Home MTA Technology Technology and the law of unintended consequences

Technology and the law of unintended consequences

by Benjamin Kabak

Countdown clocks at Bergen Street offer a glimpse into the MTA's true headways.

As regular readers know, I am a big supporter of the MTA’s new countdown clocks. In fact, outside of those people who rabble over money spent on something they personally deem superfluous without understanding the rationale behind the expenditures, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t find the countdown clocks calming. We know how far away the next train is; we know the trains are moving closer as time ticks away; and we no longer have to deal with the mysteries of waiting and peering into darkened tunnels.

Yet, the countdown clocks allow us to sneak a peak at the MTA’s operations, and now and then, we see things we do not like. Let me tell a story that I’ve told in various forms before. I wish I didn’t have to keep repeating myself, but this type of incident happens far more regularly than I would like.

To set the stage, it is Friday night at 11:38 p.m. I have just taken the 4 train back to Brooklyn from Yankee Stadium, and I am hoping that I won’t need to wait long for a connecting 2 or 3 train that will take me to Grand Army Plaza. When we slowly pass Hoyt St., I can see the countdown clocks threatening a 13-minute wait until the next 2 train is due to arrive, and I hope that there is a train at Nevins awaiting connecting passengers.

When we pull into Nevins St., I get my hopes up. There’s a 3 train across the platform, but the 3 train has its doors closed. At that hour of the night and with the next train so far behind, I had hopes that the operators would grow less worried about adhering to the MTA’s fantasy idea of a schedule and more concerned with customer service. Instead, as the doors on the 4 open, the 3 train pulls away. So much for those poor saps who have to get to Bergen St., Grand Army Plaza or Eastern Parkway. Instead of waiting for 12 minutes at Nevins, I opted for the 20-minute walk back home from Atlantic Ave.

To me, there is nothing quite as frustrating as watching a local depart as an express pulls in when nighttime headways at their worst. We’ve heard frequently from the MTA about improving on-time performance, but as I’ve said in the past, on-time performance means little if customers aren’t inconvenienced by it. On Friday night, more than a few of us sighed audibly or cursed under our breaths as that 3 train pulled out. We were inconvenienced by it, and because of the countdown clocks, we knew that the next local train would be an interminable 12 minutes away.

Enter the law of unintended consequences. In the days before countdown clocks, I likely would have waited for that next 2 train, growing more and more impatient with every passing minute and thinking ill of the train operator who left us stranded at Nevins. With the countdown clocks, I could better plan my trip home, but I also knew with certainty that the local train should have waited 20 extra seconds for a connecting express because the next train wasn’t particularly close.

Meanwhile, the countdown clocks gave me a glimpse of the MTA’s true headways as well, and I’ve noticed this problem with some frequency. Ideally, headways at 11:40 p.m. on a Friday at Nevins St. would be around 8-10 minutes per train, and technically they are. There is, however, a catch. The countdown clocks told me that the next 2 train was 12 minutes away while the next 3 was 17. Two trains in 17 minutes makes sense, but no trains in 12 minutes doesn’t. When different routes — in this case the Flatbush Ave.-bound 2 and the New Lots Ave.-bound 3 — share a track, the headways might sound convenient, but often, bunching happens. The countdown clocks lay it all out there for everyone to see.

Ultimately, my trip home lasted a few minutes less than it would have had I waited for the next train, and I was able to take a nice walk on a warm evening to let out my frustration. But with technology that allows us to see just when the next train is coming, the MTA should ask its train operators to think about customers when its late at night and headways are long. The extra few seconds would make for many more satisfied customers.

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Stewart June 13, 2011 - 8:01 am

This decision-making aspect of the countdown clocks is the part that the MTA doesn’t seem to get. If they did, they would have prioritized the express stations, so people would be able to choose between the local that is there and the express that is coming. Also, putting the information outside the station lets people choose between taking the train or the bus or walking or a cab. At 34th Street – Penn Station, the hope was that the countdown clock signs could tell me whether to go to the express platform or the local platform. This would be better served by two separate displays – one for uptown, one for downtown, rather than the single combined display.

It’s nice to know the next train is 4 minutes away. It’s useful to be able to take action with that information.

Chris G June 13, 2011 - 8:19 am

As much as I agree with your post Ben, do we know that the train operators actually have access to the same data that is on the platform? I honestly do not know, but it’s possible the train operators do not know for sure how far back the next train is.

R. Graham June 13, 2011 - 8:35 am

They don’t have that access. But the conductor can see one of the signs on the platform if he/she is paying attention. And if they really are getting the corner of their eye open for anything then even they can see that 4 train rolling into the station. However what could have happened is since it was a R62 3 train what most conductors do is close the back and then the front before making sure the back is closed and before the front has shut down they already turn the key returning control to the Train Operator who knows of nothing going on with the express track. If that is the case then too late.

This is where good Tower operation or in this case rail operation comes into play. They know the 3 is at Nevins and they know the 4 is rolling into the station. For what reason why they wouldn’t throw up the holding lights for the 3 so a connection could be made is ridiculous when they would definitely do it during the evening rush.

