Archive for New York City Transit
I’ve been mulling over the Straphangers’ report on the state of platforms during the past few days, and one thing in particular has jumped out at me. The MTA’s reaction seemed to flippant, and it’s bothered me.
“The items in the Straphangers report highlight elements that would be extremely costly to keep in perfect condition and would do little, if anything, to either improve service or make stations safer. We have to prioritize projects using available funds to address the most pressing needs first.”
Now, I don’t begrudge or envy the MTA the choices it has to make, and when push comes to shove, I’d rather have trains running regularly with the knowledge that the signal system won’t fail rather than luxury stations. But on the other hand, I question the belief that well-maintained stations would do “little, if anything, to…improve service.” Well-maintained stations may not make trains run more frequently or faster, but the overall experience would certainly be enhanced if stations weren’t, as the Straphangers put it, “grim” and “dirty.”
While musing on this topic over the weekend, I found myself running errands in Midtown, and my route home took me through the Herald Square subway station. After surveying the scene and spending a few minutes waiting for my Brooklyn-bound Q, I wondered if this station is one of the worst in the system. This is the third-busiest subway station in the city with over 37 million riders passing through the turnstiles last year. Just one block away from Penn Station, it is a main transfer point between the Sixth Ave. and Broadway lines, provides a connection to PATH and hosts millions of Macys-bound shoppers every year. It should be a nice station, but it’s not.
Renovated in the 1970s and updated again in the 1990s, the station is not in particularly great shape. Low ceilings create a cramped atmosphere, but that’s not a solvable problem. That the ceilings are dirty, that trash piles abound, that water damage mars support columns and station walls, that a not-insignificant number of homeless people count that station as a semi-permanent residence, that it generally just feels unkempt — those are solvable problems.
By presenting Herald Square as it is, the MTA gives off a dismissive aura regarding station environment, and if Herald Square is a dump, imagine how some stations along the Sea Beach line that barely crack a few thousand riders per weekday look. The image is one of neglect, and if people view their surroundings and see neglect, they are less likely to feel comfortable or at home. Rather, they are more likely to be just as dismissive, whether it’s with their trash or their willingness to embrace transit as a viable transportation alternative. It’s a lesser version of the “broken windows” theory and one focused around aesthetics and environmental cues.
So what’s the solution? I realize that the MTA’s money is limited, and I realize the challenges they face in keeping stations clean and well-maintained. It’s a Sisyphean task that requires patience and dollars, lacking on the part of New Yorkers and the MTA respectively. But the MTA need not dismiss station presentation so out of hand. It’s a problem in New York and one that isn’t replicated in similar subway stations. London and Paris, for instance, have figured out a solution, and maybe it’s time for the agency in charge to figure out a way to prioritize some modicum of station presentation so this isn’t a common sight.
In discussing the MTA’s 20-year dream of having open gangways in its next generation of rolling stock yesterday, I mentioned the capacity constraints facing the system. These new trainsets are vital to increasing capacity because, as Toronto claims, they can bump up ridership by 8-10 percent with an investment that happens every few years due to normal wear and tear. The MTA doesn’t need to spend billions on the slow process of building subway lines when it can add space simply by redesigning its rolling stock.
According to the 20 Year Needs Assessment, the MTA is well aware of the capacity constraints the system faces and the problems the agency faces in attempting to address this issue. In a section toward the end of the document, the agency discusses solutions to capacity constraints, and it’s a point worth exploring here. Essentially, there are a series of key choke points in the system, including the Queens Boulevard Line, the West Side’s IRT line (and some switches in Brooklyn), the L train through Northern Brooklyn and the F and M in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. How can the MTA solve these problems?
Off the bat, the agency recognizes a simple but dismaying truth: Mega-projects are not a short-term answer. “In identifying solutions for these choke points in the subway system the MTA needs to be cognizant of the long time horizon that “megaproject”-type solutions require. For example, the currently under-construction Second Avenue Subway took nearly 10 years to go through planning, engineering and required environmental analyses, and will take nearly the same amount of time for construction of its first phase. This schedule makes it difficult for megaproject-sized strategies to address current or anticipated transportation needs in a timely manner.”
