Home MTA Technology A long wait with information-less info boards

A long wait with information-less info boards

by Benjamin Kabak

Let me tell you a story about my ride home from Bowling Green on Tuesday night and the MTA’s ability to bring new technology into the fold. The story begins at around 10:30 p.m. when I alighted from the Staten Island ferry and made my way to the 4 train. I was riding a familiar route — from Bowling Green to Nevins St. on the 4 and then from Nevins to Grand Army Plaza on the 2 or 3 — that should take 15-20 minutes. Instead, it took 40.

I didn’t have to wait long at Bowling Green tonight, and after a minute, the 4 arrived. We sped through the Joralemon St. tunnel and left Borough Hall quickly. Right before pulling into Nevins St., though, the train came to a stop, and I saw the red taillights of a 3 pulling into the station on the local tracks. Barring a kind conductor, I knew we’d miss the 3, and as the 4 finally pulled into Nevins St., the 3 was pulling away.

It was 10:43, and I wasn’t happy to miss the 3. I wanted to get home, but I assumed the next local train wouldn’t be far behind. After all, trains run frequently down the 7th Avenue line. When I glanced at the countdown clocks, I knew we were in trouble because the next local train wasn’t due to arrive for 20 minutes.

So I waited, and I stewed. While I understand the culture of on-time performance that pervades the MTA is a strong one, customer service should, as I’ve written before, be a priority. Customer service means that, at 10:45 when no local will be arriving until after 11 p.m., the 3 should be wait an extra 30 seconds for a connecting express train at a popular transfer point.

As I sat for 20 minutes, I had ample opportunity to reflect on how utterly in the dark those of us waiting were. Because Nevins St. is a leak spot for cell service, I could check Twitter but saw no reports of problems along the West Side IRT routes. Instead, six 4 express trains, including the one I was on, passed us in 20 minutes. Transit opted to make none of those trains run local, and we the customers were left sitting on a platform for far longer than we should been.

While I waited, I took note of how utterly devoid of information the brand-new, $171-million Public Address/Customer Information Screens were. Instead of announcing why the trains were delayed or telling us that the first local train to arrive would in fact run express from Atlantic Ave. to Franklin St., the PA/CIS signs were generally stuck on this screen:

As the picture makes clear, nothing about the sign is helpful. On the one hand, there’s a train in the station, but the sign says the next train is two minutes away. On the other, it’s simply scrolling the same rote message about suspicious activity in the subway system that gets rammed down our ears every five minutes. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed the PA/CIS system stuck on this message. A few weeks ago, the signs at Grand Army Plaza sufferd from the same fate; it was stuck on the police message and neglected to note that trains were entering, leaving or approaching the station.

When not stuck on the train message, the information given by the boards was simply inaccurate. Take a look at this shot I grabbed as a train pulled into the station:

Unfortunately, for those of us waiting, the 2 train was indeed 17 minutes away, but the next 4 was much closer. In fact, three 4 trains filed by during the 10 minutes seen here. The PA/CIS board last night had nary a clue, and again, this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed these problems. On July 31, the signs at Nevins St. were frozen. The top line read “1. Woodlawn 4 0 min.” while the bottom line said, “System Under Test.” Even as trains entered and left the station, the sign wouldn’t display the correct train information. Sometimes, it would flash to the correct information but would again cycle back to the frozen frame even as a 4 was note zero minutes away.

For now, Transit can and has claimed that the system is still undergoing tests. When I asked a few weeks ago during the July heat wave about countdown clocks that had been turned off, Transit officials told me that the extreme underground heat had them worried about potential damage to equipment. Shutting them down seems to be a makeshift solution at best, and that doesn’t explain away the buggy behavior.

Across the globe, transit systems as old or older than New York City’s have used countdown clocks for decades, but the MTA is still struggling to get its PA/CIS project in order. Still, the customers seem like an afterthought, and tonight, as I waited for a Brooklyn local train and then waited some more and then finally got home 45 minutes after swiping in at Bowling Green, I understood why people don’t think the MTA is truly going their way.

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Ant6n August 18, 2010 - 2:10 am

I think the real issue here is that there does not seem to be an emphasis on ensuring connections. I can see that during rush hour when the schedule is tight, and the next train will come soon; but once the frequency is low those missed connections are hard to excuse.

I’ve just looked at similar issues in my suburbs, where transfers between hourly services are not properly timed, meaning that people might actually get stranded for up to an hour — how’s that for a dreary wait.

