Home MTA Technology Subway arrival boards now five years late

Subway arrival boards now five years late

by Benjamin Kabak

For all its faults, the DC Metro tells riders how long they’ll have to wait. (Photo by flickr user NYCArthur)

Riders in Washington, D.C., know how long they have to wait for the next train. Straphangers in London are told how far away the next Underground subways are. Even Rome, with its graffiti-covered, two-line subway system, has managed to figure out train arrival boards. But not New York.

For years, New York City Transit has announced plans to bring this not-so-nascent technology into the subway system. In fact, they’ve been running a pilot program on the L line for years, and originally, this technology was to be ready for a system-wide roll-out in 2006. After announcing a projected 2009 launch date last December, the MTA has now admitted that the project is five years behind schedule and will not be ready until 2011 at the earliest.

Pete Donohue broke the story:

A project to display real-time train arrival times in 152 subway stations is now behind schedule – by five years. The project, featuring electronic message boards posted above subway platforms, was originally expected to be completed in 2006.

NYC Transit has pushed back that date several times over the years, citing software development problems, technical glitches and other problems. Earlier this week, officials pushed the date back again, this time to 2011. The delays in the $185 million project have frustrated riders and advocates who have seen such information provided in other cities around the world but not here.

“What a drag!” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign. “Riders really want to know when trains are due to arrive and when they are delayed.”

Besides the utter obviousness of Gene Russianoff’s quote, this project has turned into one giant joke. The MTA, for reasons both within their control and without it, have been unable to get a technological project off the ground, and now they’re talking about delaying it for five years. If I delivered something at work five years later, I would be fired.

Right now, we need this system simply to enjoy a modern subway system. But considering the price tag — $185 million — the delay and the fact that we’ve lived without it for so long, I have to wonder if this money wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere at this point. We all know the system could use it.

You may also like


Josh Karpoff September 24, 2008 - 3:30 pm

In all honesty, while the timeline for this project is absurd, the $185 million isn’t too outrageous for a project of this scope.
Just some numbers. Each of those signs is going to cost probably around $10k, because they need to be utterly vandal proof and idiot proof to maintain. Each station is going to need at least 2 of these double sided signs, one for each direction. Some stations with off platforms like on the IRT or some really long IND platforms are going to need like 2 per track. Some of the 152 stations have transfers to other lines, which means more signs.

Then each of these signs needs to be powered and have communications cabling run to it. In order to stand up to the harsh poorly maintained environment, all of that cabling will end up being run in Rigid Galvanized Steel conduit, which is expensive to install. Labor rates for construction work are absurd because of the huge construction boom in the city has caused a shortfall of skilled labor. Plus, all the work probably has to be done at night or on weekends, so its more expensive per hour. Before they can run the conduit they have to do asbestos and lead paint testing, which costs a fortune, and they will almost invariably find both unless the station has had a major overhaul since the 80’s. The remediation is expensive and has to be done by skilled labor who are in short supply and high demand. All of this is done by contractors who have to be either nuts, greedy, stupid or incompetent to deal with the hassles of government work. There’s the OT hours for MTA personnel to babysit the contractors and make sure they work safely around the active tracks.

The communications cabling all has to be run back to some sort of control center, hopefully using existing fiber optic cable. If new cable needs to be run, that’s more cost. Knowing government agencies, the MTA’s computers (if it is even computer controlled, might still be old fashioned relay logic) are almost always woefully inadequate from the day after they were ordered, much less installed. Someone has to reverse engineer how they were programmed from the poor existing documentation and write idiot proof software that interfaces seamlessly with the existing custom software. Unlike most other subways, the MTA has to deal with 3 different legacy systems form the IRT, BMT and IND. Very little was compatible between any of these and I don’t know if it has been totally rectified yet.

So, in conclusion, $185 Million sounds pretty realistic and reasonable.

These are just some thoughts from an experienced electrical designer and projects manager for overly ambitious government projects in New York.

Benjamin Kabak September 24, 2008 - 5:09 pm

I don’t think the price tag for the project itself is too high, but if the project is never going to be completed, I’d rather see that money go elsewhere in the MTA’s budget. They certainly could use it.

Brad September 24, 2008 - 3:48 pm

I’d rather the money be spent on more trains, rather than a board telling me how long I have to wait for the next one — assuming it would even work.

eric September 24, 2008 - 5:07 pm

More trains are the last thing the MTA wants to give to the riding public. There are certain areas that are extremely underserved at nights and on the weekends but the MTA doesn’t care except about Manhattan.

Max September 25, 2008 - 1:12 am

MARTA (Atlanta) and CTA (Chicago) found sponsors to actually PAY them to install these boards by allowing the project owners to use it as advertising space as well. MARTA’s is mostly done and CTA’s is expected to take well under a year, start to finish, with the first boards going live just a few months after project kick-off. CTA has extensive GPS tracking on their buses already. And anyone who knows CTA knows they are a little dysfunctional and in an even bigger budget hole than the MTA.

Here in the NYC reality warp zone, the MTA acts as if this sh*t is rocket science. Jesus.

StationStops.com October 6, 2008 - 10:09 am

I could implement this from scratch on the entire system in 2 years for $20M at a profit, and support and maintain the entire system under outside management for $2M/yr.

Poippemia January 21, 2009 - 9:34 pm

Nothing seems to be easier than seeing someone whom you can help but not helping.
I suggest we start giving it a try. Give love to the ones that need it.
God will appreciate it.

Some A Division stations may get train arrival boards by 2011 :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog October 2, 2009 - 1:27 am

[…] lingo — roll-out was 2006. As I reported last year, the MTA had since pushed back that date to 2011 for a delay of five years. In the latest Q-and-A sections about the 2010-2014 Capital Program, the MTA confirmed that the […]

Next Train Announcement Testing - Seattle Transit Blog February 4, 2010 - 2:48 pm

[…] hate to nitpick, but I’m not a huge fan of the scrolling — it’s possible to legibly encode a lot of information on a small board without doing […]


Leave a Comment