Archive for New York City Transit

For a variety of reasons, none of them bad, I don’t have the time this evening to write a full post in advance of Monday morning. I’ll have something up later in the day, but in the meantime, I have two important items, one much more serious than the other.

We’ll start with the good: This Wednesday plays host to my Problem Solvers Q-and-A at the Transit Museum on the future of the MetroCard. I’ll be interviewing Michael DeVitto, Vice President and Program Executive for fare payment programs at NYC Transit, and we’ll be discussing what’s next for the 21-year-old card, what will replace it and when. I have a sneaking suspicion DeVitto will not reveal that we’re heading back to the age of the token, but you never know. The 6:30 p.m. event is free, but the Transit Museum requests you RSVP. I’m looking forward to this one.

And now the bad: I didn’t have a chance to give this story its due last week, but there was a major data breach concerning personal information of over 15,000 salaried Transit employees. As The Post reported, the information — including names and social security numbers of current and retired workers — was discovered on a CD-ROM that had been left instead a refurbished disk drive. The MTA is investigating the cause of the breach, and officials have noted that the existence of such an unencrypted disk is a breach of internal policies. So far, the data, as The Post notes, has not been used for “malicious purposes.”

Following the NTSB reports of an 82-mph speed just prior to derailment and a video of the crash’s aftermath, the MTA has released its own B-Roll of the recovery efforts. The agency had to re-rail the cars and move them out. Now, crews have to repair 800 feet of damaged rail before running test trains and restoring service.

In the meantime, bus service between Yonkers and the 1 line will continue on Tuesday. Metro-North service will operate between Poughkeepsie and Yonkers with shuttle buses to the Van Cortlandt Park-242nd St. station. Hudson Line tickets will again be cross-honored on the Harlem and New Haven Lines, and NJ Transit will take Harlem Line takes on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines. There is still no word yet when full service will be restored.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the last FASTRACK of the year hits the F line. Trains will be running on the A between West 4th and Jay St. with shuttle buses providing service between Jay and York Sts. in Brooklyn and between East Broadway and Broadway/Lafayette. This is the first FASTRACK along this stretch of the tunnels, and it’s the last FASTRACK of the year. We don’t yet know what next year’s treatments will be, but I assume this program will continue.

Due to a variety of circumstances yesterday, I had the opportunity to take five subway rides at various hours of the day. My peak-hour trains were packed to the gills, but I also rode an uptown A train in the early afternoon and another uptown E train 90 minutes later that were both tight on space. Everyone, it seemed, was on the subway.

Yet, November 20 paled in comparison with October 24, for that day, according to The Times, was the busiest since the MTA started keeping records in 1985. As Matt Flegenheimer reports, the MTA has determined that 5,985,311 people used the subway that day, a record high in MTA history. It was a perfect storm for record high ridership:

The feat was consistent with a pair of little-publicized trends: Ridership tends to peak on Thursdays, transit officials said, and the last two Octobers are responsible for the five busiest subway days on record — three Thursdays and two Fridays. Before the new high, the record was 5,938,726, set on Oct. 11, 2012.

“October is a month where you have school in session for a majority of the days,” said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the authority, adding that Columbus Day was the only major holiday. “It’s also a month when a vast majority of the working public is at work.”

Thursdays, meanwhile, combine the high peak-period ridership of a midweek morning with an after-work slate of happy hours and late nights out, Mr. Ortiz said. Ridership on Thursdays in 2012 was 2.4 percent higher than the average weekday figure, the authority said. Wednesday was second busiest, Tuesday was third, and Friday — when high late-night numbers are often offset by sleepier rush hours — outpaced only Monday, the typical coda to a long weekend.

If the subways seem crowded, I’ve often said, that’s because they are. It’s hard to read too much into this trend other than as a clear indication that people are using mass transit, but it’s also easy to draw a lesson from increasing ridership. Investment in transit continues to be an important piece of the New York City puzzle. The MTA’s next five-year capital plan is going to be a huge ask, and it needs to come through.