The answer is full of buzzwords and involves “additional strategic solutions that make the greatest possible use of existing bus and subway lines to meet the evolving needs of an ever more mobile population.” Here’s how the document puts it:
In addition to regular state of good repair maintenance and regular replacement of power, signals and track, there are needed upgrades to the existing subway system to support additional system capacity. Critical among these is expansion of Communications-Based Train Control. Currently available on the L line and being installed on the 7 line, CBTC will allow more frequent train service on crowded corridors such as the Queens Blvd. line.
Maximizing the benefits of CBTC, however, may require fleet expansion to provide more frequent train service, which in turn may require more yard space for train storage and maintenance, as well as increased power generation capacity for the busier subway lines.
Other strategies which may alleviate hotspots may include:
- Corridor analysis studies to better analyze specific travel trends and identify cost- and time-effective capacity improvement efforts.
- Rebuilding critical subway junctions where lines merge and separate (such as the Nostrand Junction on the 2/3/4/5 lines) to maximize train throughput and reduce delays.
- Rebuilding constrained terminal stations (such as Brooklyn College/Flatbush Terminal) to address capacity choke points.
- Restructuring existing service to maximize throughput.
- Expanded Select Bus Service utilizing dedicated bus stop,s off-board fare collection and limited stops to provide alternative travel routes in congested corridors.
I worry about the inclusion of Select Bus Service on this list because it’s not really a substitute for improving and streamlining subway service. If anything, it’s a complementary to subway service and should be used to get people from underserved transit areas to subway stations. Without a massive increase in the number of buses on the road, Select Bus Service cannot be a substitute for improved subway service.
Still, we’re left with a list of unsexy but necessary investments. Without multi-billion-dollar expansion efforts that a decade and a half, at best, to go from proposal to reality, the MTA has to find incremental improvements somewhere, and CBTC and switch rebuilds are going to become a need rather than a luxury. We may dream about open gangways and reactivated rights-of-way, but it is here in these efforts that the needs of the 20-Year Needs Assessment come into focus.
If the headline seems familiar, well, that’s because it is. Five months after inherting the role on an acting basis, Carmen Bianco was officially named President of the New York City Transit Authority today. MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast opted to keep his right-hand man in the role after a nationwide search, the MTA said.
“When I returned to New York City Transit, Carmen was my pick to head the Department of Subways because of his extensive background in safety, his management skills and his vision of guiding the system into the future,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Carmen is a leader with lengthy mass transit and railroad career experience. He understands the issues, is an advocate for the customer and will remain someone the employees can depend upon for support.”
Bianco, a 30-year industry vet with extensive experience at Transit, Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, is largely credited with spearheading the subway’s recovery after Sandy. He has also played a key role in developing the FASTRACK maintenance program and various other technological innovations. His pick isn’t much of a surprise and should maintain the status quo and forward progress we’ve seen from Transit in recent years.
New Jersey Transit’s response — or lack thereof– to Hurricane Sandy is seemingly the gift that keeps on giving. Nearly ten months after the storm, thanks to one diligent Garden State newspaper, we now have a much clearer picture of how New Jersey Transit’s plans were simply ignored even as their own internal models badly under-predicted the looming storm. No one has yet to be held responsible, but Jersey politicians are starting to focus their rage on the rightly beleaguered transit agency.
By now, the backstory is getting familiar. The agency suffered through $450 million in damage to its rolling stock when officials made a slew of mistakes including, as I mentioned, erroneous storm modeling. Claiming that their emergency preparedness plans dictated such a decision, NJ Transit moved trains into vulnerable areas but released fully redacted documents when pressed for their storm plans.
In May, The Record sued for access to the non-redacted version of the plans, and this week, they won. The headline of the resulting article says it all: “NJ Transit didn’t follow its own storm plan.” Karen Rouse had the details, and I’ll excerpt at length:
Newly released internal documents show NJ Transit had a plan in place for moving railcars and locomotives to higher ground as Superstorm Sandy approached, raising further questions about why the agency left hundreds of pieces of equipment in low-lying locations in the storm’s path, resulting in millions of dollars in damage. Only after The Record filed a public-records suit did the transit agency release a 3½-page copy of a hurricane plan prepared four months before the storm that advised transferring commuter trains to several upland sites. Nowhere did the plan recommend what NJ Transit ended up doing: moving millions of dollars worth of railcars and engines to a low-lying yard near water, where they were inundated by Sandy’s storm surge.
