Transit debuts countdown clocks along the 6 line

By · Published in 2009


Electronic timers at E. 143rd St. tell straphangers when the next 6 train will arrive. (Photo courtesy of New York City Transit)

Around the world, subway systems these days come with countdown timers that tell impatient passengers when the next trains will come. One line in New York — the L — has enjoyed this luxury for the last few years, and early this fall, the MTA announced plans to introduce countdown clocks to the IRT lines by mid-2011. Currently, the signs are in place, but the agency is at work updating signaling technology to allow for properly function clocks.

This week, Transit took a big step forward with this project as the Public Address Customer Information Screen (PA/CIS) signs went live in five stations in the Bronx along the 6 line. Riders at the Brook Ave., Cypress Ave., E.143rd St.-St. Mary’s St., E. 149th St. and Longwood Ave. stations will now enjoy these signs both on the platforms and at station entrances in front of the fare gates. This latter location marks an improvement over the implementation on the L line where passengers must arrive down on the platforms in order to find out when the next train is due to arrive.

“Based on information provided by the subway’s electronic monitoring system, these signs are extremely flexible and customer friendly,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “Our customers have long been accustomed to having to guess when the next train will arrive and, of course, we are well aware of the complaints about poor quality public address systems in the subway. With this system we are taking a quantum leap forward in customer communications and the information we are offering.”

For a system that has struggled to bring new technologies that enhance the ridership experiences online, these signs are a bit step in the right direction. Prendergast has recently spoke of speeding up the technology process at Transit, and although he is riding the coattails of efforts in place long before he arrived at Transit, getting the PA/CIS system up and running would be a great step indeed.

Categories : MTA Technology

19 Responses to “Transit debuts countdown clocks along the 6 line”

  1. SEAN says:

    Are these countdown clocks visual only, or are they tied into the public adress system.

    San Francisco’s MUNI Metro has a similar system. Not only are there video screens, it also anounces each train letter & how long the wait will be.

    • jamabam says:

      and to top it off, they have real-time information available online:


    • Kai B says:

      The ones on the L are tied to the PA system, almost annoyingly so, thus I assume these are/will be to.

      • Kai B says:

        Actually Ben covered this above:

        “This week, Transit took a big step forward with this project as the Public Address Customer Information Screen (PA/CIS) signs went live in five stations in the Bronx along the 6 line.”

        So yes, both audio and the visual displays.

    • The MTA should learn to walk before it attempts to fly. Step one should be to make sure every subway station has a public address system of such quality that human speech eminating from it can actually be comprehended. It’s not nearly the rocket science that’s always been claimed. Every teenage garage band in the country has a microphone & loudspeaker setup a thousand times better than the best that can be found in the subway system.

  2. E. Aron says:

    Based on word-of-mouth from a few L-train riders, I’ve heard that the countdown clocks, at least on that line, are often incorrect. This may be a bit of good old New York cynicism, but I predict that these new clocks will be equally inaccurate. They will, for a while at least, become something of a laughing-stock – another facet of “MTA incompetence.” The MTA just doesn’t do great with these kinds of endeavors – basing the 34th St. crosstown bus countdown clocks on bus schedules invokes a scratch of one’s head.

    I strongly believe that, while system modernization is an imperative goal, the money spent on this endeavor could have been better used on purchasing new subway cars and expanding their use onto more lines, or renovation of above-ground infrastructure, or even simply station cleaning. It seems ironic to me that I will soon be able to wait in a pretty filthy subway station, knowing when the next train will arrive (aside from the fact that the next train always, inevitably, arrives). Countdown clocks are a luxury for which spending should have been reserved for a later date, perhaps when the technology would be less expensive to install.

    • Alex Engel says:

      MOST subway systems have countdown clocks. Also, most people, faced with a wait much longer than normal due to a disruption, will not choose to wait for the train and will use another means of transport. It’s long overdue for this system to have them.

    • Alon Levy says:

      The MTA doesn’t do anything competently. It could spend the money on countdown clocks that would run over budget and not work anyway, or it could spend it on capital construction that would cost 7 times as much as in the rest of the first world. There are two separate questions here: “Is the MTA competent?”, and “Given that the MTA is incompetent, which capital improvements should it pursue knowing that they’ll all run several times over budget?”.

    • Kai B says:

      I’ve been a daily L-Train rider since 2007 and I’ve found that the countdown clocks are almost always correct. There have been a few cases where the countdown will reach zero and then after a minute that train will just disappear like it never existed. However, this is far from the norm. Overall it’s a very useful system.

      While I agree with some comments on the priorities of spending, for my daily commute, where time actually matters, I’d rather know how long I’m waiting in a pretty filthy station than have no clue in a clean one. Maybe I’m just impatient.

    • Andrew says:

      “Countdown clocks” are not an independent project. Nobody woke up one morning and decided to go out and buy a bunch of countdown clocks. The most difficult piece of the puzzle is determining which train is where. Traditionally, NYCT never had a centralized train tracking system of any sort. Model boards in towers show where trains are on nearby sections of line, but nothing shows a broader perspective, and the model boards don’t know which train is which. A massive project called Automatic Train Supervision (ATS) brought this to most of the A Division (IRT) – primarily to make it possible to better manage the railroad. But once the information is in place, posting it on customer-friendly signs in stations is a relatively small step, and I think it would have been a big shame to pass on it.

