Home New York City Transit On small improvements vs. large-scale upgrade and full line reviews

On small improvements vs. large-scale upgrade and full line reviews

by Benjamin Kabak

As a general disclaimer, I’m on the board of the Riders Alliance. I don’t allow that position to cloud my views and judgment. Make of it what you will.

Over the past few years, since John Raskin’s Riders Alliance entered the scene, the grassroots organizing advocacy group has gotten the attention of the MTA in some unique ways. Along with strong support from Daniel Squadron, the Alliance has convinced the MTA to conduct targeted line reviews for individual subway routes, and so far, the F, G and L have all seen concrete analyses and improvements as a direct result.

A few months back, during his MTA confirmation hearing, Tom Prendergast let slip that he would consider full line reviews for the entire system. In a sense, this was a surprising thing to say off the cuff because Prendergast was essentially committing significant MTA resources to around 20 individual line reviews. In another sense, it seemed shocking that regular internal studies of subway lines wasn’t already a part of the MTA’s operational handbook. Nothing really came of it, and a few months ago, Squadron sent a letter asking for an update.

Quietly, the MTA has tried to distance itself from the full line review, and in a larger Gotham Gazette piece about the Riders Alliance, the MTA went on the record in downplaying Prendergast’s comments. Read the entire piece for a deep dive into current advocacy efforts, and I’ll excerpt the key parts on the line reviews.

Chairman of the MTA Thomas Prendergast has said in the past that he supports an eventual full-line review of every line in the system and many activists have encouraged the chairman to make that happen. However, MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz told Gotham Gazette that each full-line review is a massive long-term undertaking. Ortiz said the reviews require a significant number of staff and good deal of money. Those staff come from both the MTA’s planning and operating units, financing is always a major challenge, and the reviews can not be performed quickly. “The A and C line review is something that will take some time. We can’t start that right away, so it will probably get completed at some point in 2015,” said Ortiz.

Ortiz added that the cost alone would prevent any comprehensive review of all subway lines in the immediate future. “That’s just not going to happen,” he said. Explaining that a full-line review requires the MTA to examine every aspect related to a line’s operation, Ortiz detailed that this includes ridership, infrastructure, scheduling, and service design down to the efficiency of shared trackage with another line…

MTA’s Ortiz notes, too, that despite the exhilaration activists and politicians may feel over improvements brought by full-line reviews, some of the more lasting improvements, such as the dramatic uptick in train frequency along full-line review veteran, the L line, were in fact due to multi-million-dollar investments in new infrastructure.

As Cody Lyon details, that multi-million-dollar investment concerns communications-based train control which allows the MTA to significantly ramp up capacity along individual subway lines. It is, in fact, the key driver behind capacity increases along the L line, but it’s a significantly large investment with no clear future throughout the city or funding sources.

To me, though, this shouldn’t be an either/or proposition. Out of the line reviews came common sense upgrades that improved train service and customer-facing relations. The MTA should figure out a way to assess its system every few years without the urgings from politicians. If that’s no way to make that a part of a $13 billion operating budget, I worry for the future of rationalized and convenient transit designed to meet demand.

Furthermore, the big-ticket items need funding and support as well. The line review can only go so far before the need to spend millions or billions on signal and communications upgrades kick in. As stewards of the subway, though, it’s up to the MTA to do both, and right now, they seem to be struggling with this mandate.

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Larry Littlefield August 15, 2014 - 9:39 am

Why can’t the MTA upgrade service? Here are the barriers.

1) Money. But most of the costs are fixed — debt, pensions, retiree health insurance, stations, infrastructure. The only incremental cost is the subway cars and those who work on them (which would be smaller with OPTO).

2) Signal capacity. A factor on the lines with the most ridership, such as the Lex.

3) Station dwell time. Ditto.

4) Terminal capacity. My guess is it limits the L train, the 1 train, the E train, and the 2/5.

5) Number of train cars, and places to store them. Of course if the MTA had all the money in the world, it could reduce the storage problems by going with 15 minute headways overnight rather than 20. And does it really need THAT many spares to keep preventive maintenance going and MDBF up?

sonicboy678 August 16, 2014 - 1:19 am

Unfortunately, OPTO is rarely practical, so that’s out of the question for most operations.

I’d rather have a few extras on top of extras in the odd instance that the extras fail than to end up in a very hairy situation should I have no backup plans for failed backup plans.