The NJ Transit document stands in stark contrast to the more detailed hurricane plan prepared by New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, which, taking into account concerns about global warming, enabled the transit system to move the vast majority of its trains to higher ground, saving all but 11 of its railcars from flood damage. The damage to 343 pieces of NJ Transit equipment in low-lying yards in Kearny and Hoboken — 70 locomotives and 273 railcars, a third of the railroad’s fleet — is estimated at $120 million. The damaged equipment also included seven railcars and seven locomotives owned by the MTA that NJ Transit stored in Kearny, site of the agency’s sprawling Meadows Maintenance Complex.
The “NJ Transit Rail Operations Hurricane Plan” prepared in June 2012 directs NJ Transit’s train crews to move railcars and locomotives “from flood-prone areas to higher ground” in the event of a hurricane or severe tropical storm. The plan is brief, but it lists more than a half-dozen locations where equipment is to be moved. Commuter railcars and locomotives used on the Main and Bergen lines would be stored in the Waldwick Yard, according to the plan. Equipment serving the agency’s Hoboken Division would be stored in the Bergen Tunnels under the Palisades. And cars and engines serving the Atlantic City Line would be moved to a yard in central South Jersey.
Yet, for reasons the agency has declined to explain or discuss, NJ Transit crews stored trains at the Kearny Yard and left others in Hoboken. Both yards occupy low ground near bodies of water and both flooded in the storm surge. Neither was mentioned in the hurricane plan as a place to relocate equipment in a storm emergency.
New Jersey Transit officials refused to comment, but other New Jersey politicians were more than willing to share their thoughts. “It is unconscionable that someone could get away with it. If I squander $100 million, the governor would be the first person to fire me,” Upendra Chivukula, Deputy Speaker of the State Assembly, said to WNYC’s Alex Goldmark.
Chivukula is one of many high ranking New Jersey politician to call for an investigation into NJ Transit’s practices and an ouster if necessary. He believes Executive Director Jim Weinstein should resign over the way the agency responded — or didn’t respond — to the threat of Sandy. “The process for finding out who made the decision, if that’s the key factor, should not be difficult for the governor,” he said. “The poor decision making process under the Governor’s jurisdiction should not tolerated.”
It’s long been a no-brainer to me. New Jersey Transit ignored their internal procedures and ignored the warning signs. The mistakes were costly, and no one has been held responsible yet. Being stronger than the storm means being ready for the storm and taking responsibility for failures.
The MTA is set to invest in a few minor initiatives that could improve the subway experience for its customers, according to a short report in today’s Daily News. Pete Donohue and Matthew J. Perlman say that Transit is set to attack rodents, cleanliness and passenger flow at some of its dirtier and more trafficked stations, and the effort, if successful, could lead to some improvements in the quality of life underground.
The Daily News report was light on specifics, but the broad contours are there. Transit will be hiring more cleaners to sweep up dirty stations and track beds while also aggressively targeting rodent extermination efforts. “This is no small-time effort,” an anonymous source told Donohue and Perlman.
The more intriguing aspect of this plan, though, concerns passenger flow. According to the story, Transit plans to “reconfigure the placement of MetroCard vending machines in hubs where long lines slow down riders heading to and from trains.” This could be a real game-changer at stations such as Herald Square or Times Square where Metrocard Vending Machine lines snake their ways in front of access points and turnstile queues, and it shows some forward thinking for an agency that often has to be prodded in that direction. I’m reaching out to the MTA for more information on this effort, but keep an eye out for some movement at the more crowded stations around.
After conducting a full line review of the G train this year, the MTA will increase nine additional trains to the much-maligned ride during the afternoon rush hour but will not allow for free out-of-system transfers. The agency will also implement a series of changes to reduce the impact of the so-called G Train Sprint and will work to improve operations to ensure that wait times along the IND Crosstown line are consistent. Despite these victories, though, the G train’s chicken-and-egg problem remains.
