Archive for New York City Transit

The revolving door atop the MTA’s power structure continues to spin as New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco announced his plans to retire this summer. Bianco, 63, took over the role in April of 2013 when Tom Prendergast was elevated to MTA Chair, and he had previously spent over three years as the Senior Vice President of Subways. He was the seventh New York City Transit President and, outside of Howard Robers, the shortest-tenured one.

As with any agency head, Bianco’s time as president has seen its ups and downs — though the downs were brought about by forces of nature largely outside of anyone’s control. As VP and later President, he led an agency working to overcome the damage wrought by Superstorm Sandy and developed the early years of Transit’s $4 billion Fix & Fortify spending plan. Meanwhile, on the positive side, the subways now serve up to 6 million riders per day, and overall daily NYC Transit ridership has topped 8.2 million. The team Bianco put into place is working to increase subway capacity too, though changes (cough cough open gangways cough cough) can’t come soon enough.

MTA officials, meanwhile, praised Bianco and pledged to conduct a wide search for his replacement. “Carmen Bianco is a one-of-a-kind leader as well as a trusted friend, and while I understand why he is ready to retire now, we will all miss his detailed experience, his thoughtful perspective and his constant drive to make transit better for both our customers and our employees,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Through initiatives like establishing the FASTRACK program for subway maintenance and aggressively bringing new technology into the system, Carmen made the organizational culture of New York City Transit reflect the priorities that our customers expect. He will be missed.”

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May
21

Video: A Subway Delay Story

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At Monday’s MTA Board committee meetings, the folks who oversee New York City Transit enjoyed a screening of this 8-bit take on the MTA’s service woes. It’s a 110-second summary of how a single delay can echo throughout the system. I’m not sure it really tells us anything new, but it served as an entry into the MTA’s new attempts at improving service on congested lines. Essentially, the MTA is going to use shorter pre-recorded announcements to cut dwell times and employees situated in stations to answer questions. It’s an incremental improvement but without a massive investment in the signal system, that’s among the best the beleaguered agency can do. After my Q train stopped at four red signals between 7th Ave. and De Kalb this morning, I’ll take whatever improvements we can get.

On another note, I know many of you have been asking after me. After my vacation, I came down with a bad cold and have been catching up at work after my trip. I should be able to return to a semi-normal posting schedule over the next week. I’d love to offer up some views on my experiences riding the trains in Berlin and Stockholm. For better or worse, they stand in stark contrast to New York City’s subways. Thanks as always for sticking around.

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I’m too busy trying to figure out what the Seahawks’ coaches were doing on 2nd and goal with time running out and the Super Bowl trophy within their grasps to think of much else tonight. I also need to continue to clean up from the part the Future Mrs. Second Ave. Sagas and I hosted tonight so you’re stuck without much in the way of original content. If you’d like to read up on more about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s overreaction to last week’s snow forecast, check out Kate Hinds’ piece on how at least some subway service should run no matter the winter weather. According to the WNYC reporter’s interviews with MTA sources and other transit experts in the know, even with an historic blizzard bearing down on New York City, the MTA could run service through most of its system. For its part, the MTA is looking at “amending [winter] plans moving forward.” Clearly, this won’t be the last we hear of this story.

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The MTA’s snow-thrower clears the tracks at 20th Avenue following a Nor’easter in February. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

In case you’ve missed it, there’s a big amount of snow heading our way. The National Weather Service is warning of a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard” will hit the city with snow totals predicted to be 20-30 inches or more in some areas. The last time a storm of this magnitude struck, passengers were stranded for hours on an N train stuck in Brooklyn and an A left near Howard Beach. Since then, the MTA has been very proactive in managing subway service and its storm response.

As now, it’s not clear how Monday is going to unfold. As of just before midnight, the MTA’s website offers up only this tidbit regarding tomorrow’s New York City Transit service:

NYC Transit personnel are in place to clear platforms and stairs of snow. De-icers and snow-throwers have been strategically deployed to focus on outdoor areas and open cuts that are the most susceptible to high snow accumulations.

The MTA is planning to operate normal bus service tomorrow morning, but depending on road conditions, service may be curtailed as the day progresses. All local buses, including articulated buses, will have chains or snow tires installed by tomorrow’s PM rush hour.

Paratransit customers may experience additional travel and wait times.

Gov. Cuomo meanwhile has sounded a more urgent alarm. While asking commuters to stay home if possible, the governor has said “the public transit network including…MTA Subways and Buses may be closed ahead of the evening commute.” The language is rather stilted, and it’s not totally clear what Cuomo means. My guess is that he’s referring to a Plan 4 response to the storm.