Meanwhile, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio is taking the reins of a city where, on one weekday shortly before Election Day, subway ridership was nearly three-quarters of the entire population of the city. That’s one very large constituency that deserves more than it’s getting.

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Poll: Are you not satisfied?

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In the month of August, 138.7 million New Yorkers rode the subway, with trains seeing 5.113 million riders per weekday and 5.717 million riders on Saturday and Sunday combined. That’s a lot of people. In fact, it’s a new 45-year record high for August for the MTA, and the initial figures for September are even higher.

For better or worse than, a lot of people are riding the subway. Tourists, residents, students, workers, business folk and retirees are all taking the train everywhere, and even as the fares went up in March, so too did ridership. Now, the MTA is planning to increase service across eight lines to better meet peak-hour demand, and ridership shows no signs of slowing down. It is, in other words, a far cry from the subway system of my youth.

New Yorkers ride the trains because they have to do, but complaints are always on the rise — which leads me to question just how much we’re enjoying the service. I marvel at the ability to get around relatively quickly, easily and cheaply, but sardine-like rush hour trains are no joy. The MTA too is interested in rider feedback, and today, they released the results of their rider survey. It ends up that we’re mostly satisfied, maybe.

I’ve always been skeptical of the MTA’s ridership survey. It’s a self-serving poll in which the threshold for “satisfaction” is a 6 out of 10. Batting .600 would make you the best baseball player in the world, but succeeding satisfactorily 60 percent of the time is hardly brag-worthy in other contexts. That said, 76 percent of riders are satisfied with subway service while 77 percent were satisfied with the station environment. Only 67 percent are satisfied with the overall value for the money. To me, those numbers are backwards as the value remains high but the quality of service and especially the station environments is generally closer to adequate.

In terms of security, riders feel safer during the day than at night with 83 percent saying personal security before 8 p.m. is A-OK while 71 percent say the same thing after 8 p.m. That’s up from 67 percent last year, though the bump is within the poll’s margin of error. Rush hour crowding is the biggest problem with only 43 percent of riders feeling good about the crush loads. On the other hand, satisfaction with information about unscheduled delays has hit a three-year high of 69 percent.

Now, based on complaints about the subway, these numbers have always struck me as high but perhaps they’re indicative of a perspective on the city’s transit network. We may complain about the problems, but generally, day in and day out, we get where we need to be on time and with relatively little hassle. (Or else the numbers are inflated. Both answers are quite likely.)

So here’s my question to you: Based upon your daily experiences, are you happy? Are you satisfied? I think I am, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of room for improvement. “Satisfied” is, after all, a fairly low bar to climb.

How satisfied are you with subway service?
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The MTA dropped their latest board committee materials this afternoon, and buried in the 281-page Transit Committee pdf is word of a service increase due to arrive in June. Already, the MTA has announced plans to increase G and M train service, and now we learn that the 2, 3, 4, 5, A, E, F and L lines will see modest bumps in service as well.

The details small, but the changes can reduce waiting times during specific time frames, particularly along the West Side IRT lines. The 2 and 3 trains will see three new weekday round trips each while A service will be increased by two round trips. The rest will see one additional round trip per weekday while Saturday and Sunday L service will be bumped up by four round trips each. In terms of wait times, the changes on the 2 and 3 will reduce average headways from 5.5 minutes to 4.6 during the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m window, and the weekend L train headways will drop from 6.3 and 7.1 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 5.2 and 5.7 minutes respectively. Those are significant reductions during high-volume times from an agency that has long since resisted adding service.

According to the board materials, the service increases are driven by customer demand and the need to meet “MTA Board-adopted loading guidelines.” The changes will cost $4.3 million annually and are in line with the 2014 projected operating budget. The Board need not take any action as this is an informational update, but straphangers will enjoy increased service come June.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Redacted no longer.

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.

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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.

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