Archive for New York City Transit
Over the past few/10/20/30/50 years, the New York City Transit Authority has engaged in an elusive game of repair. In transit-speak, the agency wants to achieve a state of good repair for its systems and stations, and although trains now run much more reliably than they did in the late 1970s and 1980s thanks to aggressive track replacement and signal work, our subway system’s stations are by and large in bad shape. As many have pointed out, attempting to achieve a state of good repair for a system with nearly 800 miles of track and a soon-to-be 469 stations is a Sisyphean task.
That Greek mythological figure is exactly how the city’s Citizens Budget Commission described the MTA’s effort in its latest report on the elusive State of Good Repair. Released last week, the report [pdf] essentially states what we all knew: The MTA is very unlikely to ever attain a State of Good Repair. Although that’s the headline, though, that’s not quite the main attraction. The MTA is never going to achieve a state of good repair because time keeps moving forward. A state rehabbed 20 years ago will need another overhaul in 15 years, and that’s just the unavoidable truth of a 35-year lifespan. The inefficiencies in the MTA’s progress though are dragging down the system.
More recently, the MTA has admitted that achieving a State of Good Repair is essentially impossible and has shifted to a component-based approach to station maintenance. This way, key elements such as staircases or platform lighting are repaired while other elements that may not affect the customer environment are left to the winds of time. This too has its problems as the CBC report details.
But enough of generalities. Let’s talk about the report. The CBC analyzed the MTA’s component-based approach and found that nearly a quarter of the MTA’s components are serious deficient, and 33 stations — including some high-profile, high-traffic ones — have less than half of their components in an acceptable state of repair. These include 7th Ave. on the Brighton Line and Grand Army Plaza (shown above), two of my local stations, and 16 in Queens, most serving the 7, N/Q or J trains.
With this in mind, the CBC asked if the MTA is allocating enough funding to its State of Good Repair efforts and what else the agency could be doing to speed up State of Good Repair efforts. I found their answers both frustrating and insufficient. For the first question, the CBC questioned the MTA’s prioritizing spending on expansion efforts such as East Side Access or Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway over repair works. To me, this misses the forest for the trees. If New York is to grow and remain competitive globally, it absolutely has to expand its high-speed, high-capacity transit network, and the only way to do that is through subway expansion. We can and have talked about the problem with these capital projects’ costs, but New York City can’t afford a future without an expanding subway network.
On the second issue, the CBC took a look at station repair costs, and it wasn’t pretty. Of the 42 station renovation efforts under the last five-year capital plan, 28 were over budget, and 10 saw their costs double. That’s setting aside the fact that the MTA accomplishes only 8 of these per year. Costs have increased at a rate that outpaces inflation, and the CBC, in so many words, notes that ADA-compliance often costs more than the benefits it delivers.
To achieve cost savings, the CBC urges the MTA to “make effective use” of public-private partnerships — which has proven easier said than done time after time. One of the CBC ideas — subway station conservancies modeled on the Department of Parks’ example. The CBC notes that “appropriate governance” would be required to avoid “inequities among neighborhoods,” but that has not exactly worked out well for the city’s parks. An adopt-a-station program would need aggressive oversight and some sort of redistribution scheme to ensure that those stations in Queens get the same investment as the ones in Midtown.
In a way, the CBC report though ignores what I mentioned earlier: The MTA cannot maintain and achieve a State of Good Repair, and the agency recognizes this. With 468 stations, the work is never-ending, and the MTA has to figure out a way to ensure that funding is sustainable and sufficient for a never-ending renovation scheme that considers a 35- or 40-year useful life. That is, if a station is renovated now, it will have to be re-done in 2050, and stations that were overhauled in 1995 are up for renovation again in 2030.
Meanwhile, the report has led to some interesting examinations of MTA funding schemes. Christopher Bonanos at New York Magazine asked if real estate developers should fund MTA repairs. Playing off of the One Vanderbilt investment in the Grand Central station, he urges real estate developers to pony up money for subway improvements and throws in the carrot of zoning variances or subway-level real estate:
Every giant glass tower that goes up in midtown adds a few hundred occupants (at least) to the grid. Each building increases the load on city services: water, sewer, electrical, transit. Setting aside the big transfer points like Times Square, a local midtown subway stop serves about 20,000 or so riders on a weekday. Add ten new apartment buildings in the neighborhood, and that number of users will go up by a significant percentage. If those buildings’ developers are relying on city systems, they should pay for their improvement. Every giant new tower, or group of towers, should be matched with a renovated station down the block…The MTA could even sweeten the deal by throwing in a lease on some of its own wasted real estate. Some of the giant mezzanine spaces of the A-C-E stations, for example, could easily garage a few shops. Chipotle and Starbucks probably wouldn’t want to be in the grimy stations that exist now — but in fresh, bright renovated ones? Why not? In exchange for building out the stores, the developer would get a share of the rental revenue for, say, a decade.
