Archive for MTA Technology
A few weeks ago, I first linked to The Atlantic’s lengthy piece on New York City Transit’s technological woes. At the time, I examined the trial and tribulations of bringing communications-based train control online and highlighted how the MTA’s current approach is both impossible to sustain and inefficient in its execution. It is the classic story of a large and conservative bureaucracy unable to adapt to technological change, let alone a fast pace of adaption.
Let’s dive back into the piece and explore the countdown clock conundrum. As you may recall, James Somers initially set out to write about why only the A Division subway lines — the numbered routes — have countdown clocks while the B Division trains — the lettered lines — do not and will not for the foreseeable future. He also wants to understand why the A Division countdown clocks arrived years late. It is, he writes, “the story of a large organization’s first encounter with a large software project.” As you can imagine, it hasn’t gone particularly well for the MTA.
First, Somers notes that Automatic Train Supervision, the project that allowed the MTA to introduce countdown clocks on the A Division, is a subset of CBTC, and had the agency better coordinated and understood technology, they wouldn’t have spent 14 years installing an interim solution. The story goes south from there:
A post-mortem by the Federal Highway Administration details how from the start, an agency which had had little experience with large “systems” projects tried to wing it. For instance, the consulting firm tasked with developing the project plan never made a list of requirements, didn’t talk to the workers who would be maintaining the system until after it was designed, and left vague instructions for large chunks of work—specifying, for instance, “similar functionality to what is currently available”—that later became the focus of drawn-out contract disputes.
The MTA thought that they could buy a software solution more or less off the shelf, when in fact the city’s vast signaling system demanded careful dissection and reams of custom code. But the two sides didn’t work together. The MTA thought the contractor should have the technical expertise to figure it out on their own. They didn’t. The contractor’s signal engineer gave their software developers a one-size-fits-all description of New York’s interlockings, and the software they wrote on the basis of that description—lacking, as it did, essential details about each interlocking—didn’t work.
Gaffes like this weren’t caught early in part because the MTA “remained unconvinced of the usefulness of what seemed to them an endless review process in the early requirements and design stages. They had the perception that this activity was holding up their job.” They avoided visiting the contractor’s office, which, to make things worse, was overseas. In all, they made one trip. “MTA did not feel it was necessary to closely monitor and audit the contractor’s software-development progress.”
The list goes on: Software prototypes were reviewed exclusively in PowerPoint, leading to interfaces that were hard to use. Instead of bringing on outside experts to oversee construction, the MTA tried to use its own people, who didn’t know how to work with the new equipment. Testing schedules kept falling apart, causing delays. The training documentation provided by the contractor was so vague as to be unusable.
The MTA’s attempts at bringing the ATS system to the larger B Division faltered three times during the first decade of the 21st Century, and instead of trying to speed up the pace of installation of the CBTC system which would, as an ancillary benefit, introduce countdown clocks systemwide, Transit is again looking at a piecemeal solution. Again, it’s not working.
As we now know, the MTA doesn’t anticipate completed the installation of the Integrated Service Information and Management system on the B Division before 2020. An original deadline of 2017 was deemed unrealistic, and the delay in capital funding pushed this project back to the next five-year plan. And here’s the rub:
The problem is that the project has slowly taken on a bigger and bigger scope. The minutes of a 2012 Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting reveal that initially, the project’s focus “was to provide Train Arrival Information in stations.” Several service incidents, including a winter storm, drove the MTA to “re-focus project priority to provide centralized service-monitoring and information… followed closely by customer information.”
It is growing to look more and more like ATS. A request for proposal as recent as six months ago—back when funding looked more secure—called for a 77-month software contract to build out a sophisticated Rail Traffic Management System as part of ISIM-B. That piece of the project is envisioned as a complex centralized “expert system” that would allow operators to quickly diagnose service problems and would intelligently suggest ways to work around the disruption. It is, in a word, ambitious. And ambition is the death knell for big software projects. It’s what made ATS such a quagmire in the first place. It is, one suspects, why funding for countdown clocks has been cut from the latest capital plan: The rest of ISIM-B costs too much. It costs too much because it is trying to do too much. The consequence being that for five or six years, customers will hardly see anything get done at all.
