The MTA buried its good news on a summer Friday last week as word got out that the L train would enjoy a massive frequency upgrade. Shortly after the initial amNew York story made the rounds, Transit issued a press release touting the service improvements, but since I was out of town for the weekend, I had a chance only to write up the bare bones of the story. So let’s delve in. There’s much to see here.
As we know, the MTA has been working on a communications-based train control system on the L line for years. As the L, at the time the test was first proposed, was not a particularly crowded subway and had the added benefit of sharing no sets of tracks with any other train line, Transit thought it had found an ideal testing ground. Over the past decade though, L ridership has gone through the roof, and the need for greater capacity along the BMT Canarsie line has gone from a luxury to an imperative.
Transit announced the official details on Friday. Beginning this past Saturday, the MTA started adding 98 weekly round trips on the L train: 16 each weekday, 11 on Saturday and seven on Sunday. In terms of wait times, the L trains will now operate every three minutes during the a.m. rush and every six minutes at midday, down from 3.5 and 7.5 minutes, respectively. Saturday evening riders will enjoy service every six minutes, and Sunday evening straphangers will find the same level of frequency, down from one train every 8.5 minutes.
“This is a perfect example of how our commitment of capital dollars to improve our signal system directly impacts the safety and quality of our service,” MTA NYCT President Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement. “As a result of fully integrating Communications-Based Train Control on the L line, customers will have the added benefit of more trains that will help to ease overcrowding on a line that serves continuously growing populations in Brooklyn.”
Local politicians were excited by the improvements. Daniel Squadron, who has long fought for increased L service, led the charge. “Anyone tired of crushing crowds and overflowing trains will now have an L trip less likely to feel like hell,” Squadron said. “This is a big step toward a subway system that works for its riders every day of the week.”
One quote from Squadron though struck a chord. As he noted that some rush hour trains will likely be below the MTA’s load guidelines, he let slip a key line. “This is not going to be the silver bullet, but this is real good news for L train riders,” he said. “Anyone tired of the crushing crowds and overflowing trains will now have an L train trip less likely to feel like hell.”
On Friday, I noted the strange use of the silver bullet phrase, and as I thought about it this weekend, the stranger it became. What exactly does Squadron expect? What kind of silver bullet does he want? The MTA isn’t about to build a parallel line through Williamsburg or third-track the L train, and running trains every 180 seconds should be at least sufficient to ease some of the crowding concerns.
In a way, the CBTC implementation and the increased capacity shows what happens when the MTA has the money to invest in a systemwide upgrade. If the Queens Boulevard line can be converted to CBTC, if the Lexington Ave. IRT trains were CBTC-ready, the MTA could add significantly more trains to some very crowded areas. Of course, this all costs money and a lot of it. Even as the MTA says the increased service will result in only a $1.7 million jump in operating costs, the capital upgrades are in the hundreds of millions, and that money doesn’t grow on trees. Furthermore, the Canarsie CBTC implementation was, shockingly, years later and way over budget.
Daniel Squadron, one of the more ardent transit supports on the local political scene, knows all this, but he still wants a silver bullet. So what’s that silver bullet? A better run, well capitalized MTA? For the foreseeable future, that’s not a particularly feasible goal.