On the other hand, Rebecca Baird-Remba at New York Yimby cast a skeptical eye at P3s as a be-all and end-all solution for transit funding woes. She feels that New York State requires formal legislation overseeing P3s before the MTA could rely on them for serious transit funding, but ultimately, these one-offs are alluring.
All in all, it’s a tough balance. The MTA isn’t going to achieve a state of good repair, but station repairs should move faster than they do. Again, though, without a serious conversation on cost control and an aggressive cost-cutting initiative by the MTA, we will be paying more for less as the years go by. Even Sisyphus didn’t have it that bad.
For a map showing how your local station stacks up against the system’s worst, check out this interactive overview from the CBC.
Thomas DiNapoli has served as New York State Comptroller nearly as long as I’ve run this site. He’s outlived governors and MTA Chairs alike at this point, but he’s still chugging along. One of the problems I’ve had with his “audits” of the MTA is that, for those who pay close attention to these sorts of things, they aren’t too insightful. He hasn’t identified the key problems plaguing the agency — namely, the insanely high capital construction costs and lack of productivity for the dollars — and his reports generally take public information and condense them into soundbites. His latest audit is no different, but it’s worth spending some time with it and the MTA’s response.
In his latest report — the PDF is right here — DiNapoli took all of the MTA’s on-time performance numbers the agency shares once a month at its board meetings and determined what Transit officials have been saying for some time: The subways’ on-time performance has been dreadful, and it’s getting worse. In 2013 and 2014, Transit had set an on-time performance goal for itself of over 91 percent, but weekday trains were on time 80.5 percent of the time in 2013 and just 74 percent of the time in 2014. Instead of combatting the problem, the MTA has instead lowered its on-time performance goal to 75 percent, far below national average.
“The subways are New York City’s arteries yet on-time performance continues to be an issue,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has actually lowered its own expectations for addressing subway delays. We’re encouraged that MTA has put more money toward improving the ride for straphangers, hopefully it will help improve on-time performance.”
The audit’s recommendations aren’t much. DiNapoli has asked the MTA to identify the sources of delays, come up with a plan to mitigate these delays and then track performance monthly. Yet again, that sounds like something the transit agency already does even if their mitigation plans aren’t particularly effective.
Things got interesting though in the back-and-forth between the New York comptroller and agency officials responding to the audit. Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained. I believe the agency is ultimately correct, but it’s not a point that’s going to win them much sympathy from a public that, by and large, has no idea what “headways” mean. Riders will hear trains are late; nod their heads in agreement; and sigh in exasperation.
Anyway, in response, the MTA highlighted wait assessment as their primary internal metric of even and reliable service and claimed that they already know why trains are delayed. They cited fallout from record ridership, new flagging rules and ongoing maintenance, and unexpected and emergency maintenance as the main causes. “New York City Transit does not have a single policy or directive on reducing delays and improving on-time performance, nor should we,” agency officials said in response. “Providing high-quality service is our central objective, and it is inherent in everything we do…We do not wish to compartmentalize responsibility for improving service performance. Therefore, it is neither practical nor desirable to condense our performance related activities into one policy (or even several policies).”
DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis. Of course, the root-cause analysis should recommend more subway lines and faster upgrade to a technology that allows for more trains per hour. That recommendation carries a high price tag and a multi-year lead time that won’t do much to solve the current problem. Thus, it’s not one designed to appease politicians who must run for office every few years.
Ultimately, no matter how you slice or dice it, performance has suffered, and the MTA hasn’t been able to overcome ridership that isn’t showing signs of doing anything other than increasing. DiNapoli may have pointed out the obvious, but sometimes, the obvious needs pointing out. Is it going to get better? Can it?
Postscript: On the Queens Boulevard Line
While we’re on the subject of delays, riders on the Queens Boulevard Line should gear up for a rough few weeks. Starting on Monday and running through September 4, Transit has to curtail all service along the line for work on the express tracks. The agency waited until 2 p.m. on the day before work is set to start to announce this bad news:
Transit forces are rebuilding sections of the express tracks through this area. Express E and F trains which usually travel at higher speeds will be required to slow to 10 mph through the work zones, reducing the number of trains that can use these lines each hour.
Some E and F trains will run on the local tracks, reducing the number of M and R local trains which can operate on those tracks. There will be no E service to or from Jamaica-179 St; customers should use the F instead and transfer at Union Turnpike. Customers on all four subway lines that use the Queens Boulevard route should expect less frequent service and should plan extra time for their travels.
This vital work is necessary to keep the express tracks in a state of good repair along the Queens Boulevard line, which is the second-busiest line in the entire subway system. The work was scheduled for the last three weeks of summer because it is typically one of the lowest-ridership periods of the entire year.