“The G line is a vital connection for customers in fast-growing parts of our service area, and this review will be an important tool for making both short-term improvements and long-term additions to our service. We are pleased to be able to take these steps to improve service for all of our G train customers,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in a statement.
In conducting the review — which is now available online — the MTA found facts that furthered their own talking points but also discovered ways to improve service. Notably, the agency continues to maintain that, despite significant growth in ridership over the past decade, overall ridership lags behind the rest of the system. This is my aforementioned chicken-and-egg problem. Ridership has grown despite infrequent service in relatively poorly maintained stations, and ridership hasn’t grown more because of the lack of connections to other lines and the long headways.
Yet, despite ridership that the MTA says falls within their load guidelines, the agency will add nine additional trains to the line between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. each day, reducing headways from 10 minutes to a more manageable eight. So then why is the MTA adding this service? The report says doing so will help with “service irregularities resulting from the merge with the F.” Reducing headways to eight minutes will allow the G to better interact with the F — which has peak headways of four minutes. As an added benefit, the increased service will reduce travel times those riders who have to make transfers. The service increase is contingent upon additional funding totaling $700,000.
Additionally, to improve the customer experience, the MTA examined the G train in the context of its longer platforms. The builders of the IND Crosstown line were ambitious in their construction efforts as they built out giant stations for stations will low ridership. To save costs, the MTA runs shorter trains, and regular G train riders often have to sprint down long platforms to each trains. At nearly every station, the MTA will adjust where the G train stops to better allow for access to the more popular exits and entrances. The appendix materials detail the changes, and for many, the G Train Sprint will become a thing of the past. By the end of 2013, the MTA will also post signage indicating where along the platforms G trains will stop.
Finally, Transit will make some operational tweaks to better distribute passengers as well. Train doors will remain open for longer at Court Sq., and platform benches will be moved to align with train doors. Scheduled holds at Hoyt-Schermerhorn will allow for regular service too.
But despite these increases, the report is notable for what it rejects as much as for what it promises. The MTA will not lengthen G trains. Calling 600-foot trains a “misallocation of resources,” Transit says longer trains would lead to less frequent service. Transit will not increase A.M. peak hour service frequency or off-peak trains either. The biggest rejection though concerns out-of-system transfers.
Transit advocates have long asked for free transfers between the G at Broadway and the J/M at Lorimer St. and the G at Fulton St. and the rest of the subway system at Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center. Noting that such a walking transfer would take nearly seven minutes, the MTA cites operational and revenue concerns in rejecting the transfer:
Given current ridership patterns, an estimated 4,000 trips per weekday would be eligible for a MetroCard walking transfer, slightly under half of which use pay-per-ride MetroCards, which would result in an estimated annual revenue loss of $1.34 million with restrictions to reduce multiple trips for the price of one entry, and $7 million without these restrictions. Given the density of subway stations in Downtown Brooklyn and the heavy commercial activity in the area, restrictions would not clearly distinguish between transfers that improve connectivity and entries for a second trip that use the walking transfer to avoid paying a second fare. A significant portion of these “transfers” would likely be stop-overs by riders who travel to the area and then, within the MetroCard two-hour time limit, re-enter the subway at Fulton St once they are done with their activities.
The same analysis holds for Lorimer where MTA estimates revenue loss ranging from $770,000 to $1.1 million. On the flip side, though, the MTA has a budget of $13.8 billion, and the report pays short shrift to the fact that nearly 50 percent of riders — those without unlimited cards — are charged two fares to make these transfers. The debate remains ongoing.
Politicians and members of the Riders Alliance who have pushed the MTA to make improvements heralded the results of the study. “Now G train riders will be en route to much-needed relief that may one day lead to the G meaning great,” Senator Daniel Squadron said. “These recommendations will allow the G to keep pace with skyrocketing growth in Brooklyn and Queens – and make the notorious G Train Sprint a thing of the past. Increased frequency, shorter wait times, and better communication will go a long way for many riders.”