In all likelihood, then, as the snow begins to fall around 1 p.m. tomorrow afternoon, the MTA will look to curtail service. Trains will be stored on underground express tracks, and all express service is likely to run local. At-grade subway lines — such as the A through the Rockaways and the N down the Sea Beach Line — are likely to be curtailed while the trains that don’t run 24 hours — the M and the B — will stop early. Now, that’s not official, but that’s been the general approach to major snowstorms.

For the MTA, this week’s storm is shaping up to be a big test. They’ve had successful storms over the past few years, but we haven’t seen something of this magnitude in over four years. Since then, the subways weathered Irene and emerged limping out of Sandy. We’ll see how this week’s storm goes, but ultimately, the same advice applies: Don’t travel if you don’t have to.

I’ll update the site with any weather-related service advisories as they are announced. For now, we’re all just waiting for snow and waiting for service changes.

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MTA crews inspect a derailed F train. A report on the May incident highlighted track-inspection deficiencies. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Laid end-to-end, the tracks of the New York City subway system total more than enough to extend to Chicago. Every day, over 8000 subway trains pass through these tracks, and the system never shuts down. Thus, it’s a challenge for the MTA to keep everything in working order, and it requires diligence and an attention to detail to ensure nothing that could cause injuries or cost passenger lives is amiss. In May, that process broke down, and now the MTA is seeking to hold four workers accountable.

As you may recall, back in May, a Manhattan-bound F train derailed in Queens, snarling train traffic through the area for a few days. While no one was seriously injured, a fully train had to be evacuated, and it was the MTA’s first major subway derailment in some time. (The MTA’s derailment rate remains well below national average.) Still, the agency, as it should, takes these investigations seriously, and on Friday, Transit released a report fingering deficiencies in the track-inspection process. Four workers, the agency, said, will be disciplined for their failures.

“Nothing is more important than providing the safest transportation possible for our customers and employees, so determining the cause of this derailment was a top priority for us,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said in a statement. “We immediately took corrective action to ensure we always focus on identifying and correcting track defects. This will minimize the risk of future derailments.”

The full report is available here as a PDF. The essence of it is that a series of minor defects that should have been caught by track inspection personnel and subsequently corrected were missed. The train operator, signal system, rolling stock and rail manufacturers were deemed to escape responsibility for the incident, but three Maintenance Supervisors and a Track Inspector are in the MTA’s crosshairs.

Here’s how the MTA summarized the findings:

New York City Transit’s Office of System Safety reviewed video data from prior automated inspections where the derailment occurred. The videos showed that a metal plate and fasteners under the rail had been broken for at least one year before the derailment but were not replaced. The wooden tie under that plate was also in poor condition. Maintenance records also showed that in the eleven months before the derailment, two other broken rails had been reported and replaced in the same 19-foot, 6-inch section of rail.

The combination of the broken plate, broken fasteners and deteriorated tie should have been prioritized for repairs. The report concludes that Division of Track personnel did not identify, document and correct the track defect at that location, either during regular inspections or when the two prior broken rails were replaced. They also did not adequately investigate the underlying causes of the broken rails.

Additionally, the report found that the top of the rail that broke was installed with a 1/8-inch vertical mismatch where the new rail met the slightly worn existing rail. In addition, the metal joint bars used to fasten the two rails together were reused, and one of them had a sharp edge where the top of the joint bar met the underside of the rail head. In addition, one of the six bolts required to secure the joint bar was not present.

To address these issues, the MTA has instituted new procedures regarding broken rails. This includes replacing broken plates and fasteners as soon as possible, and personnel will spend more time inspecting corridors with the highest number of broken rails. The agency will deploy ultrasonic inspection cars, and Division of Track is working to replace bolted joints with continuously welded rail. This should also allow trains to run faster through these corridors. All in all, it’s hard work to inspect hundreds of miles of underground track with trains constantly running over them, but as the MTA is keen to admit, that’s ultimately no excuse.

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An East Side Access drill bit, right, and an F train had an unfortunate encounter today. (Photo: MTA)

When you or I think about a drill bit, we probably conjure up images of something small used to secure some houseware to the wall, maybe 3/4 of an inch. We don’t really think of drill bits on the scale of the East Side Access project, but today, numerous subway riders and the MTA had a close call with a giant drill bit as it pierced a subway tunnel and narrowly avoided an F train with 800 on board.