At this point, Somers comes up short on a solution. He properly cites to BusTime, the MTA’s greatest software success story, as an example that the agency has had a few people at various times with the ability and trust to do something in-house. But those involved in the original creation and implementation of BusTime have long left the MTA, and Jay Walder, the CEO who was willing to give BusTime a shot, was forced out over his apparent lack of political savviness in dealing with both Albany and the TWU.
So what comes next? Certainly not countdown clocks on the B Division trains any time soon, and certainly not much faith that the MTA can execute complex technology upgrades in a timely or efficient manner. The MetroCard replace is on tap and could suffer from the same fate. Meanwhile, everything is years late and millions of budget. When it’s going to take the better part of a century to bring CBTC to the entire subway line, in the end, do we have any real hope that, without a top-to-bottom organizational overhaul, the MTA can execute on projects that are standard throughout the world? I’m not sure anyone really likes the answer to that question.
Despite journalistic claims of objectivity, some of the best reporting happens when a writer pursues something personal. In this instance, James Somers wanted to know why his F train stop at Carroll St. didn’t have countdown clocks, and what he undercovered made for a massive piece in The Altantic on the dreadful state of the MTA’s technology and its efforts at modernizing. As you may imagine, what Somers found is an agency beset by institutional paralysis, on the one hand, and a fear of taking any risks, on the other.
What Somers uncovered is an open secret amongst the transit literati. The MTA admits it to those who ask, but it’s rarely publicized. The truth is that the F train — and all B division trains — do not have countdown clocks because the MTA doesn’t know where the trains are. The fixed-block signal system doesn’t allow for MTA operators or individual towers to identify which trains are where, and those non-stop signal problems we hear about can, the MTA says, be caused by something as innocuous as debris on the tracks.
I’d like to spend more time discussing some of the issues Somers’ piece raised, but for today, let’s delve into one section — the tale of bringing CBTC to the L train:
[The RPA’s Richard Barone] explained that the Canarsie pilot suffered from problems that weren’t unusual for big transit projects in New York. The first was outmoded work rules. CBTC is designed so that trains can run themselves. But the L still has two-person crews on board every train. They’re not very busy: An April 2007 article titled “Look, Ma—no hands!” in the trade magazine Railway Age featured a delighted train supervisor named Lance Parrish riding in a CBTC-equipped train on the Canarsie Line. “All Parrish has to do is scan the onboard displays and acknowledge a flashing/beeping alerter every 20 seconds.”
…The second was a fear of change. It costs $168,000 per track-mile per year to maintain trackside signals, 90 percent of which is spent on labor—much of it done overnight and on weekends, qualifying the workers for overtime. If those signals were eliminated, millions of dollars could be saved each year. But New York decided to run CBTC on top of a reduced form of the old fixed-block signaling system, requiring that both be expensively maintained, despite evidence from other cities that no backup was necessary. (In Vancouver, the SkyTrain has had no CBTC-related accidents in more than 26 years.) And the fact that the two systems had to work together—requiring the supplier to study the old signals in depth—became a major source of delays.
Barone says New York just wasn’t willing to rip the band-aid off. Cities like London deal with major transit upgrades by packing maintenance and line closures into as short a window as possible, however painful that might seem at the time. New York, by contrast, draws out its track maintenance. When I spoke to the president of Thales Transport & Security, one of two major CBTC suppliers to New York, he said that “getting time on the track is by far the biggest schedule driver.” Crucial test-runs get queued behind miscellaneous track maintenance, so that it takes months to validate even small changes. “In the New York mindset,” he said, “there just isn’t the concept of the trains ever stopping.”
All that waiting isn’t free. These are huge projects for a company like Thales; they’ll spin up a whole office, a whole mini workforce, just to work on it. And when they’re waiting for track time, that workforce doesn’t just spin down—it continues to get paid. Anticipating delays, contractors inflate their bids.
So what we see here in this one little excerpt from a much longer story is an insight into why the MTA can’t seem to bring technology innovation to our system in a timely fashion and, in part, why everything costs so much. If we are to reform MTA practices and get more (or perhaps any) bang for the massive amounts of capital bucks to which the agency now has access, we’re starting to understand the best places to start.
More coming later when we look at how Somers explains the countdown clock conundrum. In the meantime, be sure to check out the full article. It’s well worth the read.