Bolwerk August 16, 2014 - 12:53 pm

Eh, there are ZPTO systems. Zero staff aboard the train. You don’t hear stories of doom and gloom about it.

That’s what we should be striving for

sonicboy678 August 16, 2014 - 4:18 pm

Okay, since you brought that up, answer this: what system(s) are you referring to?

Bolwerk August 16, 2014 - 4:58 pm

We have one in New York. AirTrain? Copenhagen seems to be one of the more famous examples. Paris has a number of driverless lines.

There are many others that are automated and not unstaffed, so it’s very hard to buy the argument that New York needs more than one crew member/train in the long run.

Chris C August 17, 2014 - 7:40 pm

Docklands Light Railway (DLR) in London is driverless

Nathanael August 19, 2014 - 6:44 pm

Also Vancouver’s SkyTrain, since it hasn’t been mentioned yet.

capt subway August 17, 2014 - 2:20 am

As to your points:

1: OPTO – forget it – for the foreseeable future. It almost happened on the “L” with the implementation of CBTC back around 2005-06. But the then President, Reuter, chose not to butt heads with the TWU on the issue. In addition, the TA’s own System Safety Dept has nixed OPTO on full length trains in the peak periods. Maybe you can talk to them and convince them of the error of their ways.

2. Signal capacity: in most cases this is just a question of poor train operation – train operators not knowing how grade time or station time signals function / break and thus lay way back – letting all the signals turn green before they pass them. When I was a motorman we were taught to come up on them as fast as we could. The real artists – they were the guys who passed the signal just as it changed from red to yellow. So on Lex we’ve gone from 32 TPH in the early 1990s to 27 TPH today. And that’s regularly “supplemented” down to around 25 TPH for various “slow speed” areas – totally shitty service.

3. Station dwell time. In part the TA has screwed itself on this issue, requiring the conductors to make laughably verbose announcements with the doors open, or not to hit the close button until the equally annoying & verbose robo announcement on the new R142 & R160 cars is complete. Add to that many conductors choosing, on their own, to make cross platform connections in the peak periods – a total disaster for peak dwell times. Add to to that the TA’s own recent rule forbidding conductors from closing doors and passing “indication” up to the train operator while the leaving signal is still red.

4. Terminal capacity was always an issue and the TA is stuck with many poorly designed terminals. To wit: Parsons/Archer on the “E”, a “temporary” terminal (remember the SE Queens Line?), put the diamond closer to Sutphin – not a good idea. That’s why to this day some rush hour “E”s must still go to 179. P/A can’t handle all the trains. Ditto 14/8: the terminal cannot cycle more than 24 TPH, ditto SF (new or old) on the #1, about 24 TPH, TSQ #7, 28 TPH (not bad really)…. the list goes on and on.

5. Car storage and midnight headways. Sure you could schedule whatever you want on the midnights: 15 min h’dway, a 10 min h’dway. Of course it will never run due to its being supplemented out of existence for night track work. Indeed, very often the regularly scheduled 20 isn’t even run, with service “flexed” out to 24 or even 30 min headways to meet various single track requirements. Add to to that the regular closures of many branch lines with bus substitutions. Often, with all the “supplements” in effect, you easily ran out of track space to lay up all the out-of-service trains.
We in The Schedules Dept once did a study on night and weekend supplement timetables which, essentially, trashed scheduled service. We determined that there were something like 6 or 7 weekends with what approached “normal” service on most lines. Night service was normal on New Years Eve. Beyond that you could count the nights of normal service on the fingers of one hand on almost every line.

On top of this all you can add the TA’s terrorizing its own employees with draconian disciplinary punishments for rule infractions. Trip on a red signal pass a work gang too fast – that’s all good for up to 30 days in the street (i.e. 30 working days – 6 working weeks suspended without pay). So the rank-and-file, rather then risk loosing 6 weeks pay, they drag their asses over the road – lay way back at the time signals, pass work gangs (10 mph by rule) at about 5 mph, maybe 2 mph… on & on. So OPTP sucks and the TA papers it over with more padded run time and eliminates trains to alleviate “congestion”. It’s a downhill slide with no end in sight.

Hey Larry, maybe you can straighten them all out on these issues. Certainly no one listened to me, even when I was a Senior Manager.

BrooklynBus August 15, 2014 - 10:23 am

Still there are many small improvements that can be made that will cost next to nothing that could makes huge difference in people’s commutes if the MTA cared at all about its passengers.

