the-art technology not loved by unions, or Automatic Train Supervision, a simple enhancement to the current system, must be brought online to “identify the location of trains.” Then, Public Address and Customer Information Screens must be installed in every station. This PA/CIS system broadcasts those annoying digital audio announcements currently heard on the L line and display the countdown clocks and other pertinent information.

Already in place along the Canarsie Line, all of the A Divisions except the Flushing Line — so the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 but not the 7 — are equipped with an ATS system. That installation cost $213 million and was covered by the current 2005-2009 capital campaign. Currently, the MTA is working to install the PA/CIS system, and as I mentioned above, many stations are already equipped with the digital signs. The final cost of this part of the project will be $171 million, and it should be online by December 2010. But the MTA document says it is “subject to the successful resolution of contractual issues.” That’s a big red flag.

Once the major installation projects are complete, Transit will begin using the technology right away on all but the White Plains Road (2/5) and the Dyre Avenue (5) Lines in the Bronx. The White Plains Road boards will come online in November 2011 when signal modernization is complete. Dyre Avenue passengers won’t enjoy this technology until 2016.

So that’s the good news. There is, of course, some not-so-good news. The Flushing Line will not enjoy train arrival boards until 2016 when the CBTC work and the PA/CIS upgrade are completed.

The B Division lines — all of the lettered trains — are even less likely to see this technology. The 2010-2014 Capital Plan budgets $25 million for “design/piloting of an ATS system for monitoring trains.” The report continues, “Full rollout on the entire B-Division will cost approximately $175 million, with the balance of the cost to be funded in 2015-19.” In other words, these lines may receive countdown clocks in a decade from now. The MTA has, however, included $46 million to equip the final 43 stations that have no public address systems at all.

Despite the slow roll-out, this is progress for the MTA. They have a concrete plan to bring this countdown clock technology to the system. It will, however, be online throughout the system nearly two decades after London and Washington, D.C. began using it. While the system allows for real-time train location data to be broadcast online, it is unclear if the MTA will take the technological leap of making that information available to the public.

In the end, Michael Grynbaum’s Times article on this topic says it best. Transit advocates are indeed skeptical about “whether this system would be sufficient.” I’ll let Andrew Albert, head of the NYC Transit Riders Council, have the last word. He said to Grynbaum, “It would be even more useful if they install a repeater on the street, so people can have time to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper.” Or just walk home.

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34 comments

Matt October 2, 2009 - 2:14 am

I know they put one or two up at 207th Street, but I’m pretty sure they’ve since been taken down without being unwrapped.

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AlexB October 2, 2009 - 8:00 am

Every time I hear stories like this it reminds me of the epic saga it was to bring air conditioning to the subway cars. I think it took numerous failed attempts and something like 20 years of trying before they figured it out. Nothing new ever comes quickly in the exciting world of the NYC subway.

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Alon Levy October 2, 2009 - 8:04 am

A more important question is, when will the IRT get train arrival boards that work properly?

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Scott E October 2, 2009 - 10:07 am

I’ve been told that many of these boards have been sitting in a warehouse since the first time they tried to implement this project, and the manufacturer’s warrantee has since expired. So there are no guarantees that it will work, and no recourse if the signs don’t work. (The signs, by the way, are the least technologically advanced piece of the system, even though they’re the most visible). The installation of some is a but peculiar as well (right in front of an exit sign? Low enough that someone who’s 6 feet tall can bang his head on it?)

Regarding the 7 line, that is generally regarded as B-division, even though it uses the A-division (IRT) trains. There’s an interesting history on this (dual operation from the Worlds Fair to Astoria via BMT-operations, or to Grand Central via IRT operations) — but the connection at Queensboro is telling. The only way to get trains on or off the Flushing line tracks is via a BMT line, controlled by a single BMT dispatcher. When I find a web link, I’ll post it.

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Benjamin Kabak October 2, 2009 - 10:13 am

It’s a technicality but due to car size, the 7 is part of the A-division. Also, the internal MTA document I’m referencing here notes it as part of the A-division too. For our purposes, that’s a semantics argument though.

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Scott E October 2, 2009 - 10:23 am

Maybe it is just a technicality, but I thought the connection at Queensboro puts it under control of the B1-division operations – who seem to operate completely separately from the A-division folks. I could be wrong…

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Tony October 2, 2009 - 10:47 am

The 7 line does use the B-1 radio frequency rather than the A division frequency but it is %100 an A division line in every other way.

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E. Aron October 2, 2009 - 10:46 am

Here’s a question most of you probably wont agree with – are these signs, at $200M +, necessary? I’ve seen these signs functioning in other cities like Milan and Rome and I must say that they’re pointless. Once you’re on a platform waiting for a train, what difference does it make if you know that the train will arrive in 5 minutes or if it just arrives in 5 minutes? Maybe if the signs were just outside of the station so that way you’d know if you had to jet down the stairs or not to catch an upcoming train, that would make sense. But the enormous cost and all the time MTA must have been putting in to implementing this plan, in my opinion, don’t match the benefit of knowing that train will arrive in however many minutes. In short, you’re on the platform, you’ve already paid, the train will be there when it gets there.

