Home Service Advisories Pondering the way the MTA cuts weekend service

Pondering the way the MTA cuts weekend service

by Benjamin Kabak

Reading these signs is often akin to deciphering a foreign language.

Edited (1:10 a.m., Saturday): Oftentimes, the G train is called the forgotten stepson of the New York City subway system, and last week’s service change illustrated just how the IND Crosstown can suffer. Since the G is no longer running to Forest Hills and because track work halted the run through South Brooklyn, the G train ran from Bedford/Nostrand to Hoyt/Schmerhorn or a total of five stops. Considering the walk from those two stations is under two miles, the MTA could have canceled the G entirely, and few riders would have noticed.

These extreme service changes come as no surprise to the subway’s weekend warriors. For the better part of the last decade, the MTA has used low weekend ridership figures to justify massive service changes that can result in confusing transit patterns. Considering the often convoluted explanations given on the MTA’s own signs, many riders find weekend subway travel to be a painful experience.

Yesterday morning, amidst stories of budget cuts and Homeland Security grants, New York’s two comptrollers announced an impending audit of the MTA’s service changes. Although the authority has to adjust weekend service to allow for capital improvements for a system that doesn’t shut down, Thomas DiNapoli and John Liu are skeptical that such widespread changes are completely necessary. “New Yorkers need the MTA,” DiNapoli said. “But they don’t have a lot of confidence that the MTA is doing its best to provide the service the city needs.”

As the comptrollers are set to explore the MTA’s reasoning behind the service changes and the economic impact of the weekend diversions, MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder spoke about how New York City Transit is planning its own internal examination of weekend service patterns. “I welcome the audits,” Walder said to reporters. It is essential, he said, to evaluate the way the MTA conducts its capital improvements.

As Liu and DiNapoli conduct yet another MTA audit, Transit will undertake its evaluation with three key aspects in mind, said walder. First, the authority wants to maximize the productivity of service outages. When parts of a route are closed, in other words, the MTA wants to take full advantage of the closure. To that end, according to Walder, Transit will explore whether or not it makes more sense to close larger portions of subway lines for a shorter period of time in order to knock out numerous repairs at once.

Noting that New York’s 24-hour subways present more challenges than London’s 20-hour system does, Walder spoke about the differences between the two cities. “If you’re in London and you’re doing track work on the Jubilee Line, do you want me to tell you what the service announcement is on the Jubilee Line?” Walder said. “The service announcement is, ‘The Jubilee line is not running.'” The MTA, he said, would indeed consider a London-style shutdown if necessary.

Beyond those efficiencies, the agency will explore how the workforce is deployed and how it goes about communicating information about service changes to the straphanging public. Right now, weekend riders must piece together the parts of the system that are running in their minds, and the MTA’s own signs and announcements to little to alleviate the more confusing weekend changes. While Subway Weekender produces a weekly map of the service changes, the MTA relies on confusing signs that are subject to change, and Walder spoke of the need for a better presentation of the service advisories.

On a grander scheme, though, Walder stressed the need to focus on the 24-hour nature of the New York City subways. Because people in the city that never sleeps need to travel at all hours, the subways can never shut down even if closures would improve capital efficiency. “It’s a fair question,” Walder said, “to look and say would it make sense to stop running a line for a short period of time and get in there to do a lot of repairs.” The MTA says it would stop only portions of lines and provide shuttle buses to service the closed stations, and I believe it could work.

As the MTA explores how to improve its efficiencies and weekend service, everything is on the table. Maybe the MTA will determine that shuttering the G for one weekend is preferable to three weeks of a five-stop, 1.8-mile run. For now, though, Transit will await the outcome of the Liu/DiNapoli audit before moving ahead with any changes to their weekend plans. “We might out we’re doing it perfectly,” Walder said, ” and we might find out we’re not.”

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Marc Shepherd May 14, 2010 - 8:26 am

For the better part of the last decade, the MTA has used the fact that subway ridership dips significantly over the weekends to justify massive service changes that result in confusing transit patterns and little sense of where to go.

What a muddled post! What exactly is the complaint? That the system needs repair, that they repair it at times of low ridership, or that ignorant people don’t understand why the system needs to be fixed?

So in an attempt to be helpful, the MTA attempts to keep service running in some form, even if it produces unusual service patterns that might require reading a sign or asking for help. Apparently Second Avenue Sagas and John Liu don’t like that.

