As politics loom, a dive into the details of the Byford subway rescue plan


With Byford’s blueprint in hand, will Andrew Cuomo save the subways?

Last week was an odd one for the Andy Byford subway rescue plan. Nearly immediately after its release, it became clear that Andrew Cuomo, as I wrote last week, didn’t know how to respond to the plan he essentially commissioned. He brought in Byford and personally interviewed him for the job with the idea that this Andy would fix the subways, but when the plan he came out, Andy C. punted. This move seemingly took everyone by surprise, but considering how Cuomo has embraced transit over the years, perhaps we should have expected it all along.

The politics of the moment, however, found a way to intervene, and the dynamics of the Democratic primary reared its head late last week. Shortly before Cynthia Nixon announced a kitchen-sink plan to fix the MTA — endorsing the Byford plan while calling for both congestion pricing and a Bill de Blasio-inspired millionaires’ tax to fund transit — Cuomo decided the plan he commissioned was one worth endorsing. Toward the end of last week, he made the call for a congestion pricing plan to fund the Byford proposal to save the subway. You can (and should) read Emma Fitzsimmons’ coverage in The Times. The question now is whether Cuomo will follow through, but since the Byford plan is a preview of the Transit asks for the next two MTA Five-Year Capital Plans, we won’t know for another year or so if Cuomo is serious.

The politics are the politics are the politics. After a while, having to convince the governor of New York to support the economic lifeblood of the largest city in the state gets exhaustingly tiresome. The governor doesn’t appreciate the transit system, and the person who should be New York City’s biggest champion thinks he’s the mayor of some suburban town of ten thousand drivers. Sometimes, I can’t help but thrown my hands up in disgust at the whole thing, but right now, that’s neither here nor there. The politics will play out in the coming months, and forces will likely align behind the bulk, if not all, of Byford’s plan. Which brings me in a somewhat roundabout way to a question: What exactly is in Byford’s plan? Though I wrote about it last week, I haven’t delved into the details so let’s do that.

In a sense, as I’ve mentioned, the plan is a preview of things to come. Byford accelerated the 40-year plan to replace the bulk of the subway signal system and will instead do it in ten years. He wants modernized interlockings and over 300 stations to be brought to a state of good repair. He wants a new fare payment system, 130 new ADA-compliant stations, over 3600 new subway cars (which I hope will include open gangways) and nearly 5000 new buses (which I hope all use clean-air technology). “We propose doing in 10 years what was
previously scheduled to take more than 40, including major progress in the first 5 years,” Byford said. “This means lines that are currently capacity-constrained will be able to carry more people, more smoothly and reliably.”

Visually, the plan looks like this:

I’m not quite sure what happens with the parts of subway lines that aren’t included in the ten-year upgrade approach. Do these non-modernized segments act as chokepoints that still limit the number of trains subway lines can accommodate? If, for instance, the 1 line between Van Cortlandt Park and 96th St. isn’t modernized while the remainder to South Ferry is, can the MTA run additional trains? And what of, for instance, the F between York St. and Church Ave.? Or the entirety of J train?

The plan isn’t without pain, and the pain is the key issue. The MTA considered and dismissed time-barred full-line shutdowns to accommodate the work and plans to maintain weekday train service. But Byford warns that “continuous night and weekend closures” may last for up to 2.5 years per line with both express and local service shutdown where applicable. What the plan does not detail is how exactly the work will go from taking 40 years to taking 10 or whether costs will fall in line with even the upper bounds of international standards rather than current spending which far exceeds that of any other comparable transit system.

Beyond the signal upgrades and CBTC installation, the rest of the plan does what the MTA should be doing but on an aggressively fast schedule. More stations renovated in shorter time frames. More ADA and other accessibility upgrades. Better management (which may be short for cleaning house). Actually delivering a new fare payment system. Route overhauls “to reduce reliance on critical interlockings.” It’s all what the MTA should have been doing for decades.

You can read through the plan document as a PDF right here. It’s a quick read, and it’s a blueprint for the future. Publishing it was the easy first step though, and the harder part is someone else’s political lift. That, as The Times’ editorial board writes today, is the hard part. “Mr. Byford’s plan asks New Yorkers to make sacrifices. They will have to pay more in taxes and fees and endure night and weekend subway shutdowns as workers fix lines and stations. But most people would be willing to bear that pain for a safer and more reliable transit system,” the editorial notes. “What is less clear is whether New York’s elected leaders can summon the necessary political will to turn this plan into reality. It was heartening to see Mr. Cuomo belatedly embrace Mr. Byford’s plan last week, but he has to back up his words with action. Because Mr. Byford is right: New Yorkers can’t wait 50 years for a modern transit system.”

