Any veteran subway rider knows to dread an announcement concerning “an unavoidable delay.” Such a proclamation can precede an endless wait in a tunnel somewhere as some mysterious problem causes back-ups up and down the line. Details are scarce, and the waits infuriating. But what if those unavoidable delays aren’t so unavoidable after all?
For straphangers stuck in a train, the MTA delivers scant information. We never find out the why or wherefore of the service delay unless we seek it out. Yesterday, though, the Straphangers Campaign pulled back the curtain a bit, and after analyzing the 2011 service delays, what they found were a bunch of potentially avoidable delays based on the city’s aging subway signal system.
By analyzing the MTA’s text message alert system, the Straphangers produced a report on subway delays. The total world of delays included 4580 alerts, and the Straphangers determined that 1613 of them — or 35 percent of the total — were uncontrollable. That is, they involved sick passengers or police activity outside of the realm of the MTA. The remainder were indeed avoidable.
The remaining 2967 alerts encompassed delays due to signal or mechanical problems, and over 1000 of those were due to signal problems. The advocacy group offered up some topline summaries:
- The 2 line had the most controllable significant incidents in 2011. The 2 line accounted for 251 out of 2,967, or 8% of all controllable significant incidents.
- The 5 line came in a close second, with 247 controllable significant incidents. This was also 8% of all controllable significant incidents.
- The G line had the fewest controllable significant incidents in 2011. The G line accounted for 45, or 2%, of all controllable significant incidents.
- The most frequently occurring type of controllable significant incidents in 2011 was signal problems. This reason accounted for 36% of all controllable significant incidents.
The 2 and 5 lines, of course, share trackage in both Brooklyn and the Bronx so it’s no surprise that those two lines are intertwined in their delays. As critics of the G may say, since the train never runs, it can’t be delayed (but we know those numbers are due to the fact that it’s a one-train route from Queens until Bergen Street).
For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute these findings. “We agree with the Straphangers’ assessment that signal issues contribute to delays,” the authority said in a statement. “That is why signal upgrades remain a top priority and are a crucial part of our capital program. FASTRACK is also helping to improve how we maintain and improve our signals network.”
The Straphangers posed a few questions based on their data, and one in particular caught my eye. “Are there explanations,” they asked, “for why signal and mechanical problems constitute more than two-thirds of all significant controllable incidents?” The easy answer concerns the age of the subway infrastructure. Simply put, the equipment is very, very old; some signals are pushing 70. This technology needs to be better maintained and, more importantly, upgraded both to maintain current capacity and throughput and allow the MTA to expand its services.
A few weeks ago, I bemoaned the threat of a less ambitious capital plan. Joe Lhota had spoken then of looking at ways to spend less for a few years but invest in the hidden infrastructure. “It’s about signals,” he said. “If we’re going to have more throughput, we’re going to put more trains on the same track, and we’re going to have to have more modernized signals.”
So maybe this is indeed all about signals. The MTA plans to spend around $3 billion on signals over the next few years and will look to increase that amount when the pressures of funding — but not building — the megaprojects start to come off the books in 2015. Can we wait a few more years to upgrade this vital, if hidden, part of the subway system? We may have little choice, but all of a sudden, that less-than-ambitious capital plan looks a little more promising.