Over the past few years, the MTA has engaged in a rapid about-face on its handling of technology. Despite the revolving door at the top of the agency’s executive chain, Lee Sander, Jay Walder and Joe Lhota have all embraced and pushed forward various technological efforts. From countdown clocks to real-time data streams to information dashboards and an embrace of apps, the MTA has moved, if not to the forefront, at least forward in the realm of transit technologies.
Yesterday, in an effort to exert some of its oversight influence over the MTA, the City Council’s Transportation Committee hauled in a few agency officials to take about technology. By and large, we know the story: The MTA has a series of technology initiatives that are moving forward, some faster than others. The countdown clocks, for instance, have arrived on the A Division lines but will take some time to appear on the lettered subway lines. Yet, the testimony, offered by Craig Stewart, a Senior Corporate Management from Transit, and the subsequent questioning offers an insight into some ongoing projects. I’m going to provide a few updates from the hearings, and right now, we start with the countdown clocks and the availability of real-time data.
Now that Transit has added countdown clocks to the numbered train lines, the authority is rolling in data, very little of which has been made public. That will change soon. As I first reported in May, Transit will soon release both their own train tracking app and an open API for the real-time data stream. While no date has been established for the release, things are moving quickly.
“The MTA is very close to being able to provide real-time train arrival data without having to go into the station,” head agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said to The Daily News. “We want everyone to access the countdown clocks on numbered lines just by looking at their phone.”
The news on countdown clocks for the B Division trains though — the lettered lines less the L train — is a bit hazier. In prepared testimony, Stewart had the following to say. The emphasis is mine.
With respect to the B Division (lettered lines), NYC Transit has completed work at 24 stations on the Canarsie L line. This system was commissioned in 2007 as a standalone system that interfaces with the Canarsie Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system for train prediction information. The B Division has presented unique challenges due to its size and complexity when compared to the A Division. having 288 stations versus 156 on the A Division, 141 route miles versus 66 route miles on the A Division and 317 trains versus 203 peak trains on the A Division. Furthermore, the B Division does not have the Automatic Train Supervision (ATS) system, which provided a common platform that greatly facilitated the installation of Next Train Arrival Information on the A Division. Finally, most of the B Division is comprised of territory with four tracks and many interconnecting lines along its routes, making it impractical to replicate the approach taken for the A Division.
We have undertaken a few pilots in an effort to identify an interim measure for providing service information to B Division customers, including most recently, the use of electronic signage; however, those efforts have all fallen short in yielding the level and type of information we are seeking to provide our customers. Our ultimate goal is, of course, to develop similar capabilities for the B Division as exists currently on the A Division. However, it will take substantial investments to fully deploy the projected improvements in capability. To ease the delay, we are working on strategies to deploy functionality so that passenger benefits can be delivered as early as possible. This phased deployment will result in improvements that may not necessarily be across all areas. In order to begin providing benefits as quickly as possible, we have established an initial goal of providing the current B Division next train arrival information to customers by capturing dispatch/schedule information electronically.
NYC Transit will soon start design work under several projects to begin capturing train information across the B Division. Collecting train location information is a prerequisite step to providing real-time train arrival information and may take several years to accomplish. This design effort will also help us to determine the most viable options for implementation.
The MTA hopes to bring such countdown clocks to the B Division within 3-5 years, but that timeline is malleable. It depends upon funding and ease of implementation, two things with which the MTA has struggled over its history. Meanwhile, the agency will focus on providing train information via the new PA system, recently installed and upgraded in all B Division stations. It’s a baby step before taking the big and complicated technological leap.