Why should passengers getting in and out ofthe turnstiles have to fight with each other at stations such as Grand Central. Why shouldn’t the “emergency exit” gates serve as a normal exit? Why do you have to break the law to use them risking a fine? And why are the alarms connected at some stations and disconnected at others? Years ago some turnstiles could not be used to exit and exit doors were chained open in rush hours.

Also, why can’t many ofthe station entrances closed during the budget and crime crisis of the 1970s be reopened? For example the southern entrance at 7 Avenue near Grand Army Plaza. That would save some users at least 5 minutes on each trip.. The cost is minimal. SBS saves most riders no more than 5 minutes and costs significantly more money. Oh, I forgot. The Feds wouldn’t pay for something like that. More money is not the answer for all problems. The will to make improvements is.

Larry Littlefield August 15, 2014 - 11:39 am

“Why should passengers getting in and out ofthe turnstiles have to fight with each other at stations such as Grand Central. Why shouldn’t the ’emergency exit’ gates serve as a normal exit? Why do you have to break the law to use them risking a fine?”

Because as some people walk out other can walk in without paying. So you’d have to staff the exit, and that would cost a lot of money including retirement benefits.

Now it might be worth it for a few key stations like Grand Central. And it might not cost much if the TWU has agreed to allow station agents to work outside the booths instead of in them.

As it is, allowing “emergency exits” to be used at some stations would just encourage riders to throw open those doors at other stations.

BrooklynBus August 18, 2014 - 12:49 pm

Sorry, but I disagree with you on each point because the MTA is not being consistent. First of all, when I used the Utica Avenue IRT station in the 1960s and 70s, the exit door was chained open during the PM rush hour. It was the only way to get the massive numbers of riders out of the subway. Don’t know what is going on there today.

As far as manning the exit and entering riders not paying, the station agent watched the door so no one took advantage.

Used to be that at stations without an agent, there were always high wheels to prevent fare evasion. But the MTA long abandoned that policy. Now many stations have regular turnstiles and no agents. I assume there may be cameras there. I don’t see a higher rate of fare evasion at a major station entrance vs a minor station entrance since the possibility of undercover police is greater at a station lie Grand Central so that few woud be wiiling to take the risk.

Also, the TWU agreed long ago to allow station agents to work outside the booths, but the union might be against it for other reasons stating station agents are not police officers.

It’s all about customer service. Read my latest series on Sheepsheadbites.


capt subway August 15, 2014 - 10:38 pm

The bottom line on crappy service delivery is OPT – On Time Performance – and the unholy obsession middle & upper management has about it. And it’s a terrible shame since OTP on a rapid transit heavy rail system like NYCTA is a totally meaningless measuring tool of service quality. But in its name they have:

Added huge amounts of running time on every single line to improve the OTP stats, thus slowing everything down and encouraging train crews to drag their asses over the road.

Eliminated significant amounts of service on every line in the totally warped belief that congestion, and hence lateness, is caused by too many trains on the line.

I know all this to be a fact since I worked there for 37 years. Prendergast, a perfectly descent guy, and actually fairly knowledgable about operations, is, no doubt, going to buy this line of BS from his underlings. Whatever study they do pursue – rest assured it will be a total white-wash – a complete waste of time & money.

So welcome to the world of fewer, slower more crowded trains. Hey man – slower is actually faster! Just think – you’re train is probably now on time. George Orwell – check your e-mail!

Quirk August 16, 2014 - 12:03 am

Is that why the N train I take during the day runs slow between 57t-14th st even when the last train left 5 minutes ago?

sonicboy678 August 16, 2014 - 2:15 am

Sure, 5 minutes seems problematic, but that’s still a short time frame. It doesn’t mean everything slows down because of it. When you’re tasked with operating a vehicle that can potentially carry many people at once, the last thing you should have to worry about is an incredibly tight schedule. Sure, instances of having more running time than necessary exist, but that normally only happens when traffic is near-nonexistent and there are few passengers. That’s only further helped by a short route. These factors usually apply solely to the buses, though. For the subway, many routes are at least 14 miles long in just one direction and may have to make many stops. There may also be sharp curves, bad traffic, passengers that don’t know how to let people pass, passengers that hold the doors, people trying to commit suicide by touching the third rail, sick passengers, problematic passengers, the list goes on.

