DiNapoli report highlights Transit’s on-time performance problems

By · Published in 2015
A recent report by NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli highlights the MTA's declining on-time performance.

A recent report by NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli highlights the MTA’s declining on-time performance.

Thomas DiNapoli has served as New York State Comptroller nearly as long as I’ve run this site. He’s outlived governors and MTA Chairs alike at this point, but he’s still chugging along. One of the problems I’ve had with his “audits” of the MTA is that, for those who pay close attention to these sorts of things, they aren’t too insightful. He hasn’t identified the key problems plaguing the agency — namely, the insanely high capital construction costs and lack of productivity for the dollars — and his reports generally take public information and condense them into soundbites. His latest audit is no different, but it’s worth spending some time with it and the MTA’s response.

In his latest report — the PDF is right here — DiNapoli took all of the MTA’s on-time performance numbers the agency shares once a month at its board meetings and determined what Transit officials have been saying for some time: The subways’ on-time performance has been dreadful, and it’s getting worse. In 2013 and 2014, Transit had set an on-time performance goal for itself of over 91 percent, but weekday trains were on time 80.5 percent of the time in 2013 and just 74 percent of the time in 2014. Instead of combatting the problem, the MTA has instead lowered its on-time performance goal to 75 percent, far below national average.

“The subways are New York City’s arteries yet on-time performance continues to be an issue,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has actually lowered its own expectations for addressing subway delays. We’re encouraged that MTA has put more money toward improving the ride for straphangers, hopefully it will help improve on-time performance.”

The audit’s recommendations aren’t much. DiNapoli has asked the MTA to identify the sources of delays, come up with a plan to mitigate these delays and then track performance monthly. Yet again, that sounds like something the transit agency already does even if their mitigation plans aren’t particularly effective.

Things got interesting though in the back-and-forth between the New York comptroller and agency officials responding to the audit. Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained. I believe the agency is ultimately correct, but it’s not a point that’s going to win them much sympathy from a public that, by and large, has no idea what “headways” mean. Riders will hear trains are late; nod their heads in agreement; and sigh in exasperation.

Anyway, in response, the MTA highlighted wait assessment as their primary internal metric of even and reliable service and claimed that they already know why trains are delayed. They cited fallout from record ridership, new flagging rules and ongoing maintenance, and unexpected and emergency maintenance as the main causes. “New York City Transit does not have a single policy or directive on reducing delays and improving on-time performance, nor should we,” agency officials said in response. “Providing high-quality service is our central objective, and it is inherent in everything we do…We do not wish to compartmentalize responsibility for improving service performance. Therefore, it is neither practical nor desirable to condense our performance related activities into one policy (or even several policies).”

DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis. Of course, the root-cause analysis should recommend more subway lines and faster upgrade to a technology that allows for more trains per hour. That recommendation carries a high price tag and a multi-year lead time that won’t do much to solve the current problem. Thus, it’s not one designed to appease politicians who must run for office every few years.

Ultimately, no matter how you slice or dice it, performance has suffered, and the MTA hasn’t been able to overcome ridership that isn’t showing signs of doing anything other than increasing. DiNapoli may have pointed out the obvious, but sometimes, the obvious needs pointing out. Is it going to get better? Can it?

Postscript: On the Queens Boulevard Line

While we’re on the subject of delays, riders on the Queens Boulevard Line should gear up for a rough few weeks. Starting on Monday and running through September 4, Transit has to curtail all service along the line for work on the express tracks. The agency waited until 2 p.m. on the day before work is set to start to announce this bad news:

Transit forces are rebuilding sections of the express tracks through this area. Express E and F trains which usually travel at higher speeds will be required to slow to 10 mph through the work zones, reducing the number of trains that can use these lines each hour.

Some E and F trains will run on the local tracks, reducing the number of M and R local trains which can operate on those tracks. There will be no E service to or from Jamaica-179 St; customers should use the F instead and transfer at Union Turnpike. Customers on all four subway lines that use the Queens Boulevard route should expect less frequent service and should plan extra time for their travels.

This vital work is necessary to keep the express tracks in a state of good repair along the Queens Boulevard line, which is the second-busiest line in the entire subway system. The work was scheduled for the last three weeks of summer because it is typically one of the lowest-ridership periods of the entire year.

Even with ridership lower than normal, this work is going to cause headaches for a lot of people over the next few weeks. Delayed service, indeed.

36 Responses to “DiNapoli report highlights Transit’s on-time performance problems”

  1. BrooklynBus says:

    Why is there never any mention of bus on time performance as if buses are not part of the transit system?

