Home MTA Technology Over budget, arrival boards now due April 2011

Over budget, arrival boards now due April 2011

by Benjamin Kabak


Train arrival boards at Nevins St., seen here last December, will remain unused for four months longer than originally anticipated. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

When we last checked in on New York City Transit’s plan to bring train arrival boards to New York, the $200 million project was set to debut along the IRT’s numbered subway lines in December 2010. At the time, Transit warned that this date was “subject to the successful resolution of contractual issues,” and I called that language a big red flag.

Unsurprisingly, then, Transit’s efforts to bring this much-needed and decade-old technology to New York City are officially delayed. This news was hidden in the copious amounts of material the MTA Board put online in advance of Monday’s committee meetings, and Michael Grynbaum gently broke the news this evening.

Grynbaum’s story focuses around the three Bronx stations that will see their train arrival boards activated next month as part of a preview. Considering, though, that these signs have been in use along the L line since 2006, that’s hardly the big news. The delay is though, and he writes:

Still, riders may want to hold off celebrating just yet. Last month, officials said they hoped to install all clocks at 152 subway stations by December 2010; that is now expected to be April 2011.

And while the No. 6 line, with 700,000 rides a day, is the city’s busiest, the stations selected for next month’s rollout are some of the sleepiest. On average, those stations — Brook Avenue, East 149th Street and Longwood Avenue — each carry about 4,500 rides each weekday, fewer than 3 percent of the rides handled at Grand Central…“Work was completed first at those stations, that’s why they will be the first to be turned on,” said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit.

There is, of course, more bad news. When I first wrote about the train board project in early October, the Transit documents alleged a cost for just this IRT rollout of $171 million. Now, Transit is estimating the costs of installing this system at the 156 A Division stations at $199.6 million.

Documents say that the budget increase of nearly $30 million is due to “increased…labor costs, in-house construction, consultant services and additional work orders.” The contractors, says Transit, “believe this estimate is sufficient for current work in schedule barring any unforeseen developments.” The MTA, it seems, specializes in unforeseen developments.

And so we continue to wait for a service riders in Washington, D.C., London, Paris and even Rome have enjoyed for years. We wait for Transit to drag its 105-year-old system kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. We wait for not even half of the stations to receive a simple notification system. We still don’t know when or if the B Division will receive these boards, but for now, as with most other MTA projects, these arrival boards are behind schedule and over budget. No one is too surprised.

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Scott E November 17, 2009 - 8:45 am

Any idea who’s designing or installing these? Clever Devices seemed to do a good job (as far as I know) on the 34th St. buses. Granted, it’s a more difficult task to track where trains are than buses, but they seem to have the expertise. I’ll bet the bus project (at no cost to MTA) was just positioning them to be a savior when today’s story inevitably broke.

John November 17, 2009 - 10:04 am

I would have thought it would be easier to track trains than buses. How do you figure it’s the other way around?

Scott E November 17, 2009 - 11:08 am

Logistically, you should be right, since the speed of a train is more constant (no traffic). But buses can use a standalone GPS system to determine its location. For subways, the system would need to interface with track circuits, signal systems, and communications networks to find out where the train is — making coordination and cooperation between different groups that much more difficult. Its also easier to build something like a bus shelter on the sidewalk than it is to run cables and conduits around moving trains in a crowded underground subway station.

John November 17, 2009 - 12:12 pm

But don’t they already keep track of the location of all the trains? I would try to interface that with the signs somehow. But with buses, they’re just out on their routes, but “command central” doesn’t (yet) track their exact locations.

Ray November 17, 2009 - 11:15 am

For what it’s worth, elements of the Clear Devices system are already integrated in the New NextGen Orion buses that NYCT is purchasing. The trial is simply adding on additional functionality to the system in place. This is why the 34th street corridor works, it uses the new buses exclusively. The train system is entirely different and dependent on upgraded signal technology. Which I believe is what is really the source of the delay.

