Home MTA Technology MTA’s fiberoptics network already obsolete

MTA’s fiberoptics network already obsolete

by Benjamin Kabak

Transit's new countdown clocks are a welcome addition to the system, but the technology infrastructure behind them is already out of date. (Photo via New York City Transit)

The MTA’s not-so-new fibers optics-based communications infrastructure is already out of date even before the system is fully operative, the Daily News reports today. Work on the network, which cost $370 million is $76 million overbudget, first started in 2000 — eons ago in technology years — and will be completed later this year.

The countdown clocks are its public face, but behind the scenes, as it improves internal communications and emergency response preparedness, the system already needs an upgrade. “Due to technology evolution and other factors, many components in this network are at or nearing their end of life,” one authority document obtained by the News says.

Donohue has more:

In the document, a request for information, the agency asked technology companies for advice on designing a “next-generation” communications network and fixing shortcomings with the existing one, which is up and running in much of the subway system.

The MTA on Tuesday stressed the existing network – called ATM/SONET and designed by Siemens Transit Technologies – is functioning and carrying beneficial data, like next-train arrival times, at more than 100 stations…

MTA documents say existing problems include:

  • Some of the equipment no longer is being made, which could make it more difficult and costly to maintain or upgrade.
  • The network may not have enough capacity for remote viewing of the growing amount of video from surveillance cameras.

“This will put a large strain on [NYC Transit’s] current network, which was not originally designed to support the video capacity needs,” the October document states.

The numbers on the cost overruns are both staggering and unsurprising. The first phase of the project is four years behind schedule and $36 million over budget. The second part will cost $40 million more than expected and isn’t delivering the same public benefits — in the form of countdown clocks — that Phase 1 provided.

James Vacca, the chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, had some words to share. “Delays don’t just add millions of dollars to projects. They also lead to products that are obsolete even before anyone hits the ‘on’ switch,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

The problem with any technology project is that the product is often obsolete before anyone hits the “on” switch, but in this case, the delays have led to litigation and headlines for years. Now, as Donohue notes, the promised safety benefits of this project may go unrealized without further investment. It is, in every sense of the word, one giant snafu.

It’s worth noting too Vacca’s point. The MTA must get its capital house in order if it wants to find a way to fund the rest of the current five-year plan and close the $10 billion gap. When this project was first contracted out, Virgil Conway was the MTA Chair, and sense then, Peter Kalikow and Dale Hemmerdinger have come and gone. It’s tough to provide oversight with so much change at the top.

This is exactly the situation though for which Jay Walder was brought to New York. The countdown clocks are a welcome addition to the system, but the technology behind it with its behind-the-scenes uses will have to be maintained and brought in line with current technology standards. That is so small task indeed.

You may also like


Judge March 2, 2011 - 12:44 pm

I’m curious as to what manner of components of the MTA’s network are obsolete or not being manufactured. I would think the fiber optic cables are good; the bottlenecks are probably the transmitters, receivers and switches, a relatively cheap upgrade using COTS.

Billy G March 2, 2011 - 1:04 pm

It depends on the grade of fiber used. They may be hobbled by water peak if they used old fiber and need to add wavelengths. Water peak can impact the range and power required to transmit an entire range of wavelengths. Sort of like a cataract on an eye.

Nathanael March 3, 2011 - 2:13 pm

I’m also curious about the details of this. In general, it’s fine to keep using obsolete technology (the twisted-pair copper serving the phone line to your house is totally obsolete, but who cares?).

What parts are difficult to replace? I can’t imagine that the fiber optic cables are bad, I’m sure most of them still work just fine.

Marc Shepherd March 2, 2011 - 1:33 pm

We need to unpack the elements of this story.

First, the project is late and over budget. This is not a story at all, but rather, the norm for all of the agency’s large capital projects. I’m not excusing or defending this, merely pointing out that it has become the expectation, rather than the exception.

Second, even if this project had been completed on time and under budget, the network would be obsolete by now, which is a reflection on the speed at which technology changes, and not on the MTA itself.

Pete March 2, 2011 - 2:39 pm

There are lots more costs that are a part of this contract that are not included because they are added on later but should have been addressed in the original 2000 contract. 1. the TA tried to patch the new SONET fiber into the old 1990 fiber system even though their audit in 2000 of these cables showed that there were unacceptable losses and couldn’t support more data. They went ahead anyway and various subsequent contracts for millions more have been done to correct these problem fiber areas and more will have to be done just to fulfill the A division contract. This was part of the Lockheed lawsuit against the TA for their CCTV contract debacle. This is a big reason there is no live CCTV feeds at the Rail Control Center. 2.They are now spending millions to properly air condition the undergound electronic equipment rooms. A fix for the problem of the equipment overheating in the summer was presented to the TA in 2003-04 which was rejected is now pretty much the exact fix they are retrofitting on all the comm rooms underground that were either built or renovated for millions of dollars in 2001-03 to support the SONET contract.

Nathanael March 3, 2011 - 2:14 pm

Thanks for the details. So this is a case of not listening to the auditors, is it?

AlexB March 2, 2011 - 2:43 pm

Thanks Marc, I think those are important points.

Was the fiber optic installed as a part of the countdown clock installation or for a variety of other data transmission needs? It does seem off that fiber optic cables wouldn’t be able to handle video from a number of cameras. Did they think they only needed it for the countdown clock info? There are some bits of critical information missing to explain this completely.

Regardless, if they already installed the cables, I’d think there would be a place for more or different cables.

Pete March 2, 2011 - 7:07 pm

The countdown clocks use very little data and can be carried over copper phone lines and from what I hear most of them are being carried over copper instead of fiber. The SONET fiber optic system when proposed in the late 1990’s was one of the most forward thinking projects for the TA in the last 30 years. It was designed to carry all communications for the TA through this fiber including the countdown clocks and the PA system, the Computer Based Train Control System, the Automatic Train Control system, all the booth communications, the fare control systems, part of the police/fire emergency radio system and the CCTV live feed camera systems. The failure to put in new fiber into the critical areas in Manhattan and prepare the comm rooms for the high temps from all the added equipment is part of the scandal. This why the TA had to run a seperate fiber optic line along the L line for CBTC and are preparing to do the same for the #7 line. This is adding millions to the cost of both CBTC projects. The other scandal is why didn’t they listen to in-house people who brought up these problems and solutions instead of their high priced contractors and consultants.

Scott E March 2, 2011 - 2:56 pm

There are two issues at work here. One, as Marc says, is very true — equipment goes obsolete, but that’s part of the evolution of this equipment, and new equipment is pretty much backward compatible. If a particular Ethernet switch is replaced by a newer model, nobody says you can’t have both models in the network. But this newfangled technology is so strange and confusing to NYCT that they don’t want to learn how to mix and match. (Yet, at the NYPD, Chevy Impalas, Ford Crown Vics, and hybrid Ford Focuses can coexist peacefully side-by-side).

The other is an issue of timing. The video screens like the one in the picture above came with a manufacturer’s warranty. But after hanging idly for years from subway ceilings across the city, the warranty had expired by the time they were first plugged in. Some of them may have arrived DOA, and might have been replaced at no charge by the manufacturer. Nobody can tell at this point anymore.

The tensions between technology and transit :: Second Ave. Sagas March 7, 2011 - 12:58 am

[…] between the MTA’s system and technological investments. Last week’s stories on the supposedly obsolete fiber-optics network and the NYPD’s communications problems highlight that […]

Peter July 23, 2011 - 1:08 pm

Now the whole network is down because it’s too hot. This can affect the video cameras as well.


Leave a Comment