The information display issues will probably be resolved sooner or later (not actually living in New York, I might be much less cynical though) 😛

Christopher August 18, 2010 - 5:53 am

As a Deaf person, I probably depend on electronic message boards more frequently than others. I actually think that NY does a fairly decent job — well at least okay, especially in train — than others. Basically though, they all suck. DC, SF, Chicago — they all have wrong information, with guesstimate arrival times, ghost trains, and repeated boilerplate instead of actual current announcements. And if in DC, their one travel board per platform is practically useless. At least it’s really big — advantage having those huge vaulted ceilings.

One area that I wish NY would invest in is bus display systems — and here DC and Oakland and SF are better — street names appear on the screens as you move up the streets. And in DC anyway, the buses have all been retrofitted with the new system. I assume this all feeds into their NextBus system. (Something needed when often a bus arrives only 2x an hour.)

But the lack of real information about changing conditions — beyond boilderplate like “trackwork” or “expect delays” — seems to be universal and very frustrating. (A trip home from the Bronx this weekend had several delays on the 5 getting from 174th to Grand Central. I have know I idea why that was. I call this the Zen of public transit: I am not in control, just let go.)

Ron August 18, 2010 - 12:22 pm

Couldn’t agree more with the lack of information in DC. Sure during rush hour the times are pretty good, but there is no information about delays or trackwork. So a train may be 10 minutes away normally but actually 20 minutes away because of track work.

AlexB August 18, 2010 - 8:40 am

With 20 minutes to wait, I think I would have walked from Franklin or Atlantic

Kid Twist August 18, 2010 - 9:54 am

Or gone upstairs to try my luck with the B41 bus.

Benjamin Kabak August 18, 2010 - 10:09 am

Usually, I’d walk or take the bus, but I was in no hurry last night and I wanted to grab some shots of the countdown clocks. I’ll call it reporting 🙂

Andrew S August 18, 2010 - 8:44 am

That’s what I was thinking as well.

Al D August 18, 2010 - 9:08 am

This is the same story at Kings Highway on the Brighton Line, sans the countdown clocks. For many years, and likely still today (except for the current station rehab project), there would be plenty of times when there’d be express after express after express after express, with no local in sight (You can see down to Ave H). It was dark, it would be about 25 degrees, the wind whipping on the exposed platform. You think they would send 1 express on the local track (There are switches just south of the station) for the lousy 2 stops, Ave U & Neck Rd? Nope…

It seems that instead of going for a keep it simple, stupid solution, the MTA has once again spent probably 10x more money on a fancy countdown system along with the inevitable bugs and quirks that accompany such a system. Why? Because they could, I guess. So, now the maintenance contracts for these systems will also cost 10x as much from now until ? along with reduced reliability.

On the L, they have yet to correct certain messages. For example, when a train is going to skip a stop, the platform announcement mistakenly says, “The next arriving L train on the Manhattan-bound TRAIN will not stop.” Huh?

Kai B August 18, 2010 - 11:29 am

Hah, I love that announcement – the wrong word aside, you hear entire platform full of people cursing.

Overall I’ve found the displays on the L to be very accurate, but it wasn’t always that way. They were pretty buggy at the beginning too.

Mike August 18, 2010 - 12:19 pm

I once got what I call the hat trick. was on an F coming from Queens to Manhattan. the display was:
– for the E train
– in the wrong direction
– not updating as the train moved

BrooklynBus August 18, 2010 - 12:58 pm

This is why I am suspicious of all this new technology. A lot is promised and when it happens we are disappointed. I do not know what the issues are regarding the MTA, but if you drive, it’s the same story. During the past five years, electronic information signs have popped up along many highways at a hefty cost. Yet I’ve yet to be helped by any of them. Here are some of the problems: 1) they are displaying public service announcements, probably because they are malfunctioning, 2) the delay information appears to late once it is too late to change your route; 3) the info is inaccurate — it shows delay but when you get there, traffic is moving quicker than where the sign is posted; 4) sign says traffic is moving smoothly at X spot, but when you get there, you are delayed; 5) sign says delays between exit 31 and 33, so you figure it is a short delay and you don’t change routes but when you get to exit 33, sign now says delays from exit 33 to 37, at 37 it says delays exist to 41. Now if at 31 it said delays from exist 31 to 41, I would have chosen an alternate route. These highway signs are totally useless. I only hope the MTA signs aren’t just as useless.