AK November 17, 2009 - 11:24 am

I want to clear up a misconception that people have about the 34th street pilot program. I live on 34th Street and the posted times are based on the SCHEDULE, NOT the position of buses via GPS. This is stupid, for obvious reasons. First, the sign will simply read “Due”, sometimes for up to 10 minutes, when a bus is delayed. Second, buses often show up “early”, especially late night when they have flown by other vacant bus stops (of course, after 11 PM, the signs are not operable and simply read, “No scheduled routes”, which doesn’t make any sense– after all, it is in the evening when the signs are most needed, since the schedules are at their leanest).

Some of you may be skeptical, but trust me, I live on the street and see these signs EVERY DAY. They are not, to this point, connected with GPS monitoring. They merely recite the scheduled times. With any luck, this will change soon, since, as Ray pointed out, the buses are designed for GPS monitoring.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2009 - 12:31 pm

Here is some background that I think I can say is not “inside information” for those who have read capital plan documents.

In DC and the other examples, you have one route going down one line, so track circuits can be used to tell when the next train is coming. NYCT could have done that years ago. But NYCT has multiple routes running on the same line, merging and diverging. Someone heading for the Brighton Line wouldn’t be satisfied with knowing there as a 6th Avenue Express train coming, which might be a West End D.

So NYCT went to install ATS first, a complicated system that would identify each train (based on something like an EZ Pass) as well as its position, help control the switching interlockings, swipe the train operators in and out, provide operating and service data, etc., replacing lots of administrative personel. Instead of a simple system. And, the copper wires couldn’t handle all the data, so a new fibre-optic system had to be installed.

The first projects, for the A division (IRT), went years late and way over budget. Among other things, the field offices for the project were in the World Trade Center when it went down, causing lots of administrative and software work done to date to be re-created from back-ups. A separate NYCT organization had been created to manage information technology work. It started over-running its budget, and in a rare display of government accounability, was eliminated by the NYCT President. That had to disrupt the project as well.

I left NYCT years ago, but I assume the ATS and fibre-optic projects eventually finished, with the communication system now coming up behind. But is the B division even started, and can it be financed?

(On CBTC lines, the new CBTC system replaces ATS, which is how the L train info system moved ahead).

Max November 17, 2009 - 1:33 pm

DC has multiple routes on the same track as well. There are various methods to identify the location of trains, with and without integrating with the current signal system.

ATS was a major hold-up in NYC, but the real problem was disputes with the contractor, Siemens.

ATS is in progress on the B-division but there are no plans for the arrival time boards.

Joe November 18, 2009 - 2:14 am

Max is right. D.C. is a good example of interlining and their signs show which train is arriving on the track.

E. Aron November 17, 2009 - 1:40 pm

Given this information – the complexity of the installation, the enormous cost, and what seems to me to be a tiny benefit (knowing when a train is coming after one has already paid for a ride as opposed to the current system), is this a worthy endeavor, given the amount of issues facing NYCT?

I will continue to say that it is not a worthy endeavor and that the money could have been better spent. The illusion of the allure of a “modern” system with train arrival boards does not outweigh the compelling need to address the decrepit state of NYCT infrastructure in certain parts of the city that is of pressing concern. I can think of the ceiling collapse at the 181st St. station as a prime example of a basic issue that should have been addressed long ago. It’s not the last time something like that will happen. Brining all the infrastructure up standard is not a sexy campaign, but, to me at least, it logically precedes, in both importance and investment strategy, installing luxury services like train arrival boards.

John November 17, 2009 - 2:29 pm

If you read Larry’s post again, you’ll see that ATS does a lot more than just allow for arrival boards. In a sense, it’s just a side effect of it. But I agree they need to look at physical infrastructure more closely too.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2009 - 5:51 pm

“ATS was a major hold-up in NYC, but the real problem was disputes with the contractor, Siemens.”

Siemens is also the ATS contractor, replacing another contractor who won the bid but was unable to do the project. Siemens didn’t do so well either, and perhaps is looking to make up its losses on the new work.

How come all their stuff works in Germany?

Along the B division, a cheaper countdown clock :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog February 17, 2010 - 12:02 pm

[…] as countdown clocks — have been slow to come to New York. Yet, the agency is now engaged in a $200 million project to bring those countdown clocks to the A Division stations — that is, the city’s numbered […]


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