Let’s play catch-up with a few shorter stories:
Upper East Side votes for bus countdown clocks
It’s no secret that the MTA doesn’t plan to spend money bringing countdown clocks to bus stops. Although BusTime is now available on smartphones and via text message on all bus routes throughout the city, the MTA hasn’t shown a willingness to spend money for countdown clocks or identify which stations deserve such clocks. They have, instead, left these clocks up to everyone else. Businesses could supply them in their windows or politicians could pay for them through discretionary funding.
On the Upper East Side, residents want these clocks, and in a recent round of participatory budgeting sponsored by Council member Ben Kallos, his constituents voted for them. While westbound countdown clocks came in second in the voting, they’ve earned $300,000 for installation, and fifteen signs along the M96, M86, M79 and M66 routes will be installed on the East Side. Additionally, Kallos will spend another $340,000 in discretionary funding to install countdown clocks at downtown M31 stops.
This is how countdown clocks will arrive at bus stations and shelters throughout the city, but it’s a very piecemeal approach. These timers will be available at downtown- or west-bound stops only, and anyone headin east or north won’t enjoy easy access to the information. Maybe, eventually, as participatory budgeting and discretionary funds are doled out throughout the years, we’ll see this technology emerge everywhere, but for now, as other entities take over this project, it will be imperfect at best.
MTA Board votes to explore mobile ticketing
Kicking and screaming, the MTA will soon begin to adopt 21st Century ticketing technology. The MTA Board this week voted to approve the LIRR’s and Metro-North’s first foray into mobile ticketing. The contract is with Masabi, LLC, and it will allow the rail road customers to purchase train tickets on their phones, tablets or mobile devices. Conductors can visually verify digital tickets or use handheld devices to scan and validate tickets much as Amtrak conductors do today. (For background on Masabi, check out this Wall Street Journal article. They already provide mobile ticketing for transit services in London, Boston and San Diego.)
“More convenient ticketing options means a better experience using the train,” said Metro-North President Joseph Giulietti. “We want to make riding the train as easy and convenient as we can. We now offer real-time train status via app, and this next step – tickets via app – promises to be another big step toward increased convenience.”
There is, of course, a catch: It’s likely to be a year before mobile ticketing is available for widespread use. Even though this isn’t a new technology, the MTA seems to be suffering from a case of not-invented-here-itis and must test this thing thoroughly. That year, though, is sooner than the Metrocard’s replacement will be ready. At least it has that going for it.
Bustitution, LIRR strike looms
A few weeks ago, the LIRR’s largest union voted to authorize a strike if it cannot reach an agreement on a new contract with MTA management by the end of July. As rank-and-file TWU members are already speaking out against their 8 percent raises, it’s likely that the LIRR union will push hard for a more generous deal. Thus, the likelihood of a strike — with Nowakowski in charge — looms large, and the MTA must plan for it.
After a contentious discussion in which it seemed as though the MTA Board wouldn’t authorize the move, the Board finally approved issuing an RFP for bus service in the event there is no LIRR service come late July. For a few minutes this week, it appeared as though the MTA Board was content to bury its head in the sand and pretend a strike wasn’t a distinct possibility. Ultimately, though, saner minds prevailed, and the RFP is out there. A strike would be very disruptive to Long Island, but at least the MTA has recognized that substitute bus service can’t materialize overnight. I’ll follow this story as the spring unfolds.
I’m a few days late posting this to the site (thought if you follow me on Twitter, you would have seen the news on Saturday, but BusTime is officially live in Brooklyn and Queens. With the weekend debut in the city’s two most populous boroughs, the MTA’s in-house real-time bus tracking system is now available on all MTA buses throughout the five boroughs.
While the service isn’t perfect as designed, knowing where every bus is certainly has its benefits and makes travel on an unreliable mode of transit far easier. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said, “customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”
BusTime is available on the MTA’s website right here, and the information is accessible via mobile apps and a code-based text message service as well. Unfortunately, the limits of the in-house system mean that waiting times are displayed in distance rather than time. Allan Rosen at Sheepshead Bites seems to view this flaw as something close to a fatal one, but I’m a bit more forgiving.
