New York City’s subway trains are later than ever, and as the MTA Board grapples with these internal findings, the metrics are coming under question. What does it mean for a train to be late? Should we the straphanging public be concerned? Is subway service actually getting worse?
The Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 lines all recorded significant drops in on-time performance in March, the most recent month for which statistics were available, according to figures disclosed on Monday at an agency committee hearing. The numbered lines also performed worse than the lettered lines on nearly every major metric.
Nearly 90 percent of No. 3 trains were marked as “on time” in March 2010; one year later, only 71.8 percent of the line’s trains arrived on time. Compared with a year ago, the No. 2, 4 and 5 lines fell by 14 percent, and the No. 7 line, which has had significant problems because of troubles in its East River tunnel, dropped by 12.2 percent.
Over all, about 81 percent of trains on the numbered lines, including the Grand Central shuttle, were considered on time in March, a 10 percent drop from a year ago. That was far worse than both the BMT and IND lettered lines, the latter of which improved in March from a year ago. A subway train is considered on time if it reaches its terminal station within five minutes of its scheduled arrival.
Some of the board members were not pleased to hear this news. The recently-appointed Charles Moerdler, who has become a vocal member of the MTA oversight body not afraid to ask tough questions, pondered the root causes. “The IRT service continues to be pretty bad,” he said. “What long-term plans do we have to get that service up to snuff?”
Meanwhile, the story has been picked up by amNew York and New York 1, among others. Before we delve into the panic, let’s step back a bit. First, what does it mean to be late? Most straphangers just roll their eyes when told the subways are on any sort of schedule, and the MTA’s own metrics define a train as late if it arrives at the terminal after five minutes of its scheduled time.
In a vacuum, that’s not the most useful measure of anything. Wait assessments tell a better tale, and Transit head Thomas Prendergast recognized as much. “We’re still bound by the principle that evenness of service is by far the most important thing rather than just late, although we’d like to do both,” he said. “But evenness of service is more important because that way you’re having less impact on customers.”
Meanwhile, despite the hand-wringing, these numbers have improved between February and March. Far more 2, 4, 5 and 6 trains were on time in March than in February, and the 6 and 7 didn’t show statistically significant differences in on-time performance. Maybe then the story isn’t that trains are later; after all, a recent change in the way the MTA calculated “on-time performance” could account for the year-to-year difference. Maybe instead the story is off a small but incremental month-to-month improvement.
We’re still left though with the question of the quality of service, and Moerdler put it best. “The public really doesn’t give a damn whether the stats are right, or the stats are wrong,” he said. “If the service ain’t good, it ain’t good.” How ain’t good the service is remains a question without a solid answer.