In ann attempt to satisfy them, the MTA will now consider closing those lines altogether during repairs. Anyone want to take bets that Second Avenue Sagas and John Liu won’t be happy about that either?

Frankly, I think the MTA does a pretty good job of explaining its service changes. They are complicated because the system is huge, some part of it is practically always in need of repair, and the MTA attempts to provide at all times some route—even if it is not an ideal route—of getting to your destination.

It’s a safe bet that anything John Liu complains about is an unhelpful distraction. “Unhelpful” and “distracting” are the only words he knows when it comes to the MTA. I am sad to see this site acting as his enabler.

Benjamin Kabak May 14, 2010 - 8:45 am

Marc: I think you’ve missed my point here, and I’m not saying I support Liu and DiNapoli – who aren’t the ones talking about closing lines. Rather, they’re going to want fewer service changes while Jay Walder himself – not Liu – is the one talking about more shutdowns over a shorter period of time.

Perhaps the post isn’t nearly clear enough on that front, but I think you’re completely misreading my position, who’s saying what, and what is or isn’t being advocated. All I’m sag is that the MTA is examing its service changes and could explore shuttering longer segments of lines for fewer weekends to be more productive with necessary work.

Marc Shepherd May 14, 2010 - 12:32 pm

I think the post vastly over-states the amount of “confusion,” other than what is intrinsically involved in brief modifications to service patterns that are complex to begin with. And I have to think that shutting a line entirely during repairs will bring very little joy to subway riders.

Kevin May 14, 2010 - 9:01 am

FYI, it’s track work in the first paragraph, not track word.

I think the TA could be much more efficient with scheduled track work by piling more crews to do multiple projects with closed sections. They can replace track on one section while upgrading lights or painting and cleaning stations on another section, for instance.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines May 14, 2010 - 9:10 am

[…] We Could Close Lines and Do Track Work All at Once (News, Post, SAS, WNYC, City […]

Tacony Palmyra May 14, 2010 - 9:39 am

The MTA is very mindful of notifying customers that stations will be skipped, trains will stop running at a certain stop, and trains will run on different tracks. But they’re not particularly good at telling me how long the express 2 train trip from 135th to 14th that usually takes 20 minutes will take due to trackwork. Should I add 5, 10, 20 minutes? Then I’m late to appointments when the train ends up crawling through the local tracks as work goes on and my estimation ends up being inadequate.

I also just feel that there’s a general malaise going on with all the service changes on the weekend/late nights. Trains just sit in the stations as operators get onto the platform to talk to each other about whatever it is. It feels like the people running the trains are confused about the service changes themselves.

JAR May 14, 2010 - 4:14 pm

That’s a really good point – time estimates would be helpful.

There should be an MTA equivalent of the Subway Weekender map posted at every token booth. And make the service change signs larger and add a line map to them – that would cost very little, too. People navigate using visuals as well as words, and New Yorkers need a map MORE when there are service changes. They do this for those massive “2 to South Ferry for the 4 at Bowling Green” changes – it wouldn’t be that hard to expand it.

Jonathan May 14, 2010 - 11:18 am

Jarrett from the blog Human Transit is always pounding on the point that operating costs equal staff costs. The MTA has to pay the G train staff whether or not the maintenance people are running. Maybe they can flex them around to cover the inevitable sick days, but how much money would they save by not running the trains?

wayne's world May 14, 2010 - 1:52 pm

I have become increasingly suspicious that these weekend service changes are simply an excuse to cut weekend service. Good questions to ask.

Scott E May 14, 2010 - 2:04 pm

I wouldn’t call it an excuse, but it does make me suspicious when the MTA claims that, by cutting weekend service to what they actually are providing with these changes, they can save money.

Andrew May 14, 2010 - 5:44 pm

Nothing suspicious about it. If the service is in the official schedule, people are being paid to operate it. Crews pick their jobs based on the official schedule, and the official schedule for the weekend G requires enough crews to operate between Church Avenue and Forest Hills. When the line is only running to Court Square, half the crews can’t be told that they’re not being paid today.

The MTA never wanted to officially operate the G to Forest Hills on weekends, knowing that it would almost never run there, but political pressure forced it into the official schedules for over 8 years. Finally, it looks like it’s going to be removed.

Weekend service changes never reduce costs, and they very often increase costs. Think about how many buses – each with its own operator – need to fill in for a single train.

Cen-Sin May 14, 2010 - 5:05 pm

John Liu dropped by my work place a few days ago, but I didn’t figure out it was him until after he left. I would’ve asked him some questions otherwise.

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