Though having many trains on the track does not necessarily lead to (usually heavy) delays, it can easily play a role in that. When you have many trains trying to utilize a very limited path, it isn’t easy to coordinate them. The problem only worsens should there be an issue such as a switch malfunction and often begins to affect other routes. When other problems begin to affect routes directly or indirectly related to the route(s) with the existing problem, the problems are compounded. Unfortunately, only so much can be done when these issues arise. The issues are part of the reason for why there’s so much running time.

The problem with using OTP as an indicator of quality service isn’t the fact that it’s being used for such; rather, it’s how it’s being used. Currently, it’s only used for the end of every run, as opposed to being used on more intermediate scales. That said, it can still be used as one indicator of quality service. Others include, but are not limited to, crowding and station dwell times.

Simply put, you’re aggrandizing a misconception in and of itself. It’s a shame because you claim to have worked at NYCTA for 37 years. Maybe you should look back in history and see why having decent buffers for OTP is more practical than trying to maintain an incredibly strict schedule. I can think of one such instance: the Amagasaki rail crash. Granted, that’s an extreme case, but one of the main issues in this case is OTP and how rigid it was at the time. (I doubt that’s changed much, but that’s for another time.)

capt subway August 17, 2014 - 1:42 am

Rest assured in my 37 years at NYCTA I got very close to operations on every imaginable level: 9 years as a motorman, on all three divisions, later as a Trainmaster, later a Line Superintendent and finally as a Senior Schedule Manager, in charge of the squad that did the IRT timetables and work programs. And so, yes, I saw up close, OTP was an unholy obsession with upper management – to the almost total exclusion of any other measurement.

In terms of rating service delivery, (1) regularity of service (i.e. an even headway between trains), and (2) adequacy of service (are there enough trains to handle all the passengers – admittedly a moot issue on most lines in the peak periods) are far more important than OTP. In fact, if the service ran on even headways and was adequate for the ridership every train could be late – i.e. 0% OTP – and your passengers would be perfectly happy.

As to what we did in the Schedule Dept? Amongst other things – we regularly went out and monitored service in the field, riding lines from end to end and stop watching the whole line for adequacy of run time, monitoring station dwell time, counting passenger loads, etc, etc.

But basically we added absurd amounts of running time to every line in order to paper over every sort of incompetent operation out in the field: crews not getting on their trains on time at the terminal, lay ups not being sent from the terminal to the yard in an expeditious manner thus taking up terminal pocket space and causing terminal hold-out & lateness, trains not being put in from the yard to the terminal in a timely manner, terminal dispatchers loosing track of which crew belongs on which train, conductors taking it upon themselves to wait for cross platform connections in the rush hour, train operators who are clueless as to how the grade time signals break and thus lay way back, ditto train operators clueless as to how to approach station time signals, new and absurd flagging procedures that have slowed the trains down to a crawl past work gangs, etc, etc.

Bottom line here: as the total ridership ticks up with each passing year NYCTA keeps figuring out ways to reduce regularly scheduled service. To wit: when I came to Schedules in the late 1980s 32 TPH were scheduled on the Lex express tracks. We’re now down to 27.

Larry Littlefield August 16, 2014 - 8:21 am

I thought that:

1) Slower trains were due to safety — the elimination of field shunting to reduce top speed, grade timers installed, etc.

2) Adhesion to schedule was to reduce crowding. When a train is ahead of schedule they’ll be fewer people looking to board, thus reducing dwell time, allowing the train to get further ahead. The following train will arrive after a larger gap so more people will want to board, increasing dwell time, getting further behind, and then getting more crowded. As in bus bunching.

3) The level of service frequency is driven by car availability. Now I know that on the Lex (and perhaps the Flushing Line) they don’t go right up to the max tph to keep congestion down, but is that really true anywhere else?

Nathanael August 17, 2014 - 6:38 am

Line reviews, ideally, should determine future “big project” construction. Think about it…. although the Second Avenue Subway is a no-brainer, any further construction really ought to have the weight of a decent review behind it.

The illegal reconstruction of dozens of stations in Brooklyn without required ADA facilities is a good example of the approach taken when no review is done.

Eric August 18, 2014 - 5:00 am

I’m curious, by how many times would the reconstruction cost have been multiplied if brand new ADA facilities were added? Spending a large fraction of the reconstruction cost to serve a tiny fraction of the population, who can use buses instead, is simply not sustainable. I’m not even sure it’s legally required, as the ADA only requires “reasonable” accomodations.