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Tony October 2, 2009 - 10:48 am

I agree with you that this money can be better spent somewhere else but I think we may be in the minority.

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rhywun October 2, 2009 - 12:14 pm

I somewhat agree. I’m not sure I would find this information particularly useful in my daily life. Maybe on the weekends. Actually I would find it more useful for buses, but I’m not holding my breath we’ll get it anytime soon.

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Benjamin Kabak October 2, 2009 - 12:16 pm

Actually, I’m working on the bus post right now. Give me a few more minutes, and you’ll see it live.

Update: Here’s the bus post.

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rhywun October 2, 2009 - 8:54 pm

Yeah, saw that 🙂
Good to see the MTA hasn’t forgotten buses.

Evan October 2, 2009 - 10:54 am

I would answer your question by saying it does matter when figuring out if you should get on a local train or wait till the express comes and vice versa. Another point would be for trains lines that have different terminals like the 5 or the A (I know B div trains won’t get these for year and year but just an example.)

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E. Aron October 2, 2009 - 12:47 pm

This is a good point and I agree with you that it would help my commute on the Lexington avenue line. To address this issue without the arrival-time monitors, however, I wait in between platforms for express and local service, with the exception of 59th St, where the express service is 82 steps beneath the local train.

In my opinion, my point that this isn’t worth the money has more to do with the enormous costs.

I don’t care if the MTA is “technologically behind” other city transit systems. It gets me where I need to go for a pretty low cost. I’d like for them to keep that cost low, and address much bigger problems like the awful state of above-ground tracks and greater unity among the different transportation services in the tri-state area.

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Benjamin Kabak October 2, 2009 - 12:49 pm

Right now, they aren’t doing one at the expense of the other. I say “right now” because their precarious financial position leaves them on shaky ground.

But I think, E., that this thinking is one of the problems with New York’s system right now. We’re rather passive about what we ask for and demand. Let’s overhaul everything. Let’s have nice state-of-the-art stations. Let’s make our commutes more pleasant again. We should be making above-ground stations better and unifying the transportation modes in the region, but we should also be investing in our current system as long as the money is there.

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E. Aron October 2, 2009 - 1:07 pm

I agree with you to an extent. Yes, let’s have nice, state of the art stations – but let’s not forget to first bring the great access to public transportation that I enjoy as a resident of the UES to those in the boroughs, which, as you know, are growing more rapidly than any other part of the city.

I think the MTA should set priorities with its capital funds. Time arrival boards for subways, in my opinion, should not be a priority at this point.

Let me not beat around the bush – extend better service to underrepresented, poverty stricken areas before you install fancy computers to let me know that the train is arriving.

Benjamin Kabak October 2, 2009 - 1:17 pm

Let me not beat around the bush – extend better service to underrepresented, poverty stricken areas before you install fancy computers to let me know that the train is arriving.

Part of providing a transit system is customer service, and that’s what the train arrival board technology is designed to do.

Anyway, I think you’re working from a faulty basis here. Poverty-stricken areas in New York City have very solid access to public transit. The most underserved areas are actually middle-to-upper class areas. Look at the poorer areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Very served by transit. Look though at the eastern parts of Queens, deep Brooklyn and the Upper East Side east of 2nd Ave. Those aren’t poverty-stricken areas and they suffer from a lack of transit investment.

In fact, poorer people will flock to areas with transit because they can’t get around otherwise.

E. Aron October 2, 2009 - 1:48 pm

“That’s why you’re the judge and I’m the.. law.. talkin guy”

– Lionel Hutz

rhywun October 2, 2009 - 9:00 pm

Yeah, I’m not seeing the MTA ignoring “poverty-stricken” areas either. What areas are you talking about? Are you claiming that the demand is not being met, and if so, on what do you base such a claim?

E. Aron October 3, 2009 - 11:59 am

What I was getting at is the sorry state of disrepair of subway tracks and stations that mainly exists in the boroughs. As a former resident of the Bronx, I witnessed the decrepit state of above-ground tracks first hand. I’m sure that the same problem exists in the southern part of Brooklyn, and I know that it’s an issue facing the M line as well. Those problems led and I’m sure they continue to lead to impromptu station closures and other issues at those stations that reduces quality of life for passengers.

I still believe that this plan is evidence of poor priorities. As it says in the post, “Once the major installation projects are complete, Transit will begin using the technology right away on all but the White Plains Road (2/5) and the Dyre Avenue (5) Lines in the Bronx. The White Plains Road boards will come online in November 2011 when signal modernization is complete. Dyre Avenue passengers won’t enjoy this technology until 2016.” What a shock, service in the Bronx wont see this technology for a number of years. Indeed, the cause seems to be due to the fact that the signals up there are not up to date. Perhaps that is because rather than using, for instance, $200M to distribute modern tracks throughout the city, MTA is using the funds to install computers that serve arguable functions at the same time.