21 Responses to “As politics loom, a dive into the details of the Byford subway rescue plan”

  1. Joe says:

    I am somewhat disappointed that Byford’s CBTC plan will only deliver full CBTC for one service (the E) in 5 years, and no additional services after 10 years. And since the E shares all of its track with other services that won’t get the full CBTC treatment, I don’t think we can expect more service even on the E. I suspect, in a situation where a subway service runs on a combination of traditionally signaled and CBTC-signaled lines, the benefit comes from the improved reliability of the signal system, especially throughout nearly all the lines in the Manhattan CBD. That will hopefully mean that trains can run a bit closer together there, keeping headways shorter, especially as services combine to offer more service on individual lines. And also remove any threat of signal failure that exists at present.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      The Post complained about the MTA not replacing signals on the J/M/Z in the next 10 years. Those signals were replaced in 1989. The MTA cannot afford to tear out recent signals.

      I see the plan this way. The MTA has traditionally replaced signals at a 60-year rate — except in periods such as the 1970s and the last 10 years when retroactive pension increases and debts caused capital reinvestment to stop.

      All this plan would do is allow the MTA to catch up with that hole, and get back to the 60 year schedule.

      By the year 2030, when this plan is done, additional second generation signals will be coming due for replacement.

      • OLDER AND WISER says:

        Trying to figure out what the term “retroactive pension increase” might refer to.

        Are you talking about the normal effect retroactive general wage increases always have on any employee’s pension amount?

        Or is it that there have been retroactive modifications to the arithmetic formulas by which each tiers’ pension amounts were calculated?

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          Retroactive changes to the terms. As in when those promised full pensions after 30 years of work at age 62 are suddenly granted pensions after 25 years of work at age 55, as for NYC teachers, with no money having been set aside to pay for that.

          And 1,000 other things like it.

          What has been promised might be expensive but it could be responsibly funded. But all the retroactive pension increases are disastrous, even if (as in NYC) the taxpayers do their part. It’s why NYC is in such a bad hole — though other places where taxpayers didn’t fund the pensions that had been promised to begin with are also in such a hole.

      • Austin says:

        If the MTA replaced the signals in 1989 then why does the train run about as fast as an elevated streetcar? I live off the JMZ and a trip that should only take 15 minutes takes about 30. Trains always stop on the track and just sit, and wait. They literally never run at full speed (and yes, I’m aware they’ve been paired back by the MTA due to an accident but even then, it’s pretty glacial). To be clear I’m not challenging the accuracy of what you’ve said, but the experience just doesn’t add up.

        • Larry Littlefield says:

          Are the sitting and waiting at the point where the M merges in?

          That is one of only two places left on the system where trains need to cross each other at grade. Inbound, you may be waiting for an outbound M to cross over the Manhattan bound J/Z track.

          Everywhere else has expensive “flying junctions” which are like highway exits. If that interlocking had one, the outbound M would diverge from the outbound J/Z, and a connecting track would pass over or under the inbound J/Z track so the inbound J/Z would never have to wait.


          • Subutay Musluoglu says:

            He may also be referring to the incredibly frustrating slowdown coming down off the bridge eastbound into Marcy Avenue. I recognize that the curve needs protecting, but that location is another prime example of the overly conservative spread of grade / station timing all over the city that has slowed the entire system down. Trains have to practically come to a complete stop before proceeding.

  2. paulb says:

    Many people I work with will say they cannot bear the pain of higher fares.

  3. Chas S says:

    In an ideal world, Byford is counting on costs coming down and expertise increasing in signals installation such that the scope of the upgrades in the second capital budget could be expanded, and be so successful that by the time the third capital plan rolls around, the work can be completed. Though I think it will be four capital plans before every last inch of track is CBTC.

  4. Stephen Bauman says:

    Byford’s CBTC plan is supposed to result in higher service levels and decreased maintenance costs. Benchmark metrics for these achievements are missing from his plan. It’s very difficult to evaluate the plan’s technical merits without such information.

  5. J Adlai says:

    Ben wrote:

    I’m not quite sure what happens with the parts of subway lines that aren’t included in the ten-year upgrade approach. Do these non-modernized segments act as chokepoints that still limit the number of trains subway lines can accommodate? If, for instance, the 1 line between Van Cortlandt Park and 96th St. isn’t modernized while the remainder to South Ferry is, can the MTA run additional trains? And what of, for instance, the F between York St. and Church Ave.? Or the entirety of J train?

    This is absolutely a valid concern, but the examples you list are not the areas of concern.

    When I was working on Queens Boulevard CBTC, the CBTC signal equipment covered the most heavily trafficked rails: the segment between the 63rd connector and Kew Gardens. This is the section that needs the increased capacity, so while the 63rd street tube wouldn’t see an increase in absolute capacity, it’s not going to see that increased traffic anyway. The other key concern is that, with the current CBTC system, trains need to enter CBTC territory outside of the choke point. So the F would actually have CBTC installed up to 21st-Queensbridge (it also needs to enter CBTC territory at a station in order to be able to operate in ATO. If it enters while in motion, then the operator will need to operate the train in a manual CBTC mode until it makes a station stop).

    So going back to your examples, you are correct that the 1 line will be governed by capacity north of 96th street. However, the 1 line is nowhere NEAR maxing out that capacity. NYCT has been able to achieve 30 trains per hour on their fixed block system before and presently. The 1 currently operates closer to 20 tph, peak. So the signal system is not constraining capacity right now; NYCT could definitely add service on the 1 without doing anything to the signals.

