Home Asides Proposing a DIY countdown clock system

Proposing a DIY countdown clock system

by Benjamin Kabak

Modernizing the MTA has been one of CEO and Chairman Jay Walder’s primary goals during his year-long tenure, but that effort comes with a price. It is exceedingly expensive to bring 21st Century technology to a 20th Century subway system, and nowhere is that more evident than in the push to bring countdown clocks underground. Billed at $200 million, the current A Division effort covers just 152 subway stations and leaves over 300 without the technology. The MTA has tried a lower cost effort at bringing train announcements to the B Division, but this other system does not come with the benefits of a full PA/CIS system.

Yet, Walder realizes that some information is better than no information, and he’s tried to bring anything online that he can. Earlier this year, for instance, Walder brought on board a class of interns to address the issue of cell service underground, and the project set back the agency just $30,000, far less than a professional consulting treatment would cost. Today, Jonathan Wegener, co-creator of the Exit Strategy NYC app, gets into the act as he suggests some low-cost real-time subway tracking solutions.

By and large, Wegener’s solutions rely on installing sound-detecting equipment on MTA or other private property. One solution calls for using a wifi-enabled iPod Touch’s accelerometer to detect the rumble of passing trains, and another relies on directional microphones to pick up the sounds from ventilation grates as trains go past. He also calls for webcams aimed at the Manhattan Bridge trains or motion sensors at subway entrances that can detect large crowds of people leaving a station. The webcams seem to be the most immediately viable of the four, but Wegener’s larger point is that some creative thinking can identify solutions to seemingly expensive transit problems. He calls for reader suggestions and could generate more potentially workable solutions from those ideas as well. [Back of the Envelope]

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JoshKarpoff November 1, 2010 - 2:43 pm

It really isn’t that hard to do. I did something very similar for a roller coaster that ran multiple cars at the same time at an upstate NY amusement park. One could just use simple hall effect sensors (they detect changes in magnetic fields and are used for many traffic lights to detect the presence of a car). These sensors are cheap and have been used in industrial use for decades. If you space the sensors out at known distances, you can then determine the speed and direction of the train. These combined with a simple radio transponder that inform the system what letter line the train is running as, would give you all of the information necessary to run a full PA/CIS style system. You use off the shelf industrial computers in weather-proof cabinets (these relatively inexpensive computers don’t need cooling).
NYCT and most other railroads and transit systems tend to use railroad specific signaling equipment, from railroad specific vendors, which drives up costs. I’m sure I could build something equally as good using off the shelf components from industrial supply catalogs. I’d put money on a lot of the guts of these new digital signaling systems actually being regular harsh environment industrial programmable logic controllers, with a new sticker slapped on it and a 300% higher price.

Transit Boy November 1, 2010 - 7:35 pm

How would any of these suggestions differentiate between diesel work trains, trains running light, or trains that are running out of order. Anyone can design a system that works when everything is running according to plan. Your money is made when the system is in the crapper.

chris November 1, 2010 - 8:08 pm

well at least the ATS system can let you know if its a train not in service or if its a work train. i am very happy with this system on the IRT lines all of my stations in the bronx and manhatten have them even brooklyn i hope they can do the same for the IND snd the BMT lines soon

Alon Levy November 1, 2010 - 11:00 pm

Yeah, I’m happy with the IRT countdown clocks, too. I’ll be even happier if they roll them out on the IND/BMT on a budget with one fewer zero.

Andrew November 2, 2010 - 8:01 am

No need for any of what Wegener suggests. The signal system already detects trains and can pass that information on to a sign. What it doesn’t know is the designation of any given train – and neither do the signs.

Many stations already have annunciators that beep and light up when a train is approaching. They’re small and low-profile, and they don’t indicate when a train is a few stops away. The B Division countdown clock system is essentially a beefed up annunciator system, with larger and more prominent annunciators.

Alon Levy November 2, 2010 - 3:56 pm

Is there no way to detect the designation of the train by tracking the train to its origin? E.g., if the train that’s near the station originated at Inwood-207th then it’s an A, then if it originated at Norwood then it’s a D?

Andrew November 4, 2010 - 11:30 pm

That would be quite unreliable. Trains get rerouted, and not every train is even scheduled to run from the very first stop on the line. Adding train tracking capability to the signal system would probably be expensive, especially if it has to cover such a great distance.

A more reliable, and possibly less expensive, approach would be to have train operators “punch” to identify themselves every few stations.

chris November 8, 2010 - 10:56 pm

thats why the CBTC and the ATS is the best way of doing this the IRT is so ood it knows what train is on the line from end to end i doesnt matter if the train is rerouted or not a 3 train can be tracked from new lots to 241st the bronx if they send it there to bad they dont have this system on the B div

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