“Over time, the recommendations outlined in the MTA’s review of the G Line will greatly impact the quality of service for thousands of daily commuters. I applaud the MTA for a thorough assessment of the G and for putting a plan in action that will almost immediately alleviate some of the difficulties riders had pointed out,” Senator Martin Dilan said.
The executive shuffle at New York City Transit continues in the wake of Tom Prendergast inheriting the MTA’s top job. Joseph Leader, a 27-year Transit vet, will assume the role of head of Department of Subways, taking over for Carmen Bianco who was recently named Acting President of Transit, the MTA announced yesterday. Leader will report to Bianco as Transit officials remain focused on repairing the damage Sandy inflicted on the subway system.
“The subway system faces enormous challenges in order to continue to meet the primary objective of providing safe and reliable service to 5.4 million customers each day,” Leader said in a statement. “This must be done even while we continue to invest in critical system maintenance and conduct a massive rebuilding effort in the wake of Superstorm Sandy…Having witnessed up close, the damage caused by Sandy, I am well aware of the work that remains.”
Leader comes to the Senior Vice President spot after serving as the Chief Maintenance Officer for Transit with oversight of track, infrastructure, elevators & escalators, electrical systems, and engineering and electronics maintenance. Now, with Maintenance of Way under his purview, he should make sure those deficient structural inspections are improved.
As Tom Prendergast transitions from his role atop New York City Transit to his new job as MTA CEO/Chairman, he has named Carmen Bianco as the Acting President of the nation’s largest mass transit system. Bianco, the current Senior Vice President of Subways at Transit, has 30 years of transit experience under his belt and will lead the agency as Prendergast engages in a nationwide hunt for a permanent president.
“I have tapped Carmen for this assignment in recognition of his leadership skills, his knowledge of our system and his proven ability to take the lead during an extremely challenging period,” Prendergast said in a statement. “Aside from NYC Transit’s regular operations, Carmen will also be guiding us through a major rebuilding period to bring the system back from Sandy’s damage.”
Bianco will continue to usher the subway system through its post-Sandy recovery efforts. Even as service to the Rockaways is set to resume early this summer, the system faces challenging maintenance problems as saltwater erosion takes over. “We have a lot of work to do, but we will not lose sight of our primary goal: maintaining and operating a system that provides safe and reliable service to those who depend on NYC Transit’s buses and subways,” Bianco said in a statement. “I have the greatest team in the world supporting me, and their contributions will be critical to achieving that goal every day.”
For fans of subway ridership data, this time of year is always a joy for it is when New York City Transit unleashes the 2012 station-by-station ridership figures. We can see which stations are the most crowded and which have enjoyed big bumps in riders. We can drill down on Sandy’s impact on subway ridership — Queens, for instance, saw a bump of only 379 total riders over 2011 — and we can see which subway stations are losing riders. The data, in other words, is tremendous so let’s dive in.
First up, we get the usual suspects. In the MTA’s glance at the top overall stations, only one station from the 2011 top ten fell out of the list. Times Square, with over 62 million riders, and Grand Central with just under 43 million, occupied the top two spots with Herald Square, Union Square, the two Penn Station stops, Columbus Circle, Lexington at 59th St., Lexington at 86th St., and the 53rd St. station filling in the rest. The 53rd St. station, in fact, hopped over Flushing-Main St. to claim the tenth spot, and for the first time since 2009, the top ten most popular subway stations are all in Manhattan.
Now, that’s the boring stuff. I certainly know how crowded Times Square is; I see it every day on my way too and from work. The real story here though is that ridership at Times Square jumped by 2.4 percent and has increased by 3.5 million since 2007. The sheer number of people entering the system that is practically off the charts.
While 2.4 percent increase in riders is impressive — it’s well above the systemwide average of 0.9 percent over 2011 — it pales in comparison with some stations seeing massive growth. I always find more interesting to list these stations instead. Maybe we can see partners relating to New York City development or transit usage in certain areas; maybe we can see the impact of a nearby station closure forcing straphangers to hoof it a few more blocks.
