Home MTA Technology Along the B division, a cheaper countdown clock

Along the B division, a cheaper countdown clock

by Benjamin Kabak

At 145th St., old signs are used to test a new real-time technology. (All photos courtesy of New York City Transit)

As Jay Walder settles into his role as the MTA’s newest CEO and Chairman, he has pushed the MTA to deliver more real-time train information. For an agency long criticized for its inability to adapt new or not-so-new transit technologies, Walder’s desire for more information has challenged the agency to come up with new solutions to old problems.

Lately, that focus has been on delivering better train arrival information to customers. Generally, aspects of transit technology that make commuters’ rides less stressful β€” such as countdown clocks β€” have been slow to come to New York. Yet, the agency is now engaged in a $200 million project to bring those countdown clocks to the A Division stations β€” that is, the city’s numbered subway stations. As these plans came to light in the fall, Transit could not commit to bringing the same technology to the lettered lines that make up the subway’s so-called B Division routes.

Recently, though, with a little innovation, the agency has debuted a poor man’s version of countdown clocks at some B Division stations. At a cost of just $20,000, six stations along the A and C lines in Washington Heights and Harlem will participate in a trial program that uses preexisting technology to bring real-time train arrival information underground. However, because the technology isn’t nearly as advanced as that deployed along the A Division lines, riders will receive less detailed information than the signs currently in place in the Bronx provide.

According to an agency press release, this makeshift system uses previously installed electronic signs in some stations and basic audio announcements at others to give customers at 181st, 175th, 168th, 163rd, 155th and 145th Sts. a few minutes’ notice of incoming trains. At 181st and 175th Sts., only audio announcements will be available while at the other four stations, screens will provide arrival information as well. Riders will now how many minutes and how many stations away the next trains are.

Unlike the A Division system which receives information via Automatic Train Supervision software, this simpler system relies upon the MTA’s old signal system’s track circuits to keep abreast of train movements. As of now, the technology can provide only information on a specific track and not specific trains as ATS can do. For instance, as the pictures demonstrate, the signs will say only that a train is arriving on the express or local tracks. For stations served by one line only, this won’t lead to much confusion, but where two or more routes share the same track, the signs will be somewhat less helpful.

“This is another part of the initiative to offer real time train arrival information to our customers, but here we are going about it in a different manner using existing infrastructure rather than waiting for the installation of an entirely new communications system,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said. “We looked at the equipment that was already in place and we have designed a pilot that responds to Jay Walder’s call to find affordable ways to make customer improvements as quickly as possible.”

Another benefit of this system is its cost. As The Daily News reported, this pilot cost just $20,000 to install, a mere fraction of the $200 million A Division price tag. A system-wide roll-out would of course cost more, but this pilot offers up substantial savings to a problem deemed intractable a few months ago.

After the jump, more pictures of the new signs at 145th St.

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Edward February 17, 2010 - 12:13 pm

Now if they can spend about $20 and clean the filth off the walls at 145th St and other stations, we may actually have a halfway decent system again.

E. Aron February 17, 2010 - 12:28 pm

Hear, hear!

rhywun February 17, 2010 - 8:43 pm

Heh… that caught my eye too. Yecch.

kvnbklyn February 17, 2010 - 1:14 pm

Considering this is intended to be used on the IND lines, whose hallmark is the extensive use of interlining, I think these signs will be more annoying than useful. If I’m waiting at West 4 street for a C train to Brooklyn, it doesn’t help me to know that EITHER a C or an E is on its way.

Kid Twist February 18, 2010 - 11:00 am

Well, since the C hardly ever shows up anyway, it shouldn’t be a problem.

AF February 17, 2010 - 1:17 pm

Considering the cost savings, this is a much better use of money than the system being deployed for hundreds of millions of dollars (which considering the MTA is crying for money should probably be shelved entirely).

Benjamin Kabak February 17, 2010 - 1:36 pm

Take a look at this comment from November on the costs associated with the $200 million install along the IRT lines. It’s not just about bringing countdown clocks to the routes. It’s mostly about an ATS system that can streamline train operations. One of the benefits is a countdown clocks system. Overall, it costs $200 million, and Transit is going to do it anyway. So why not just do it with the countdown clocks too and allow riders to benefit?

AK February 17, 2010 - 1:42 pm

I need to correct a rare Kabakian error. As I’ve noted before in this space, the countdown clocks are NOT part of the $200 million improvement in the signalling system. It is an additional $171 million project made possible by the $200 million signalling project.


The pricetag never made sense for countdown clocks, and I am glad the MTA has found a way to provide riders with the benefits of the clocks at a mere fraction of the cost. Let’s hope the cost-cutting continues.

Joe February 17, 2010 - 1:48 pm

Part of that cost, though, is also to retrofit stations with no PA systems at all with the screens and speakers. It seems silly but there are still systems with absolutely no communication equipment at all. Definitely a little pricey for what they are getting though.

AK February 17, 2010 - 1:54 pm

Good point, Joe, but if they can do the Upper Manhattan project for $20K, $200 million is hard to swallow.

Benjamin Kabak February 17, 2010 - 2:01 pm

So to be fair, this is a six-station pilot for $20,000. It covers stations where there are single trains on single tracks. Not that hard to do.