The Daily News had the story about the runaway 10-inch drill bit:

A contractor operating a drill as part of the MTA’s East Side Access project mistakenly penetrated a Queens subway tunnel on Thursday, and the massive bit scraped the top and side of an occupied F train, transit officials said. Some 800 passengers were aboard the Jamaica-bound train at the time, about 11:45 a.m. Nobody was hurt in the terrifying blunder, but it was far too close for comfort. “That’s a near miss,” an MTA supervisor said, wondering what would have happened if the bit had made a direct hit and punctured a subway car’s passenger compartment. “Oh my God! If it had hit the train, you could forget about it! Of course we are concerned.”

…A contractor working on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s East Side Access project, which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, was operating the drill above ground, roughly at the intersection of 23rd St. and 41st Ave. in Long Island City.

The contractor, Griffin Dewatering New England, Inc., was using the drill to expand a well, said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz. An MTA source familiar with the work said the contractor was at fault. “Some people don’t follow instructions; they drilled deeper than they were supposed to.”

This comes at the end of the week during which the MTA David L. Mayer, formerly of the National Transportation Safety Board, to be the agency’s first Chief Safety Officer. It also comes at the end of the week during which the NTSB ripped into Metro-North, calling last year’s derailments, injuries and deaths “preventable.” For more on that — and criticism lobbed toward the FRA as well — check out Railway Age’s take and The Times’ piece on the press conference.

Much like the drill bit exiting the tunnel today, the only way to go from here is up.

It’s starting to seem like a regular occurrence around here, but the MTA has again announced record monthly and daily ridership, this time for September. The numbers are staggering, and as they filtered throughout the transit community yesterday, various groups issued calls for funding and better representation of an important constituency.

According to New York City Transit, on Tuesday, September 23, the MTA recorded 6,106,694 paying customers. This was the fifth day in September alone that over 6 million riders swiped into the subway system, and it marked the first time since the late 1940s — when the elevateds still loomed over the streets of Manhattan — that ridership hit such a high level. Overall, 149 million passengers rode the rails in September, another figure higher than any time since the late 1940s.

MTA leaders were quick to point out the significance of the figure. Back in 1985, when the MTA started tracking daily numbers, the high peaked at 3.7 million. Now, it’s nearly two-thirds higher. “New Yorkers and visitors alike continue to vote with their feet, recognizing that riding the subway is the most efficient way to get around town,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “This is a phenomenal achievement for a system that carried 3.6 million daily customers just 20 years ago. As ridership increases, the MTA Capital Program is vital to fund new subway cars, higher-capacity signal systems and improved stations to meet our customers’ growing needs and rising expectations.”

Prendergast wasn’t the only one noted the ties between increased ridership and the need for investment in the system. Yonah Freemark noted a connection on Twitter as a few of us were discussing the numbers:

The city’s advocacy groups too picked up the thread. “With more New Yorkers using public transit, we need to guarantee that our system can continue to thrive with the city it serves. These record numbers should be setting off alarm bells for our elected officials in Albany, who will need to find $15 billion in the next few months to fund the MTA’s basic infrastructure and construction needs,” John Raskin of the Riders Alliance (of which I’m a board member) said. “If we don’t continue to invest in our system and build for the future, these strong numbers could represent a peak instead of a trend. It’s vital that our elected officials find the funding needed to support the entire $32 billion capital plan, which represents the least we can do to maintain our system so it can last for years into the future.”

Gene Russianoff and the Straphangers echoed those sentiments. “The rain of riders,” Gene said, “is both an opportunity and a challenge for New York — an opportunity for economic growth that no other American city can even aspire to [and] a challenge to win the necessary capital funds – $32 billion over the next five years – that will allow the subways and buses to handle the millions flocking to the system every day.”

The needs are obvious. The popularity is obvious. The support isn’t there. Somehow, someway, this disconnect between politicians and their constituents who rely heavily on transit needs to be resolved. New York’s future, now more than ever, depends on it.

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It’s been a long time since New York City’s last major collision involving two subway cars and multiple injuries. Despite a few recent high-profile derailments, the 1995 Williamsburg bridge incident in which a motorman on the J trail likely fell asleep and rear-ended a stopped M train in front of him was the most recent deadly crash. The motorman was killed, and scores of passengers were injured. Earlier this month along the 8th Avenue line, Transit avoided the potential for a far worse accident.

The story, as Pete Donohue reported it yesterday, is dramatic and scary. Essentially, an A train operator missed a switch and started heading uptown on the downtown express tracks north of Canal St. and south of West 4th. The failures mounted and only quick thinking down the line and a clear view down the tracks averted disaster. Donohue writes:

A subway operator on the A line recently piloted an express train uptown — on a downtown track — for several minutes before coming to a stop, according to sources. A dispatcher tried to contact the crew by radio after realizing the train had pulled out of the Canal St. hub on the wrong track, and was moving against the regular flow of traffic. But the crew later told authorities they never heard the emergency radio broadcasts, the source said.