To start, I usually weed out stations that were closed the year before. Elder Ave., for instance, saw growth of 168 percent in 2012 over 2011, but that’s because it was partially closed the year before. So which station took home the crown? That would be one whose need I’ve questioned before: 21st St. on the G train. Ridership at that station jumped by 28.7 percent last year, but it’s still just the 405th most popular station. In other words, only 13 stations have lower ridership, and most of those are on the Rockaways. In fact, many stations along the G train witnessed high growth, including Beford/Nostrand and Flushing Ave. with increases over 6 percent and Fulton St. with a jump of over 8 percent.
Another station showing intriguing and obvious growth was Rector St. In the weeks after Sandy, as straphangers streamed from the ferry terminal to the nearest 1 train station, overall ridership eventually jumped by 15 percent at Rector. Howard Beach, the A train’s terminal since the storm, also saw entrances jump by 15.7 percent as well. Other notables included Carroll St. (due to the nearby Smith/9th Sts. closure), Queensboro Plaza and New Utrecht Avenue.
Finally, the last bit of interesting information concerned the Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center station. The arena opened during the last weekend in September, but its first three months were enough to help push ridership up that station by nearly 800,000 riders or 7.5 percent. I’d imagine we’ll see even more of an increase after a full year of arena customers.
I’ll probably be breaking down some additional numbers over the next few days. The weekend ridership figures in comparison with weekday totals help highlight popular nightspots and the biggest 9-to-5 job centers. For now, feel free to peruse the raw data for annual riders right here. See anything particularly interesting?
With the arrival of FASTRACK on the J line this evening, every Manhattan trunk line has gotten to enjoy the pain and benefits of the MTA’s new maintenance program, but media coverage has been nearly non-existent. Since an initial burst of concern over longer rides for those using the subway between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., the media has largely reported the outages with none of those “straphanger-on-the-street” quotes. Although I’m usually skeptical of such coverage, maybe it has a point.
As the MTA has trumpeted FASTRACK, we’ve gotten a laundry list of accomplishments. We’ve heard about bags of debris, pounds of scrap, ties replaced, drains cleared, third rail cleaned, pumped rooms treated. We’ve also heard bits and pieces about station environments. Last week, for instance, at the Lexington Ave. local stations, crews replaced 36 signs, over 1400 station light bults and 57 square feet of floor tile. Considering the state of the MTA’s stations, though, that’s not a considerable amount of work, and riders are starting to notice.
One reader sent me the following about Queens Boulevard a few days ago, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard such sentiments:
I live along the Queens Boulevard line and I happened to get off at Queens Plaza last night. Except for the condition of the rails and trackbed, which looked nice, the station didn’t look at all rehabbed. There were still leaks coming from the walls, and that one area of the station (back of the Manhattan bound local track) where it looks as if the pipe has been leaking forever and the wall is damaged. I am not to sure what the main goals of FasTrack seem to be as far as infrastructure that doesn’t have a short term effect on service but the station was rehabbed in the last few years and I’m wondering why these weren’t fixed.
Now, the purpose of FASTRACK isn’t to fancy up stations. It takes a concerted, long-term effort to do that, and FASTRACK’s raison d’etre involves the hidden infrastructure that runs the system. Yet, it’s always felt like an incomplete program to me because that forward-facing element is missing.
When the MTA takes something away from us, it’s easier to swallow if they give us something in return. For instance, a fare hike that’s accompanied by a service increase is far more acceptable than a fare hike accompanied by either nothing or service cuts. Likewise, if riders are suffering through longer rides, closed stations and inconvenient commutes especially during the already-unreliable overnight, they expect something in return. They want those dingy stations cleaned up and repaired. They want those leaky pipes sealed. They want something more pleasant than what they have now.
For the MTA to realize this desire, FASTRACK would have to be reconceptualized. It has to become something with a notable forward-facing component. It has to offer up tangible improvements and not just online laundry lists of accomplishments. When the next MTA capital campaign features spending on the signal system, the MTA should be able to deliver countdown clocks on the B Division in return. That’s the kind of trade-off that would make FASTRACK more acceptable in the eyes of the public even if we know and recognize that may not have been the agency’s original intentions.