    The F is a little different, because it shares tracks with other lines (most crucially the E in Queens). Whenever CBTC on the Queens Boulevard line goes active, the F line will get a boost in service due to the fact that the choke point in Queens has seen increased capacity. Fun fact: before the opening of the 63rd Street Connector, the F operates 18 trains per hour, while the E operated 12. Those additional F trains became the E runs to/from 179th street during the peak hours. But the non-CBTC segment between Jay street and Church won’t constrict the capacity of the line, because even with CBTC, those segments wouldn’t be able to handle the added F trains.

    But the one real choke point that you missed is the Brooklyn IRT. By only extending CBTC to Atlantic, the 4/5 service to Brooklyn can never exceed the capacity of the non-CBTC tracks between Atlantic and the Rogers Junction. At best, they’ll be able to add some additional short turns that use the Bowling Green-South Ferry loop, but that won’t help Brooklyn riders on the IRT.

    Still, it looks like they are trying to get all of the trunk lines upgraded, which is laudable. The real question will be: what can they do to control costs?

    • Railfan 007 says:

      For Rogers Junction, all that needs to happen is 2 switches are added into the existing configuration so that 2/3 trains service Flatbush with the excess trains Flatbush can’t handle go to New Lots, 4 operates local after Franklin all the way to New Lots, and the 5 operates express to Utica. The 2 new switches should be added in a way so 2/3 trains can merge to the local while a 4 crosses to/from the express tracks. Expanding Flatbush to handle more trains (and to further cover more of Brooklyn) is going to more expensive than adding the switches, but should be a long term goal that MTA looks towards.

      • sonicboy678 says:

        What is with this “3 to Flatbush” BS? There’s a reason why the practice was stopped. To add to that, there’s a reason why the 5 sticks with the 2 in Brooklyn.

        • J Adlai says:

          As of right now, all trains that serve the branch to Flatbush and the local tracks between Franklin and Utica must share a small stretch of track. While this is the case, sure it makes sense to offer some service from Lexington Ave. But if the Rogers Junction is fixed so that expresses can be shifted to the local without needing to merge with locals headed to Flatbush, then it absolutely makes sense to send all Lexington Avenue trains to Utica/New Lots.

          • sonicboy678 says:

            Except doing that needlessly reopens one wound and opens several more. Again, there’s a reason why the routes were altered to what they are now.

            • J Adlai says:

              Doing that fixes a massive shortcoming with the Rogers Junction. Every Lexington train that needs to use Flatbush must share tracks with every 7th Ave train. It’s a massive capacity constraint for the 7th avenue line.

              • sonicboy678 says:

                I guarantee you’re grossly overstating the benefits. Aside from ridership patterns (those 5 trains can see serious loads even before reaching Franklin Avenue, and not just because of delays) and the general operations between the two routes (look at where the routes go, what rolling stock they use, and where said stock is stored), you may want to look back to 1983 for why this proposal is so poor.

                • J Adlai says:

                  The benefits are clear, and MTA is well aware of what they are. Operations Planning and Capital Program Management are looking at doing exactly this. If Rogers junction is ever fixed, they will implement the rerouting as described, and anyone who needs Lexington from the Nostrand Avenue Branch will simply make a cross platform transfer at Franklin, hardly a poor proposal at all.

                  • sonicboy678 says:

                    All that amounts to is a small amount of shuffling for no real benefit. Actually rebuilding the junction is the only way to address the deficiencies without putting the simpler, more flexible operations in jeopardy. Reverting the 3 and 5 to pre-1983 service patterns will not just cripple them, but also harm the 2 and 4 (though the 4 would still be in better shape than the others). The problems with this plan would present themselves on a constant basis, though it would be especially apparent on weekends and during rush hours.

                    • J Adlai says:

                      No one is advocating returning back to the service pattern pre 1983. That service pattern had the 3 and 4 serving Flatbush, while the 2 and 5 served Utica/New Lots, with some 4 trains also serving Utica.

                      Additionally, if nothing is done to fix Rogers, then there’s no point in changing the current service pattern either. Some number of expresses would need to switch to the local anyway, and they have to merge with 2 and 3 trains. So reverse branching the service makes sense with the current infrastructure alignment.

                      There are two ways to fix Rogers. One involves making it a true flying junction. It would require an extensive rebuilding of the junction, including new grades, and what is likely to be an expanded tunnel. The disruption to service would be extensive, and the cost would be relatively astronomical. The second way involves adding a single new set of switches from express to local. It requires some structural work, and still results in some disruption, but it’s far less scope and as as a result, much lower cost. If Rogers ever gets fixed, it’s probably going to be option 2, and if that happens then it means most 3 trains will be shifted to Flatbush to avoid merging with Lex trains.

      • J Adlai says:

        Fixing Rogers Junction is certainly something that needs to be done, but it won’t fix the issue that I mentioned with signal capacity constraints. If Rogers is fixed and CBTC is only extended to Borough Hall, the express tracks between Borough Hall and Rogers would be the choke point. CBTC needs to be extended to Utica (with the ability for Local trains to enter CBTC Automatic operation at Nostrand.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>