The operator only halted the A train after she already had passed through the Spring St. station and spotted the headlights of a southbound express idling ahead of her at the next station, W. 4th St., the source said…

Luckily, the screwup happened on a stretch that, for the most part, is a straight track with good visibility, a veteran motorman said. If the train operator had been going around sharp curves, and wasn’t hearing or receiving dispatchers calling out on the radio, this could have ended with a serious crash, the knowledgeable old-timer said. “She could have had a head-on collision,” he said. “That’s the only way to say it. There’s no nicer way to put it.”

…The A train originally was traveling south when signal problems started causing extensive delays in the system. Dispatchers began rerouting service, and the A train operator was told to was told go back uptown from Canal, sources said. The proper series of steps would have been to empty the train of passengers, pull into a spur track just south of Canal, and then maneuver through a switch to the northbound express track, authorities said. Instead, operator simply went north on the same southbound track, apparently thinking she would soon encounter the crossover switch she needed by going in that direction.

All well’s that ends well. The A train was traveling only slowly northbound and was able to stop well before reaching any oncoming train, and dispatchers were able to halt southbound service as the problem was sorted out. But as the B Division trains — the lettered lines — doesn’t enjoy the same tracking system as the A Division, it’s easy to see how this could have been much, much worse.

It isn’t immediately clear how the TO missed the switch. There’s already an extensive thread on Subchat debating just that question, and many have questioned why the train operator was not more familiar with the set of switches or the fact that she had ended up on the wrong track. Additionally, the failure of the emergency radio broadcasts is a big concern as well. For now, the TO has been assigned to desk duty, and the MTA is investigating. If anything, this incident underscores the need for modern signal and communications system, something the MTA has wanted, but hasn’t been to afford, for years.

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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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Jun
16

A brief thought on the G train

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Last weekend, after spending the afternoon at Kara Walker’s Domino’s Sugar Factory installation and grabbing dinner at Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint, I took the G train back to my end of Brooklyn. It was a pretty easy ride, made easier by the fact that we didn’t have to wait long at Greenpoint Avenue, but when we got off in Ft. Greene, I realized I had left my credit card at the restaurant. So I got to enjoy a bonus pair of G train rides.

The ride back to Greenpoint was frustrating. I was annoyed with myself for leaving my card at the restaurant, and to make matters worse, I caught the tail lights on the G departing Fulton St. as I made it to the platform. On schedule 12 minutes later, the next train showed up, and I had better luck on the way home. All told, it was a fine ride that could have been much, much worse.

The next day, G train service got a little bit more frequent. Based on increased off-peak and afternoon demand, the MTA decreased weekday headways from 10 minutes to eight minutes. This move will reduce wait times across the board and alleviate crowds during the P.M. rush. This measure came about after the MTA, at the urging of the Riders Alliance and Daniel Squadron, conducted a line review, and these folks were happy. “These improvements will help commutes on this important line,” Squadron said, “and hopefully make lives a little easier for the riders who depend on it.”

So the politicians like it. But if you thought this increased service would make G train riders happy, guess again. Based on the reaction on social media, G train riders used this news to complain even more about the early morning crowds and the so-called G train sprint. They demand full-length trains from the MTA — though full length trains for the size of those IND Crosstown platforms would be an utter waste of resources — and they bemoaned that the MTA still doesn’t care about G train riders.

On the one hand, as the G train is seemingly ignored throughout the city, its riders are the ones most vocal on Twitter and New York City blogs. It runs through some hip and hipster neighborhoods but also through some areas without density. It doesn’t have the ridership to warrant longer trains, and the concept of induced demand — for which I’ve argued in the past — does not have evidentiary backing strong enough to warrant the costs of added service.

On the other hand, people sometimes have to run for trains! I have to dash down a few staircases if my train is pulling in as I arrive at the station, and sometimes, I miss a train on the weekends that doesn’t run too frequently. It’s all part of not knowing where my train is at all times, but that’s an issue for B division lines without countdown clocks. What makes the G worse of course is the platform sprint, but unless the MTA starts closing extra entrances — such as India St. — the trains won’t line up with the nearest staircases. The crowding complaints are easier to ignore. Let’s see how G riders would handle a rush hour 6 train.

I’m tempted to say the rider complaints can thus be dismissed, but they should be heard out. In an ideal world, the MTA would have the money and resources to run full trains at peak hours to avoid sprints and placate costumers. But they can’t, and the demand isn’t there. When it is, though, riders should be front and center making their voices heard. Today, the added service — which generally runs on time and fairly regularly — will have to suffice.

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