It’s not ideal, and the concept of distance as time takes some trial and error. But two weeks ago, we had no idea where any buses in Brooklyn were, and today, I can pull up every route in the city from the comfort of my computer. Advocates, meanwhile, are continuing to press for countdown timers at major bus stops. It is, as with everything, a matter of funding.
Approximately a year ago, the MTA announced an expansion of their On The Go kiosks. As part of a creative advertising arrangement in which the MTA would shell out no dollars and draw in money after a certain threshold, two licensees — CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. — will foot the bill for installation and earn back the costs off of the ads they can sell. In exchange, the MTA gets touch-screen kiosks installed throughout the subway system and a cut of they money once the two companies recoup their initial investments.
Recently, the first batch of screens have popped up in Grand Central, and Gizmodo profiled the work behind building a computer sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the subway. As with many things MTA, this is a story about false starts and delayed promises. Mario Aguilar writes:
The initial plan for the kiosks was to populate the city’s busiest stations, to help make the dynamic and often confusing system a little easier to work with. By the end of 2013, however, Control Group had only managed to install a single testing unit at Bowling Green station, near the company’s headquarters across from City Hall. After a 30-day trial period, it was apparent that everything from the hardware to the user interface had to be improved before the units would be ready to meet the needs of millions of commuters. “We wanted a better experience,” says Control Group partner Colin O’Donnell, “and we were willing to wait for it.”
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a minor course adjustment when it comes a massive agency like MTA. “It’s a behemoth,” says O’Donnell. Moving millions of passengers every day necessitates a certain amount of bureaucracy, and when every last person in that bureaucracy needs to sign off on a decision, approving something as simple as a hardware change can take, well, six months.
O’Donnell says that the initial run’s core problem was the touchscreen it had chosen. The prototype we tried last year used a surface outfitted with 3M’s dispersive signal technology (DST), which calculates the position of a touch on a screen by sensing the vibrations the touch creates. It’s rugged and cost-effective, but also a bit clumsy…User testing proved that people found the firm pokes unintuitive, but more importantly it turned out that subway stations are full of vibration-causing ambient noise and rumbling trains—no kidding!—which confused the touchscreen’s contact microphones and drastically undermined performance. As one staffer put it, the tech worked well in Control Group’s lab on the 21st floor of a skyscraper, but simply didn’t cut it underground with the trains rumbling by.
It’s worth reading Aguilar’s entire piece as it provides a rare glimpse into why technology takes forever to spread throughout the MTA’s vast system. We often scoff at the notion that the world underneath the city is a challenging one and question why simple tasks such as escalator repair can take so long. But as Control Group’s experiences show, it isn’t easy building something that can stand up to 24-hour use, and the dirt, dust, debris and vibrations of the transit network under our feet.
As the video shows, these things aren’t perfect. I haven’t used them yet, but the navigation looks clunky and the touch aspect sensitive. Furthermore, MTA’s own Trip Planner, the underlying software for the navigation system, for instance, isn’t perfect. The system routes people standing on the IRT platform at Grand Central to the 7 and Q for a ride out to Coney Island when the intuitive trip would involve an express ride to Atlantic Ave. and a transfer. Still, it’s a start, and hopefully, with the promises of revenue based on user engagement, these will only get better with time.
For bus riders in Brooklyn and Queens, “soon” now has a set date. BusTime — the MTA’s real-time bus tracking service — will go live for the city’s most populous boroughs on Sunday, March 9. Bus riders in those two boroughs will now know, via text message, smart phone apps or the the web where their buses are and how far away that next bus is. It will be a huge boost for riders long accustomed to spotty service and maddeningly inconsistent waits.
“MTA Bus Time is yet another way we are trying to improve service for our customers,” Carmen Bianco, President of MTA New York City Transit, said in a press release. “As we have seen with train arrival information in the subway, customers appreciate when they know when that train or bus will show up at the station or stop.”
With the addition of Brooklyn and Queens bus routes, including express bus service, the entire city will have access to bus tracking information, and the MTA has met its self-imposed deadline for bringing the service online. This last installation adds 9000 bus stops to the system as well. What it doesn’t include yet are countdown clocks — or, more accurately, station countdowns — at each station, and transit advocates hope to change that.