Even with ridership lower than normal, this work is going to cause headaches for a lot of people over the next few weeks. Delayed service, indeed.
With Carmen Bianco retiring on August 21, the MTA has named Bridge & Tunnel President James Ferrara as interim NYC Transit president. Ferrara likely won’t get the job permanently, but it provides agency continuity as he is a long-time MTA guy. No word yet on the candidates to replace Bianco.
Now, onto the weekend work. These come to me from the MTA so check signs, station announcements, carrier pigeon messages, etc.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, 1 trains are suspended in both directions between 14 St and South Ferry. 2 3 trains run local in both directions between 34 St-Penn Station and Chambers St. Free shuttle buses provide alternate service between Chambers St and South Ferry.
From 3:30 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, August 16, 2 trains are suspended in both directions between E 180 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse.
Free shuttle buses operate along two routes:
- Express shuttle buses run between E 180 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse, stopping at the Hunts Point Av 6 station and 3 Av-149 St.
- Local shuttle buses make all stops between E 180 St and 149 St-Grand Concourse. Transfer between trains and free shuttle buses at E 180 St, Hunts Point Av, and/or 149 St-Grand Concourse.
From 11:30 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, 2 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.
From 6:30 a.m. to 12 midnight, Saturday, August 15 and Sunday, August 16, 3 trains run local in both directions between Chambers St and 34 St-Penn Station.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 7:30 a.m. Sunday, August 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, August 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Crown Hts-Utica Av bound 4 trains run local from 125 St to 14 St-Union Sq.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, 5 service is suspended. Take the 2 4 6 and free shuttle buses instead. Free shuttle buses operate along two routes:
- Limited shuttle buses make all stops between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St, and run express to 149 St-Grand Concourse, stopping at the Hunts Point Av 6 station and 3 Av-149 St (from 3:30 AM Sat to 10 PM Sun).
- Dyre Av Local shuttle buses make all stops between Eastchester-Dyre Av and E 180 St only (from 11:45 PM Fri to 3:30 AM Sat, and from 10 PM Sun to 5 AM Mon).
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Saturday, August 17, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from 14 St-Union Sq to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall bound 6 trains run express from Pelham Bay Park to Parkchester.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, A trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 15, to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, A trains run local in both directions between W4 St-Wash Sq and 59 St-Columbus Circle.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, August 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, August 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Inwood-207 St bound A trains run express from 125 St to 168 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, August 15 and Sunday, August 16, C trains are rerouted via the F line in both directions between W 4 St-Wash Sq and Jay St-MetroTech.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Saturday, August 15 and Sunday, August 16, 168 St-bound C trains run express from 125 St to 168 St.
From 3:45 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 10:00 p.m. Sunday, August 16, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound D trains are rerouted via the N line from 36 St to Coney Island-Stillwell Ave.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, E trains are suspended in both directions between Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer and Briarwood. Free shuttle buses operate between Jamaica Center-Parsons/Archer and Union Tpke, stopping at Sutphin Blvd-Archer Av, Jamaica-Van Wyck, and Briarwood. For additional connections between Manhattan and Jamaica Center, consider the A and J via a transfer at Broadway Junction.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, E trains run local in both directions between Queens Plaza and Forest Hills-71 Av.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Jamaica-179 St bound F trains run express from Neptune Av to Smith-9 Sts.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, F trains run local in both directions between 21 St-Queensbridge and Forest Hills-71 Av.
From 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Saturday, August 1, and Sunday, August 2, L service operates in two sections.
- Between 8 Av and Broadway Junction.
- Between Broadway Junction and Rockaway Pkwy, every 24 minutes.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Astoria-Ditmars Blvd bound N trains are rerouted via the D line from Coney Island-Stillwell Av to 36 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Astoria-Ditmars Blvd bound N trains skip 49 St.
From 12:01 a.m. Saturday, August 15 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Coney Island-Stillwell Av bound N trains skip 45 St and 53 St.
From 11:15 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Manhattan-bound Q trains run express from Kings Hwy to Prospect Park.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, August 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, August 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, Manhattan-bound Q trains skip 49 St.
From 11:45 p.m. Friday, August 14 to 6:30 a.m. Sunday, August 16, and from 11:45 p.m. Sunday, August 16 to 5:00 a.m. Monday, August 17, 36 St-bound R trains stop at 53 St and 45 St.
From 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday, August 15, and Sunday, August 16, Uptown R trains skip 49 St.
The long-running joke about the MTA’s pilot programs is that they never end; they just fade away. Over the years, the MTA has announced a few high-profile pilot programs — a contact-less fare payment system, strip maps in certain stations to aid in navigation — that seem to simply die from lack of attention. Just take a look through these Google searches for some indication of the reasonably good ideas the agency has pushed through the pilot phase only to see fall be the wayside when agency leadership changes.