Christopher October 2, 2009 - 11:41 am

Well DC is a good example. The system allows expansion just like you are talking about. And then coordinates with all kinds of other real-time systems — the website. Their NextTrain phone and mobile system, and yes, boards outside of the stations as well. So it’s part of an ecosystem of providing real-time train data. The boards on the outside of the stations in DC went up in a few months after being requested by the riders advisory board. It’s part of usability in general I think.

I think also that there maybe an ADA requirement on these systems that DC has never really done. They do need to announce the train arrivals for the blind. But the system in general is ADA compliant.

As for the above mention that London and DC has had this for 2 decades — DC has a had a train arrival system since it’s opening in the 1970s. (Although upcoming trains and those boards are newer.)

Likewise, BART and MUNI and LAMTA all of train arrival systems. The BART message boards also date to the beginning of the system in the mid-1970s. So MTA is THREE decades (at least) behind on this technological leap.

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JE October 2, 2009 - 7:38 pm

Is this what you mean by Washington Metro’s technological prowess?

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herenthere October 2, 2009 - 1:36 pm

Well, on the IRT 6 lines, there is a sign placed just before the turnstiles, so that definitely helps people make a decision on whether to enter or not…

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christian luckett October 7, 2009 - 3:51 am

too help[ you with this im going too let you know first off this technology is way more advanced and yes they do have the signs outside the turnstiles for you can see whats goin on way before you swipe your metro card take a look at all the stations that have them up like where i live in the bronx they have them up every where from 3rd ave up to 180th st

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Eric October 2, 2009 - 12:13 pm

I strongly disagree that these boards are not a good use of money. One of the key problems with any transit system is making passengers feel like they have some control over what happens. How often have you been standing on a platform as the minutes tick by, getting more and more pissed off that a train hasn’t yet arrived?

For instance, just this past Tuesday I was waiting for a downtown express train at Grand Central around 5:45PM. There was already a sizable crowd waiting, and as the minutes ticked by and more and more passengers arrived to wait with no trains arriving (not even a local) you could tell that people were wondering what was going on. If they been armed with the information that a 4 train would arrive in 7 minutes, that would have immediately defused the tension of waiting.

These boards would also be invaluable late at night. If you see that your train isn’t going to arrive for 23 minutes, you are more apt to wait more patiently. The very fact that you know about when a train is going to arrive takes all the uncertainty out of the wait.

In short, the MTA is trying to give passengers more information- and I’m not going to say no to more information.

Of course, this all presumes that the arrival times would be accurate… which is a huge assumption.

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Christopher October 2, 2009 - 1:47 pm

Having lived in SF, Oakland, and DC all that have computer based arrival systems. They are generally accurate unless there’s something unforeseen that happens. Or if there is an computer error. I find the system along the L here in NYC is generally fairly accurate too.

But I’d like to comment on your other issue, DC is has REAMS of information you can get on their buses and trains. Realtime websites, next bus, and next train, platform signs, station signs? Does it help? Actually, I think it makes Washingtonians more impatient about their transit. They really just are hoping to plan their whole trip within SECONDS and get really pissed off when anything is delayed from the schedule (don’t ever get into a discussion about escalator etiquette. It’s life or death!)

I have what I like to call the Zen of public transit — you aren’t in control. Just sit back and let the world work. It makes for a much less hectic commute.

So the double edged sword here — is that with more data and more information comes the feeling you should know even more! Maybe we are better off knowing less.

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John October 2, 2009 - 2:30 pm

Yeah, it is a huge assumption, and one that will probably not come true. I was recently in LA and waiting for one of the airport shuttles. They had arrival boards, and when I got there it said the shuttle I was waiting for was like a minute away. Well, about 10 minutes (and several different shuttles) later, the one I was waiting for finally came. Even if it works 99% of the time, that’s still a LOT of failures. Heck, with the amount of transit in New York, 99.9% success still leaves a LOT of failures.

The only thing worse than waiting 15 minutes for a train is waiting 15 minutes for a train when the sign said it would be 5.

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Seth Rosenblum October 2, 2009 - 5:32 pm

The boards sound good and all, but why don’t they put up those times on the internet today? wouldn’t it be great to know when you have to leave your house to grab the train by? or be able to check on your blackberry before you walk past the coffee shop… It can’t cost anywhere near as much as the signs if the infrastructure is already in place.

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christian luckett October 7, 2009 - 4:04 am

this is a big step in the rite direction nyc need this more than any other city for those that dont know this technology is like the one you would see on the lirr and the metro north if you seen how that works than you know what is going too happen for the IRT lines it will tell you when trains are late and why how long and whats the weather outside i been talking with some of the techs and they say if things go good it should be up and running in the bronx on all line 2 4 5 6 expect on the white plans line by mid year 2010 some areas even less than that. the bronx and brooklyn will start it off and 34th street and 42nd east and west are first off other areas will fall in line

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