At a rally hosted by the Riders Alliance (of which I am a board member), bus riders and other transit advocates called upon politicians to help fund a NYCDOT initiative that would see digital countdown timers installed at key bus stations throughout the city. The timers — similar to the one atop this post — would be a big help to those who aren’t aware of BusTime or are not otherwise comfortable with the technology that makes the bus location information readily available.
“Countdown clocks have been a huge hit on subway platforms,” John Raskin, Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said. “Now it’s time to bring them to bus stops. We have the technology and we have the interest from riders.”
What is missing from Raskin’s equation is, of course, money. A 2012 study by Brad Lander noted that countdown clocks at bus stops would cost around $4000-$6000 to install, but the solar-powered free-standing signs in place as part of the Staten Island pilot would cost up to $20,000 each. That’s a prohibitive cost and an insane one. Ridership doesn’t warrant installing one at every bus stop, but for key bus stations, these simple timers that countdown stops shouldn’t cost that much.
“The best way to get where I’m going is the bus. I try to time it using printed schedules but most of the time the bus doesn’t follow the schedule,” Thomasin Bentley, a Riders Alliance member, said. “I want to use the bus. It’s clean and affordable. Bus countdown clocks would allow me to make the most of an otherwise great system. The text messaging service is a good start but I find it difficult to understand, and I’m a real tech person. I can imagine that it’s hard for other people to figure out as well.”
Earlier this week, State Assemblyman Paul Goldfeder’s office sent out what I thought was an oddly-phrased press release along with a letter the Queens representative sent to MTA head Tom Prendergast. In the letter, Goldfeder called upon the MTA to include Queens in its plans for BusTime.
“Waiting for a bus in Queens should not be a guessing game,” he said. “I applaud the MTA for using technology to better their services for customers and I strongly urge them to include all New Yorkers in their latest advances and implement the real-time bus locator app for Queens residents as soon as possible.”
What struck me as odd was the fact that the MTA had always said BusTime would be a city-wide effort and that the rest of the city would receive real-time bus tracking info by the middle of this year. Everything I had heard from MTA sources indicated that the rollout was on time, and I asked Goldfeder’s office if they had heard otherwise. His press rep clarified that Goldfeder “sent a letter to the Chairman to make sure the app does come to Queens and there’s no second thoughts.” An app without one borough would be no app indeed.
In response to Goldfeder’s inquiry, the MTA has stressed its commitment to Brooklyn and Queens. If you look closely enough at the MTA’s bus fleet — and know what to look for — you’ll see that the equipment for BusTime is already in place, and the MTA has said that it should be live soon. “We have completed boroughwide installations in Queens and Brooklyn and are currently fine-tuning software,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in response to various inquiries. “We are on schedule to go online in the next several weeks.”
So there you have it: Ask for an update, and ye shall receive. A citywide implementation of BusTime should do wonders for bus ridership and the overall convenience of New York’s otherwise unreliable local buses. If only now we could do something about the clunky fare payment system.
I’ve been sitting on a bunch of open tabs for a little while and thought it would be a good idea to get around to sharing these. These are stories I found interesting or newsworthy but just haven’t had an opportunity to post here.
I’ve talked a bit about the MTA’s new green fee and the money realized from unused MetroCards, and a recent piece in The Times put those dollars into context. Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, the MTA collected half a billion dollars from unused fares. Since straphangers have to pre-pay for MetroCards, dollars that are left on the cards long after their expiration dates remain with the MTA, and on an annual basis, the money is a small, but important, part of the agency’s annual budget.
Unused fares isn’t something that’s come about because of the MetroCard era. Back in the day, New Yorkers would buy tokens and never use them. They would get lost, get forgotten, get overlooked, and the MTA could collect those fares. But today with uneven bonuses that make the math of a free fare more difficult, more dollars are left on cards that expire, and the $1 fee for new MetroCards means revenue as well.
As the MTA phases out the MetroCard — the topic of my March 19 Problem Solvers session — these unused fares may diminish a bit. The next system may well be a pay-as-you-go set-up that doesn’t focus around any proprietary fare collection system. While the MTA will lose the money from unused fares, it will also drastically reduce the amount it has to spend to collect fares. That’s a win for the customers, and a win for the transit agency as well.