Bolwerk August 18, 2014 - 5:04 pm

That’s probably really circumstantial. I think the ADA requires accessibility in key stations, major capital improvements, and new construction. Refurbishment apparently doesn’t require it.

I think there is also an agreement in place for the MTA to make a certain percentage of the system accessible by the 2020s.

Nathanael August 19, 2014 - 6:47 pm

“Refurbishment” consisting of removing and replacing entire staircases is, most certainly, subject to the ADA: it’s considered renovation.

At least 20% of the cost of the project should have been allocated to access, until everything was accessible; that’s the law. The law which the MTA tries to break routinely.

The thing which gets me in Brooklyn is that a number of the stations could have been vastly improved with a little *design work*. Rather than replacing everything identically in kind, small modifications would have made large improvements. The cost would have been practically the same, given that stations were completely gutted and rebuilt nearly from scratch.

Bolwerk August 24, 2014 - 3:09 pm

What stations? As I understand Smith, they did make ADA improvements but they didn’t reach full compliance, deeming it cost-prohibitive. Full ADA compliance requires ramps/elevators, curve elimination, and very minimal platform grades. These are already likely to be prohibitively expensive even when ridership justifies it (e.g., Union Square 4/5/6).

On other stations, in Brooklyn and Queens, they are installing things like tactile warning strips, on stairs and platforms, and ADA compliant handrails, which indeed are cheap. But these are obviously cheap and don’t help wheelchair users much.

In some cases, it would probably be cheaper to build surface LRT to the nearest compliant station on the same line, and not much less satisfactory. I honestly think using the subway to emphasize accessibility is the wrong approach, whether it’s the legally mandated one or not.

Nathanael August 19, 2014 - 7:06 pm

Oh, the NYC buses aren’t anywhere close to accessible in practice, due to a combination of overcrowding and failure to platform accurately at the curb. Nor are they a legally adequate substitute for the subway, because of being much, much slower.

NYC is actually unique in its scofflaw attitude towards ADA compliance. Every other city in the US is, really, doing its best, including nearly-bankrupt cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and Boston, whose system is actually older than New York’s.

Philadelphia’s making steady progress; for instance, during a reconstruction *very similar to the one which the MTA did illegally in Brooklyn*, they made all the stations along that elevated section accessible. I refer to the Market St. elevated, of course. Chicago did a similar thing — three or four times.

Every other city in the US has satisfied its “key stations” requirements — Boston is currently finishing off the last station — and is moving beyond them; every other city routinely adds access when they do major construction, just as the ADA requires them to.

NYC is going out of its way to break the law for some reason. And I think it’s simply a bad attitude. They need to cut it out.

*London*, with a much much more difficult and antiquated system, including lots of sharply curved, sloped underground stations, is making far more progress than New York.

This gets back to review & planning. Other cities have it. You don’t.

If there were a comprehensive review done, the MTA could identify which stations are most heavily used — or which should be, based on demographics, where ridership may be suppressed due to bad station conditions — develop better renovations to those stations, do more shallow renovations to other less-important stations for now, rearrange service to suit, etc. Without any sort of comprehensive review, we get this “replace in place identically” nonsense.

For example, why does the Smith – 9th station have the crazy mezzanine structure it has? The platform is directly over a vacant lot on the east end! But the crazy mezzanine structure was rebuilt, practically from scratch, at great expense…. because of lack of planning.

Anyway, the big news on accessibility in NYC is that, *finally*, the TLC is going to make a big push to make 50% of the taxi fleet accessible (London, for contrast has had 100% accessible since the *1990s*), which should relieve the pressure on Access-A-Ride.

Maybe sometime after the taxi drivers realize that this was a good thing, the MTA will start realizing that accessibility should simply be included with reconstructions, like the ADA mandates, and that it’s good for everyone including them.

Or maybe they won’t. Because the root problem seems to be a bad attitude. I find myself agreeing with large parts of this article:

Bolwerk August 24, 2014 - 3:15 pm

The only good way to move people who need wheelchair access is by surface transit, and the only way to make that passably dignified means either BRT or LRT. The latter is best because it is easy and cheap to do completely level boarding, and the former may be problematic because it requires driver intervention.

Subways are only sparingly useful for wheelchair needs. They require making labyrinthine trips up or down to the platform.


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