      Perhaps you only have one way to get where you’re going, but a lot of people have choices (local or express?), and PA/CIS will remove a lot of the guesswork. Have you ever let a local go by to wait for the express, only to have to wait 15 minutes for the express? You would have gotten where you were going sooner on the local, and if by some miracle you manage to fit onto the express, it’s certainly not going to be a comfortable or quick ride. Wouldn’t it have been nice if you had known from the start that the express was 15 minutes away? Not only would you have had a better ride, but the delayed express wouldn’t have been so overcrowded. And if you do find yourself confronted by an overcrowded train – wouldn’t it be helpful to know if there’s another train right behind it or if there’s going to be a long wait for the next one?

      That sounds a lot more useful to me, as a rider, than gratuitous new cars. (New cars are only purchased to replace life-expired cars or to increase service.)

      When I ride the L, the signs are usually pretty accurate – and when they’re not, they’re usually obviously wrong (next train in 92 minutes?). But the technology behind PA/CIS on the L is different. ATS on the L is based on CBTC. The L still isn’t running in full-CBTC mode; I don’t know how well PA/CIS takes non-CBTC trains into account. That may explain some of the problems you’ve heard about on the L.

      The bus countdown clocks are not based on bus schedules. I’m not sure why you think they are. They’re based on actual bus locations. (Maybe the signs switch into a schedule-based fallback mode if the GPS goes down?)

  3. Max says:

    It’s worth noting, a lot of L stations have these clocks in the entrances before the turnstiles too.

  4. George says:

    E. Aron, why all the hating on the L train countdown clocks? Like Kai B said, they actually work pretty well, and I find this to be true too, though I’m only an occasional train rider. The L train clocks are something the MTA did right – we should commend them for it.

    And countdown clocks are way better than countup clocks, such as the ones they have in Moscow. I don’t want to know how much time has elapsed since the last train came through – I need to know how much time remains until the next train arrives.

    • Kai B says:

      George, I remember seeing countup clocks in St. Petersburg. I guess they were a decent way to manage expectations long before countdown technology became available. Smart for the 60s I guess!

      • anonymouse says:

        The countup clocks are not there for the passengers so much as for the train operators to be able to maintain precise headways. When you have headways of under 100 seconds, the headway becomes a more useful way to manage the service than a timetable. Also, in normal operation the trains are run with a bit of extra coasting, and not quite at full speed, so that when they fall slightly behind schedule, they can catch up.

  5. Ed says:

    The Gothamist comments on the clocks are a treat. I’ll reprint one here to give people the flavor:

    “What a gigantic waste of money. What happened to looking at the tracks and seeing by the light on them that a train is coming? And if you don’t see any light, your train’s not coming yet. (Kinda like the old Indian Weather Rock) I mean, what does it matter!? You’ve already paid your fare. If the train’s late, it’s late. It comes when it comes. I just don’t see the point to this. Explain please! GRRRR!!!!!!!”

    So having countdown clocks are bad because, well, they are just bad. Real New Yorkers don’t want to know when the next train is coming.

    I really think this attitude is some form of mental illness.

    I happen to agree that the countdown clocks should have been very low priority compared to the other things the MTA has to do, and that I’m not sure the MTA has sufficient control over scheduling the train to make them work. But they will be really nice in stations where you have the alternative of switching to a local train or another train theat gets to the same destination by a less direct route. And on principal, things are just bad when Americans can’t do even simple organizational things that people manage to do elsewhere.

  6. James D says:

    Well, countdown clocks in London are notorious for reading ***CORRECTION***, which means the trains have reached a merging point out of sequence (or are otherwise messed up). But they’re still useful — they beat side rollsigns for being able to tell where the train’s going.

    But I do wonder about installing them at E143 — it’s the lowest ridership station on the IRT (or at least it was last time I checked the data). Is it that they’re doing this by line and that it does not make sense to skip stations?

    • Kris Datta says:

      They debuted along these lesser-used stations on the 6 line because they were the first stations along the line where the installation of the system was completed. This should expand to the rest of the line in the near future, and eventually across the entire A Division.

  7. Anon says:

    Re:”I really think this attitude is some form of mental illness.”

    LOL. 🙂

    However, if the clocks were before you enter the system/turnstyle by the booth or at the entrance it would be quite useful.

  8. Ariel says:

    I ride the L train almost everyday to work and to go out on the weekends. They are typically accurate and help me calm my nerves. I’m admittedly very impatient (like most New Yorkers) and knowing how long I’ll have to wait keeps me from playing a guessing game that would further get under my skin.

    Also, countdown clocks on all the lines would be very beneficial for me for reasons beyond calming my impatience. I often times use the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop in Bushwick that has platforms for the L and the M. Whenever I’m headed to Lower Manhattan, I can take the M directly or the L with a transfer. Knowing which train will come first via countdown clocks would make my commute much more efficient.

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