One of the few pilot programs with legs — and one that survived the end of the Jay Walder Era — concerns trash cans. This program — which is still in the pilot phase after nearly four years — involves reducing trash the MTA has to collect by simply removing trash cans. If there’s nowhere to deposit trash, the theory goes, the vast majority of people will simply take the trash with them until they pass a trash can. Now, some people are bound to litter whether there’s a trash can nearby or not, but the MTA and other international transit agencies have determined that the vast majority of people won’t discard garbage without a can around. It’s an idea that many struggle with but one that’s proven successful.
The MTA first announced this program back in October of 2011, and I was a bit skeptical as I believed the key to eliminating trash was to ban food. But as time passed, the program seemed to work. Coverage in February of 2012 indicated that the agency had less trash to collect and clean from stations without trash cans, and in May of that year, they announced a program expansion. In August 2012, they added eight more stations, and 29 addition stops saw their garbage cans disappear in early 2014.
Now, touting the program’s success, the MTA is going to not expand it but simply continue it for another 6-12 months to study its effect. It’s not clear why so many years of data isn’t enough to merit expansion, but the MTA wants to continue to analyze the program. “This pilot appears counterintuitive but when we placed notices at the pilot stations indicating that the cans had been removed and asked the customers for their cooperation, it looks like they listened,” New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said. “Given these results, we’ll continue the pilot and monitor and collect additional data at stations.”
In announcing the continuation of what has become the MTA’s most active pilot program, the agency noted that garbage collection is down significantly at the 39 stations under review. The early stations have seen bag collection drop by two-thirds while the stations that saw cans removed just last year have undergone a 36% reduction in trash. Meanwhile, overall trash volumes and, more importantly, rat population at stations without trash cans have declined.
“The reduction in trash in these stations reduced the number of bags to be stored and, consequently, improved the customer experience by reducing the potential bags visible to customers as well as the potential food available to rodents,” Senior Vice President of Subways Joseph Leader said. “Additionally, the significant reduction in trash reduced the need for trash pickups in the pilot stations, which freed up personnel for deployment to other stations.”
It’s not entirely clear where Transit goes from here. They still have another 429 stations with trash cans that could be added to this pilot, and they seem hesitant to include any of the popular stations. Flushing-Main St. on the 7 and 8th St.-NYU on the R remain the two most crowded stations without trash cans, and anecdotally, I’ve certainly not noticed a decrease in cleanliness at either stop.
Ultimately, the MTA can’t eliminate all litter without overly aggressive enforcement, but it seems that removing trash cans can cut down on the garbage the agency has to remove to street level from an above- or underground subway system. So why not keep expanding? After a while, pilot programs have to move into the realm of permanence, and this one seems a good candidate for rapid expansion. After all, it’s been nearly four years.
Thanks to a move north for my lawyerly career, my daily commute now takes me through the 51st St. station along the 6, and on the way home on Monday, I caught my first glimpse of the MTA’s latest pilot program. In a public awareness campaign that echoes back to the mid-1990s, Transit is testing two platform designs reminding passengers to get out of the way of those exiting trains. It’s a common courtesy that shouldn’t need to be repeated, but it’s also one that often escapes subway riders who rush to board crowded trains as soon as the doors open.
The two designs employ the familiar green characters from the MTA’s ongoing “Courtesy Counts” campaign and remind riders to “Step Aside” to “Speed Your Ride.” The idea behind the message rests in the MTA’s capacity constraints. The agency has recently reported that a recent jump in delays is due nearly entirely to crowds. As more people try to cram into subway cars, trains aren’t able to speedily move through stations. Thus, the MTA wants to streamline the border process, and in addition to this decal, the agency is trying to use customer service agents to herd passengers.
The design I saw is unique to 51st St. for now, and the pilot in place at one stop north at 59th St. looks slightly different. Consider it A/B testing for Transit:
As my Instagram photo atop this post shows, the installation also comes with signs hanging at around eye level on the platform support beams. I’ve had a chance to see it in action for only one train, and while one passenger was, at first, standing in the middle of the “Keep Clear” area, he moved over once the downtown 6 train arrived.
For the MTA, this slogan is not a new one. They employed it in 1996 to decidedly mixed results. A New York Times column expressed skepticism while a short AP story from early 1997 illustrated how nearly all riders simply ignored it. But times have changed, and the MTA is hoping this pilot will yield some improvements. Whether it survives the pilot stage — unlike those handy strip maps — remains to be seen. For now, though, it is apparently the best the MTA can do to help improve crush-load subway operations without an infusion of dollars in the billions. What that says about our hopes for an easy commute is something we best not dwell upon.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.