Early in the morning on June 5, 1995, Layton Gibson blew a red light on the Williamsburg Bridge and crashed his J train into a stopped M train. Gibson was going only about 20 miles per hour when his train collided with the one in front of him, and he died instantly as 54 passengers were hurt in the crash. A subsequent investigation determined that both human and mechanical errors led to the crash, and while Gibson did try to stop when he saw the M train ahead of him, the then-77-year-old signal system did not trip an emergency brake in enough time to avoid the collision.
Now, 23 years later, the MTA still hasn’t gotten around to beginning to replace that signal system, and it’s now 100 years old, a dubious achievement indeed. But in the aftermath of the crash, the MTA determined that many of the then-septuagenarian signals were too close together to adequate stop modern trains faster than their late-1910s counterparts, and thus, the MTA in conjunction with Parsons Brinckerhoff began to implement speed limits throughout the subway system. Richard Perez-Pena, writing for The Times back in 1995, told the story. The emphasis is mine.
About one-third of the system has the antiquated signals that are considered candidates for speed limits, though officials said not all of them will require one. Just how many will is still under study. Joseph R. Hofmann, senior vice president in charge of subways for the Transit Authority, an arm of the M.T.A., said the plan to improve the trains’ emergency brakes would eventually make many, if not all, of the slow-speed orders unnecessary. But that program will not be completed for more than two years, and in the meantime trains will have to slow down in dozens of places where no speed limits were in place before…In any place where there is not adequate stopping distance, the report said, the Transit Authority “must institute speed restrictions or take some alternate immediate action to insure at least 100 percent stopping distance.”
The PB report indicated that more thousands of signals did not have adequate stopping distances, and the MTA instituted immediate speed restrictions on some lines that, The Times said, added around four minutes of travel time. Over the years, those speed restrictions seemed to become a way of life and faded into the background of the subway crisis in which we are mired.
But a few months ago, I noticed something peculiar. Southbound 6 trains heading from 51st St. to Grand Central were inching through the tunnel, and it seemed a timer was to blame. I had noticed a few of these slower trips over the years; for instance, 2 and 3 trains heading north into 96th St. now begin to slow down as early as 86th when they used to run at speed well past the abandoned 91st St. station. I started asking around and heard the tales of new timers identified in the wake of that 1995 crash being freshly implemented and of a group trying to fight back against timers. No one could explain why the timers were necessary now, and nearly everyone involved with decision-making at NYC Transit and the MTA in 1995 has long since left the agency.
Aaron Gordon started asking around too, and he published this piece in The Village Voice last week on slower trains. It is a must-read on the state of the MTA. The gist of it is that much of the MTA’s woes, especially with regards to their default view that “overcrowding” is causing delays, are self-inflicted. The MTA slowed down the trains, and thus service is worse. I’ll excerpt here as Gordon picks up with the post-1995 changes to the speed limits:
NYCT had predicted that the signal modifications would only marginally affect run times. But the 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of those thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day…
NYCT’s estimates were so off in part because they didn’t account for a human element. The most problematic of the newly modified signals were “one-shot timers,” so called because the operator has only one chance to meet the posted speed limit. One-shot timers are easier and cheaper to install, say MTA sources; the more “shots” the operators have to get under the required speed, the more timing mechanisms have to be installed across a longer portion of track. (An MTA spokesperson disputed this, characterizing the decision to install one- or two-shot timers as safety-related.) But the consequences of going over the speed limit are high — the train is stopped, and the operator gets penalized — so many operators now opt to go well below the posted speed limit just to be on the safe side.
“The grade time signals force us to operate slower, and because they have been installing them gradually, the subways have been slowing down gradually,” the train operator told the Voice. “I used to be able to go from 125th Street to 59th Street on the A line in seven minutes. Now it takes around nine minutes!”
Gordon has talked with some train operators and others within the MTA who are laser-focused on the signal timer issue, and I have spoken with some within the MTA who have largely echoed Gordon’s reporting. A group within the MTA is working like mad to overcome bureaucratic inertia and resistance to rocking the post-1995 boat in an effort to better assess whether timers are necessary both in terms of safety and in terms of cost of worse service. If trains are running at slower speeds, then the MTA simply cannot run as many trains per hour as it needs to in order to meet service demands or as many trains per hour as the system was built to handle. Thus, bad service — slower service, more crowded service — is a choice the MTA has made and is not, as Gordon notes, due to overcrowding but rather a cause of it.
But Andy Byford, the new man in charge of Transit, seems to have his ear to the ground on this issue. In this week’s MTA Board materials, he states that he has “asked my team to look in detail at the effect on line capacity of various signaling changes that were progressively introduced as a result of the Williamsburg Bridge crash of 1995.” He also discusses his hopes to see if these changes can be “safely mitigated.” Gordon received a similar response from the new New York City Transit president for his article:
In an email to the Village Voice, Byford acknowledged that “changes made to the signal system (in response to a crash in 1995) have undoubtedly had an impact on subway capacity,” and added that NYCT leadership has already met to begin reviewing the issue. “We are studying the impact and what was done to see if adjustments can be made while still maintaining the safety benefit these changes (and more onerous flagging arrangements) were brought in to address. This renewed scrutiny is part of my drive to properly understand — then tackle — root cause. As I have already said, the real fix is renewed signal systems and that will be the anchor behind my Corporate Plan that I am currently working on.”
Gordon’s piece ends with a sad story from a TO who feels the MTA is trying to slow down trains at a time when New Yorkers need better subway service. I’ll leave you with the quote I gave Aaron for his story: “If you’re running trains at speeds that are lower than what the system capacity was designed for, then you’re losing capacity, and that’s a choice that you’ve made. If that’s a choice that you’ve made, then you have to prove to people why you’ve made that choice. And if it’s a question of a hypothetical safety situation that doesn’t come into play, then you kind of have to question how that analysis has been reached.” It’s now up to Byford to tell us why these signals are necessary and how the MTA can maintain safety standards while reducing timer-related delays and improving service.