Paulp August 18, 2010 - 1:13 pm

For those of us with a long, matbe not so long, memory remember the electronic direction signs in the mid-late 1980’s? MTA never did stress tests on them and they literally fell apart. Hopefully these signs won’t go the same way or at least as quickly.

MadPark August 18, 2010 - 1:42 pm

Take heart, New Yorkers! Our one year old single line train “system” from downtown Seattle to the airport still does not have accurate countdown clocks, written signs or verbal announcements – this in the land of the world’s riches person and his company. Can any city on tyhe US do this correctly?

Sasha August 18, 2010 - 3:45 pm

I hate to point this out to you, considering your other line of blogging work, but last night all of those extra 4 trains were likely due to the Yankees game finishing 2 boroughs north. Your point about local service, customer service, signs, etc, are all very accurate however.

Benjamin Kabak August 18, 2010 - 3:48 pm

I thought about that, but post-game, only 1 out of every three 4 trains run into Brooklyn. These were coming too regularly to be anything more than just regular season, and one of them could have run local to fill the 20-minute gap.

Sasha August 18, 2010 - 7:50 pm

That’s a great point, I wasn’t aware of that fact.

Seth R August 18, 2010 - 5:27 pm

Hey man, UI work in software, and the truth is that it will definitely take a while to work out the kinks in the system. The good news is that once you have flexible networked software like that, making a slight adjustment or improvement is extremely easy and cheap.

Be patient, this stuff will get better and better and better throughout it’s lifetime, the first months are bound to be troublesome. This is the case with the FIND displays too.

ferryboi August 18, 2010 - 8:49 pm

Ben, why didn’t you just drive from Staten Island to Brooklyn? You could have made the trip in about 15 minutes. It sucks to commute from one borough to another at that time of night, don’t it?

Of course the billions of dollars raised by charging tolls into Manhattan would create a wonderful, fast, clean subway system where the MTA will miraculously spend every penny wisely, and trains will run every 5 minutes all day and night. Excuse my skepticism, but I’ll stick to my Chevy and the VZ Bridge, thank you.

BTW, in honor of you I took the ferry to work tonight. Shouldn’t take me more than 90 mins to get home via subway-ferry-bus 🙂

Andrew August 18, 2010 - 11:12 pm

You’re addressing three issues here: holding for connections, delay management, and “countdown clock” signage.

On the first, NYCT policy is that off-peak trains are supposed to wait for connections, unless doing so would make a late train even later. I don’t know if that 3 train was running late, but if not, then it should have waited for the 4. Many conductors don’t seem to bother waiting for connections even when they’re supposed to. Have you written to the MTA about this incident? It would be nice if the conductor were reminded of the proper procedure.

On the second, I agree that one of those 4’s could have been sent local. That’s a dispatching decision, and it will only happen if a dispatcher is aware of the problem. Perhaps with the Yankee game finishing up, the dispatcher was preoccupied with other issues and simply didn’t notice the problem coming down the west side. Again, I’d suggest reporting this to the MTA.

On the third, there are clearly some imperfections in the signage system. I don’t know why the signs only show two lines of text, but seeing as they do, both lines should be showing train information at all times, especially at stations where a single sign covers trains on two tracks.

Andrew August 18, 2010 - 11:14 pm

One more thing: once you realized there was a delay on the 2/3, why didn’t you get back on the 4 to Atlantic Avenue to get to the Q? That’s one of the real advantages to having information about when the next train is coming: if there’s a delay, you can find out about it in advance, when there’s still time to consider other options.

ChrisC August 19, 2010 - 7:00 am

They could run all lines at headways of 5 minutes or less at all times (or at least from about 6am – 2am) so we would never have to worry about long waits for the subway. That’s what they do in Toronto. There scheduled headways on the subway are never longer than 5 minutes on any line 7 days a week (though there is no service from 2am – 6am).

Nah, that would make too much sense. Better to have shitty service levels with long waits between trains.

Andrew August 19, 2010 - 8:14 am

Great idea! Obviously, it wouldn’t cost anything at all.

Sara Nordmann August 19, 2010 - 9:30 am

The real question is this–Why were you in Staten Island? 😉

Chris August 19, 2010 - 11:45 am

For real info, I listen to the subway dispatchers on a handheld scanner and headphones. Try these frequencies:

IRT 161.190 MHz
BMT 161.505 MHz
IND 161.565 MHz


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