    I don’t buy the MTA’s line that bunching is caused by traffic congestion and therefore beyond their control. It is a great contributor but not the entire cause, and there is much the MTA can do especially with today’s technology. I have seen buses bunching at midnight. They certainly can’t blame that on traffic.

    • Ann E. Mouse says:

      I can’t speak to bus performance as I can subway performance, but generally, bus OTP is a useless statistic. Half the bus runs finish up their routes well ahead of schedule while those that run at peak hours are subject to the whims of surface traffic since getting a dedicated bus lane laid down in this city seems to take an act of god. Solving bus bunching isn’t the same as addressing bus OTP, and if you want the comptroller to take it up, why not suggest it to him?

    • Stephen says:

      What I have seen in recent years (well, once the GPS system was up and running) is that a bus will sit at a stop for a minute or two (it feels like forever, but if I was to time it, it would probably just be 1 or 2) and then resume. My suspicion is that the operator is ahead of schedule and by sitting there (with me doing a slow burn) is catching up. It annoys me no end, especially on days that are quasi-holidays (i.e., religious holidays). On those days, you’d think your normal 20- or 21-minute bus ride to the subway station might get reduced down to 17 or 18 minutes. But no, they sit there. You might have caught an earlier train or gotten there in time to get a seat (instead of standing) on the train you normally catch.

    • pete says:

      Bunching is caused by bus operators who leave the bus route terminal together. Bus drivers on their layover want company, so 1 driver leaves early or leaves late so they can chat and hang out for 10 minutes before both of them turn on their buses and drive away together. Since NYCT has no idea when a bus leaves its remote isolated terminal, or whether it was traffic along the way, or a late or early departure from the terminal, on why 2 buses came home together at the “bus depot” side, NYCT cant penalize bus drivers who slack off. Union rules also probably make it impossible to collect sufficient evidence to prove wrong doing on the drivers part. Having a NYCT bus supervisor only works at large bus terminals like 165st bus terminal in Jamaica. At the 179 street F station area, during the evening rush there is a bus supervisor with his white NYCT sedan standing on the street with a clipboard for rush hour, but that can’t prove 2 buses left at the same time the remote terminal. Buses leaving together from LIJ on the Q46 also happens. Q46 buses also leave in batches from the Union Turnpike Subway station.

      • AMH says:

        GPS makes it easy to analyze departure punctuality no matter where a terminal is located. These stats are regularly analyzed, although what if anything is done with the data is another matter.

  2. alek says:

    Also mentioning that the 1 and 6 lines will experience delays. There is track work at Cortlandt street and near Canal Street on the 6 too.

    • Chet says:

      I was on a 6 this past Saturday- it was running “express” from Union Sq to Brooklyn Bridge. (I put express in quotes, because I think I could have walked faster.)
      Anyway, as we passed through the Canal Street station, I couldn’t believe the amount of work being done. Huge piles of broken up concrete, all sorts of equipment, and piles and piles of material on the station platform. It looked like there were doing a complete replacement of not just tracks, ties, etc., but the concrete track bed as well. Really wanted to take some photos, but the train I was on was packed and I couldn’t get close enough to a window.

      • victor says:

        I saw the construction on Saturday while going uptown. I was at Canal on the downtown platform last night and saw new rails on the local track. The track rested on wooden half ties that did not seem attached to the trackbed. There was also a construction-related smell or odor. My assumption is that the track is temporary and that work will resume next weekend. The 6 train came into the station pretty slowly.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    “DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis.”

    The root cause is the 2000 pension increase DiNapoli voted for while in the state legislature, in exchange for union support to get an office such as Comptroller. And all the debts run up under the MTA Capital plans DiNapoi voted for while in the state legislature.

    As a result a rising share of MTA revenues go to the past — to pension payments and the retired. And so as more and more riders pack the system, it is unable to increase service to the same extent.

    I’d love to see some schedules from the 1960s, to compare with service levels now. I can say based on what I was told by an old timer railfan that Brighton Line had 30 trains per hour at rush hour after the Christie Street connection opened vs. 20 today — and 16 in recessions.

    The political/union class was desperate to get DiNapoli, one of their own who shared their guilt, in as state legislature. To be content with this sort of crap and not raise real questions.

    DiNapoli, why are you and your crowd doing this to us?!

  4. Paul says:

    Why is the MTA working on the Queens Blvd express tracks during rush hour? Isn’t that the purpose of weekend repair work, so that they won’t have to do it during peak periods?

    The only explanations that make sense to me are:
    1. These past few weekends, the MTA found something alarming about those tracks that they had to repair fast, before school starts in the fall.
    2. A hidden service cut (the more paranoid answer)

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      Signal project (the less paranoid answer).