Overall, there are 468 stations and 152 of them are covered by the $200 million project. If we scale it to the 300 remaining B division stations, that’s a base rate of $6 million, and as kvnbklyn said, it’s not the most useful way to implement this.

Still it’s cheaper, but you pay for what you get.

AF February 17, 2010 - 2:20 pm

You pay for what you get, and I am sure most people would rather use hundreds of millions of dollars to cut the MTA’s deficit, keep fares steady and not raise their taxes. Hardly seems like the right time for this project when the subways have worked alright without this for 106 years.

Benjamin Kabak February 17, 2010 - 2:22 pm

But there’s a flaw in that argument too. The millions for the clocks and ATS system is coming out of the capital budget. It was funded years ago. The MTA simply can’t stop that project and move those funds to cover an operating deficit. The agency’s economics don’t work that way.

Aaron February 17, 2010 - 4:05 pm

MTA is eventually going to run into the same ADA problems that the MBTA did, and have to install these things for disabled customers anyhow – Boston’s have to differentiate between B and C red line trains per the GBLS settlement due to hearing-impaired and vision-impaired customers not being able to identify what train is on the track, so the clocks being installed here won’t work at the stations with interlining. The problem is even more severe when you consider the extensive interlining in NYC – bear in mind the sheer number of Broadway BMT stations that have 4 trains in each direction, not to mention the potential chaos at Jackson Heights or Forest Hills.

NYCT TOs have always been fairly good about announcing train and destination compared to Boston’s, but it doesn’t always happen – even worse is the fact that you can regularly encounter, say, an E train running on the B tracks and not know WTF is going on (speaking from something that happened twice to me the last time I was in New York). You have to assess within seconds – “Is it a B train that’s been mis-labeled? An E that’s been re-routed? Will it switch back to the E routing? Where?” That is especially dangerous for disabled customers, who have to have faith that the train they’re about to get on really will stop at a station with an elevator. Train re-routing or mis-labeling is frustrating enough for regular customers – it can involve disaster for the disabled.

On top of that, this will alleviate the effects of future service cuts – Los Angeles usually runs its trains west of Vermont at 10 minute headways, but the trains are so close to schedule that you can set your watch by them. So you get to Wilshire/Normandie at 7:33 – you know you have an 8 minute wait until 7:41 for the next train, and you can sit and read a book or something for those next 8 minutes without checking your watch every 10 seconds and asking “where is the train?!” Countdown clocks won’t add more space to subway cars, but they will reduce the dissatisfaction felt during a lengthy wait for a train.

Matthew February 17, 2010 - 4:02 pm

This is a great little bonus. It’s better than nothing.

There are some instances where I take the first train that arrives regardless of what it is; especially short trips. If I’m just going from 23rd St to 34th St, it doesn’t matter if an R or W shows up; I’m going to get on whatever comes first. (For that matter, if an N or Q is re-routed to the local and shows up first, I would board it.)

Other times, such as what kvnbklyn commented on above (a specific train needed at the diverge point), it’s not helpful.

Kai B February 17, 2010 - 4:29 pm

“Other times, such as what kvnbklyn commented on above (a specific train needed at the diverge point), it’s not helpful.”

In those cases it’s only “hopeful”, hahah.

Jerrold February 17, 2010 - 4:39 pm

Slightly off-topic, but I just wanted to post this link HERE, on today’s threads, so that everybody sees it:


AlexB February 18, 2010 - 11:02 am

If it costs $6 million per station and needs to be installed on 300 stations to be complete, that’s $1.8 billion for the whole system. It is debatable if it would be worth it for that price. We could have the stations at 41st and 10th ave easily for that cost, and money to spare. I wonder how much of that $1.8 billion effort could be re-used when the ATS is completely installed.

Benjamin Kabak February 18, 2010 - 11:12 am

No one is saying $6 million per station. It would be $6 million, prorated from $200,000 for six stations, to all of the B division stations. But that’s only if the costs scale perfectly which they probably don’t.

pete February 18, 2010 - 3:34 pm

This technology has been trialed in the 1990s. Some stations on the Queens Blvd line have red 1 line displays (not the more modern multi color multi line displays) at mezzanine level that say that A train is coming.

Andrew February 18, 2010 - 8:10 pm

Those small red annunciators go back decades, and are in use all over the system. But, indeed, this is based on the same exact technology.

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[…] MTA produced the video atop this post back in February when the authority unveiled the cheaper (and less precise) countdown clock for the B Division. Featured at numerous times is a woman’s voice. She speaks clearly and precisely with diction […]

What We’re Thankful For in 2010 | Mobilizing the Region November 24, 2010 - 1:54 pm

[…] signs of cultural change: Yesteryear’s technologically clueless MTA would never have embraced on-the-cheap subway countdown clocks and cashless tolls, or opened up transit data to developers, as it has […]

Brian July 27, 2011 - 11:20 am

After they install countdown clocks, the next step is to make this data publicly available via an API. This way developers like me (check out Roadify) can use it to distribute these real-time ETAs on mobile devices.

Because its nice to walk down to the station and see it’s not coming for 20 min before I swipe my card. But I’d like to know the ETA before I leave work/bar to minimize the wait in a hot subway station. Ya know??


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