As New York City subways go, the 3 train runs an odd route. It stretches deep into Brooklyn but then stops short of anything in Manhattan. It terminates at 148th St. near the Lenox Yard and goes no further north. In a piece at Welcome2TheBronx, Richard Garey argues for extending the train to the Bronx. With the need for some cross-Bronx subway service and the incoming soccer facility near Yankee Stadium, the time may be right to look at some subway extension options.
Garey’s post focuses on the 3 train as a way to serve neighborhoods that once enjoyed streetcar service and now don’t, but I think he has the routing wrong. The 3 shouldn’t end up as another north-south route in the Bronx but could instead cut across the borough, serving areas that don’t have good cross-Bronx transit options while boosting subway service. It is, after all, a fast ride downtown on the IRT express. Without a massive infusion of cash, we’re just dreaming, but it’s an intriguing proposition after all.
Unhappiness at 149th Street
For years, I’ve been using the 149th Street-Grand Concourse subway stop as a transfer point on the way to Yankee Stadium, and for years, it has been one disgusting station. The walls were marred by leaking pipes, and on the way home from a World Series game in 2001, my sister and I saw squirrel-sized rats on the uptown 2/5 platform. It was very, very unpleasant.
Recently, the station underwent a renovation, but a few area residents are unhappy. One transit buff took a video tour of the station post-renovation and discovered some subpar work. Meanwhile, another group of residents wants to restore elevator service that was shuttered 40 years ago. As best as I can tell, the elevator in question went from the 2/5 platform to street level. The MTA has no money, and protestors hope Mayor de Blasio can help out. I wouldn’t hold me breath.
Thanks to an infusion of funds from Council member Vincent Ignizio, four stations along the Staten Island Railway — Great Kills, Eltingville, Annadale and Huguenot — now have countdown clocks. The work is part of a $675,000 initiative funded by Ignizio’s office that will eventually include a Subway Time component that will add these SIR stations to the MTA’s tracking app. For now, the information is available on the St. George-bound side, but Tottenville-bound service will have its time in the sun as well. If you pay for it, it will come.
L train riders, rejoice: The MTA’s real-time subway tracking app and developer feeds have been updated today with location information for the BMT Canarsie line. The update was originally due by the end of 2013, but missing a deadline by two weeks seems minor in the grand scheme of things. With the latest update to the MTA’s own iOS app and the web-based interface as well as the open-data feeds for third-party developers, L train riders can find out how long — or short — their waits will be before heading underground.
For the MTA, this is the first upgrade to the Subway Time app, and while the design or scrolling experience haven’t improved, the data available now includes arrival time estimates for eight of the city’s subway routes. Unfortunately, it’s also likely to be the last update for a few years. The CBTC signal project currently underway on the 7 line is expected to wrap in 2016, and the Flushing line could be added thereafter. The MTA is still eying a three- to five-year rollout of some sort of digital tracking system on the remainder of the lettered lines, but it’s unclear if the agency can meet that deadline.
In any event, today’s upgrade is a welcome one, even if it underscores the time we’ll have to wait for information on the rest of the system’s trains at the same time.
The target date to wrap the MTA’s installation of communications-based train control along Flushing Line has been delayed six months until mid-2017, the agency said in documents released this weekend. As part of the update to the Capital Program Oversight Committee, the MTA noted that the $550 million project remains on budget, but due, in part, to complications from Sandy, the project’s substantial completion date has been pushed back from the fourth quarter of 2016 to the second quarter of 2017.
According to the documents, two issues could further impact this date. The first concerned the availability of test tracks for the CBTC-enabled R188s. These cars were due to be tested on the Rockaway Test Track, but this stretch of railbed was damaged during Sandy. The delay in repairing the test track has pushed back the date for final delivery of the R188s from February 2016 to August 2016.
Second, the MTA fingers “G.O. Availability” as a concern. As CBTC work means many weekends without 7 train service into and out of Queens, the agency has been working with community leaders along the Flushing Line to better plan outages. As the Board materials say, though, “if track outages for this project are delayed/denied, the project’s milestones will be delayed.” In other words, if the MTA can’t schedule G.O.’s, it can’t perform the work on time. I’ll continue to follow this story, but for now, the expected completion date is slipping.