      Very disruptive, costly but essential. If it were possible it might make sense to suffer a couple of two-week total shutdowns rather than years of hell to get those projects done.

      • Paul says:

        Well, that’s a relief.

        But, I must repeat, wasn’t that the purpose of all the FASTRACK and weekend work, to avoid doing it at peak periods? Even if the system is less busy compared to other parts of the year, there’s still plenty of people traveling.

        Also, it’s specifically signal work that they’re doing? You mean that CBTC they’ve been talking about? Where did you find that information?

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          I’m just guessing. But aside from emergencies, signal work is the sort of work that requires the most track access. And I do believe they are at least replacing the interlockings on the QB line.

          The big picture is the cost of retired public employees has soared relative to the incomes of farepayers/taxpayers. That means we can afford less of them, relative to our population. And without offsetting productivity gains to make up for it, that means less service across the board.

          In FY 2012 the total we paid for NYC public employees, including NYC transit, was about the same share of city residents as in FY 1992 an FY 2002. But the share of our income that went to CASH WAGES of NYC public employees fell from 8.0% of income to just 6.5% of income.

          See this “fun” explanation and if you like data follow the links.

    • tacony says:

      Hidden service cuts?

      FASTRACK: Complete track work by not providing overnight service
      Trash can pilot: Keep stations clean by not providing trash cans

      Not providing as much service during what they note to be among the lower ridership 2-week periods of the year would be consistent with the MTA’s most recent “successful” innovations. After all, providing less service saves the MTA money. They’re apparently under no obligation to provide riders anything. They’re annoyed by all the ridership lately. They’d like less of it.

    • EN says:

      You are way too paranoid. They are probably doing a full track bed replacement. There isn’t enough time to do all the work they need to so they lay down temporary track, which limits the speeds trains can go through the area. Since the express tracks are already at capacity normally, some have to be diverted to the local tracks.

      They did something similar when I lived off the QB line in 2009.

    • Michael says:

      From a previous message:

      “Why is the MTA working on the Queens Blvd express tracks during rush hour?”

      Maybe it is the nature of English, but I’m going to try.

      The Maintenance of Way folks – these are the folks that repair the tracks, install tracks and signals, etc. – does not actually have to have a work crew along a particular set of tracks for those tracks to “under maintenance”.

      Similar to the work being done at or near Canal Street on the #6 line, the MOW will pull out the tracks or concrete and to what ever work as to be done – and when the work is complete, the MOW will sign off that the trains can resume their usual posted speeds or operations through the area.

      However, until the work is complete and the MOW unit signs off on that work – that section of track of under maintenance. Meaning that trains will either travel slowly over the temporary tracks or be routed around the work area until the job is complete.

      So yes, the MOW is “working” on that section of track – even if it the rush hours, and even if you do not see a work crew present! The MOW unit will keep “working” on that section until the job is complete. The MOW is NOT GOING TO ALLOW trains to travel over sections of temporary track and “patch jobs” just because it is “rush hour” – that could and would be very, very unsafe for the riders and the train!

      Once the job is complete, and the MOW has signed off on the work, then the trains will resume their posted speeds for that section of track. Until that point, the MOW is “working” on the tracks.

      Has everyone forgotten that there was a recent train de-railment of a F-train over those very same express tracks? The the MTA said that the whole area had to be looked at and checked out?


    • pete says:

      F train derailment in May 2014 on QB caused the MTA to sink a ton of money into the QB express tracks. There is now welded rail in a couple places instead of stick rail. I think they also got a track grinder for the first time ever because of how quiet is now is. For 20 seconds, the train goes quiet and sounds like the DC Metro, then its back to machine gun banging of a NYCT subway ride.

    • AMH says:

      I think the concrete will not cure quickly enough to resume regular service, hence the slow speed during rush hours.

  5. tacony says:

    The MTA’s correct that OTP doesn’t matter as much as headways, but that’s a terrible response when their headways are so poor too. Yesterday the next uptown 6 train on the 14th St platform was listed as arriving in 15 minutes.

    Why? Track work? The downtown 6 was running express between 14th and BK Bridge, but there was no service advisory on the uptown 6. Nobody knows why it was delayed. No explanation. This is normal. The trains were crowded of course, but to blame an uptown 6 at 14th being delayed on a Sunday evening on “congestion” would obviously be ridiculous. If the trains are too crowded then they should run more trains, since the only limitation to running more trains on the 6 on a Sunday evening is the MTA’s own load guidelines that have determined that they don’t need to run more trains. It’s not just rush hour when they’re supposedly constrained by the ancient signalling system on how many trains per hour they can physically run. It’s 24 hours a day of unreliability.

    • Michael says:

      From a previous message:

      “The MTA’s correct that OTP doesn’t matter as much as headways, but that’s a terrible response when their headways are so poor too. Yesterday the next uptown 6 train on the 14th St platform was listed as arriving in 15 minutes.”

      OTP – On Time Performance basically means “when does the train arrive at the terminal” – which is a useful measure for something like the LIRR or Metro-North where the majority of the ridership gets on or off the terminal station. Knowing that the trains are often late to get to the terminals for LIRR and Metro-North riders is something that is very important.

      On the subways it is different – most or the majority of the riders are NOT traveling to the terminals of the various subway lines. For example, the number of folks traveling from Lefferts Blvd direct to 207th Street, or from 179th Street directly to Coney Island; or 241st Street directly to Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn can be measured in the double-digits. However the numbers of folks who travel from one place to another place and both of those places are between the ends of the line can be measured in the thousands and millions daily.

      The great majority of folks want to know just WHEN the next train will arrive. The term for that is “headway” the amount of minutes between trains. Often when folks say, “the trains are late” or the trains are slow” – what they mean is that there will be a long wait for the next train, even if the particular train is traveling at its highest speed. To most subway riders it seems to be less important that the trains arrive at their terminals “on-time” if one has to wait 20-30-45-60 minutes on the platforms waiting for a train! One of the definitions of “rapid transit” is the short waits that are supposed to be between trains.


  6. Joe says:

    I swear the MTA skips some runs entirely. I take the J train home from Chambers, close to the Broad St terminal, and some of the scheduled trains simply never appear. The next train does arrive relatively on schedule, but it really seems like they just did not run the earlier one. This happens all the time. Has anyone else noticed this?

    • Tower18 says:

      Yes, this happens all the time with the C. Let’s say there should be one at 9:04, 9:11, and 9:21. I’ll get to the station at ~9:07 and it’s empty, so a train has come relatively recently, but then the 9:11 never comes, and then the 9:21 shows up right on time.

  7. Rob says:

    “Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained.” NOT TRUE. If trains on a route are scheduled for, say, 30 minutes, and they all take 45, it’s even but nobody will be happy.

    • AMH says:

      Are you talking about running time? That’s another thing entirely. On-time performance is less important than even headways because if trains are scheduled at 9:10, 9:20, 9:30, etc, but they actually depart at 9:15, 9:25, 9:35, etc, their OTP is terrible but headways are even so no one experiences an abnormally-long wait.

  8. DH says:

    Nothing is ever brought about homeless, EDP’s, drunk, drugs and blocking doors in regard to delays… Let’s add that to the survey

    • DH says:

      Oh and sick customers, jumpers, armed passengers, track fires due to trash, the Ebola scare and customers holding the doors and customers not allowing passengers to detrain…

    • Spendmore Wastemor says:

      Sure there has. Per the mayor, we’re going to stop ‘oppressing’ them, and there will be more of them.

      Translation: Scam artists running +/or staffing homeless shelters will make bank, and more skells from out of town will encamp here.

      • Larry Littlefield says:


        I know there skells and scammers are around. Remember this guy? “I am an unemployed union carpenter…” Worked on some in the early 1990s recession. Not so much in the late 1990s when there was no such thing as an unemployed union carpenter. That was a recession for him.

        But you know what I see now? The homeless are all young adults. They are here because there are no jobs elsewhere. They try to make it here and do not. Can you imagine moving here without family or a job in place? That’s what I see.

        In the 1970s it was the old — the bag ladies. Back then everything was for the young. Now everything is for the old — the same generation. And the young who got the worst of it — probably family-wise — and the once on the street.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          And by the way, when I heard about that police sergeant project inviting people to photograph the homeless to “document the decline of the city” I was tempted to write a post with a chart or two comparing city tax-funded spending on police pensions (not actual police) to city-tax funded spending on homeless adults (not Medicaid for seniors).

        • Bolwerk says:

          Spendmore’s propensity for the lowest-effort thinking aside, there is a perfectly logical explanation as to why homeless end up in large cities. You’re more likely to get somewhere panhandling on 34th Street and 7th Avenue than here.

          Of course, the ass-backwards “conventional wisdom” goes: the government is really inept at providing shelter and housing assistance. But hiring police and putting orders of magnitude more people in jail is totally affordable. Somehow housing and feeding one homeless guy is not supposed to be less costly than hiring cops to arrest him, ADAs to prosecute him, prison guards to mind him, etc.

          To top it off, once people who think that that get into power, they proceed to cut social services ranging from welfare to schoools and divert money to police and prisons, proving that government is indeed inept.

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