Sharon June 14, 2011 - 11:48 pm

this is where the train crews need to have all the information they need inside the train when in the past they had ZERO info

Furthermore the screen should be up front in the drivers cab on the same screen the operator should use to view if anyone is stuck in the door

IE dump the conductor and let the operator due both jobs with the technology to do it better and cheaper

tacony palmyra June 13, 2011 - 9:15 am

It’s interesting to see what happens with the countdown clocks when operational irregularities (which are more common than they should be) happen, such as when a train blows through a station without stopping (I assume to make up for being late). It seems like these trains are included in the countdown clock about half the time, making me wonder if the conductor has access to some kind of button to go stealth and take the train off the clock? Sometimes they’re thinking to hit the button, sometimes they’re not?

One big annoyance is that the countdown clocks sometimes get stuck with a stupid announcement message in the second row of text while a train pulls into the station. So if I run down as a local train is pulling in I see “(1) Van Cortlandt Park–242nd 0 min” and the 2nd row is another message. Should I get on the 1 or wait for the express? I have no idea how long until the express comes. Worthless.

Joe June 13, 2011 - 10:12 am

The operator never makes those decisions, the Rail Control Center would be the people able to remove the train from the displays.

AK June 13, 2011 - 9:37 am

“those people who rabble over money spent on something they personally deem superfluous without understanding the rationale behind the expenditures.”

And then there are those who think that the massive hole in the capital budget and ongoing operational deficits necessitate hard choices to be made and we’d rather debt service be spent on decreasing headways than on clocks which, at $173 million (for the clocks and PA modernization, NOT the signaling system, which cost an addition $210 million), seem a tad expensive.


As one person interviewed in this piece remarked, ““Trains coming more often would be better, but knowing when they’re going to come is a good thing.”


And when we don’t even have enough money to do one of those two good things, we have to prioritize. Should the MTA have dedicated funding streams that can’t be raided by Albany? Of course. Should we have East River tolling and congestion pricing? Yes. But until we do, it is incumbant on the MTA to make tough choices.

Nora June 13, 2011 - 10:01 am

Do you ever find that the countdown clocks are inaccurate? I’ve begun to realize that when I leave work (from the Brooklyn Bridge station), I sometimes see that the clock will say no trains are coming for five minutes or so, but if I hurry up to the platform, often a train is just pulling in. In this case I do better pretending the clocks aren’t there.

Joe June 13, 2011 - 10:13 am

Not sure how NYC does it, but in some cities (Berlin is one I can think of), the trains disappear from the clocks when there is not enough time for passengers to “safely” walk to the platform from where they are. So if you’re walking through a connection tunnel and there is a sign showing what trains are at the platform at the end of the tunnel, the displays will “hide” trains that are less than say, two minutes away, to keep people from running for it.

John June 14, 2011 - 12:29 am

I have noticed particularly with Brooklyn Bridge and not at many other stations, that the countdown clocks are wrong here (I usually take trains uptown from this station). Maybe it has to do with the 6 turnaround? It always says the 4 and 5 will be 10 or 12 minutes, but they are (pleasantly) surprisingly early every time.

Alon Levy June 14, 2011 - 6:49 pm

I’ve found errors, but very infrequently. My experience with the clocks has mostly been positive; my complaints are more about the fact that the clocks aren’t visible from the trains at express stations such as 96th than about accuracy.

Stewart June 15, 2011 - 7:58 am

I have noticed this error as well. It seems that a particular train “doesn’t exist”, and I suspect this error should go away as the system matures towards full operationality.

Eric June 13, 2011 - 4:09 pm

Odd. In this situation, I would have been more likely to wait for the train. The thing I hate about transferring at night is the total uncertainty of whether I’m going to be waiting for 2 minutes or 20.

nycpat June 13, 2011 - 10:36 pm

Before ATS you would have made the connection. The tower at Nevins would have held it. Now there is nobody in the tower and the Control Center isn’t watching. You should see the idiocy that now occurs at Nostrand Junction.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines June 14, 2011 - 8:57 am

[…] When Countdown Clocks Lay Bare the Secrets of the Subway (2nd Ave Sagas) […]

oscar June 14, 2011 - 9:26 am

walking is always the better option in cases like this. doesn’t hurt to burn off the beer & hot dogs 🙂

another point, you don’t know how long that 3 was already in the station, or if was already delayed, etc..thereby being full of disgruntled passengers. I know from experience that I would have hated being a passenger and seeing those doors open yet again for others to further delay my ride. So in that sense, their decision may have actually been based upon customer service…

Larry Littlefield June 14, 2011 - 9:36 am

I believe the operating policy for the Subways is to NOT wait for transfers at peak hours, but to wait for transfers at off peak hours.

Trains are held for connections all the time.

Unless they have changed the policy, this was either an operating error by the dispacther, or the train you saw had already been held for an express or two ahead of you and they decided a further wait would not be fair to those already on the local.

ajedrez June 14, 2011 - 10:51 am

Considering the fact that the (4) runs infrequently at night, I highly doubt that it was held for the express train in front of his.

ManhattanHillbilly.com June 14, 2011 - 11:59 am

I’m just a rube from the South, but it seems to me a 50 mph train going just 3 mph faster on the tracks after waiting can easily make up for a 20 second wait to let people transfer from an express to local and vice-versa. Have never understood why motormen do that.

Alon Levy June 15, 2011 - 5:00 pm

Trains need to do 5 miles at 53 mph rather than 50 in order to save 20 seconds. Slightly increasing an already high top speed doesn’t do much to the total travel time.

Sara N June 14, 2011 - 6:31 pm

“…it is Friday night at 11:38 p.m. I have just taken the 4 train back to Brooklyn from Yankee Stadium”

Do all your stories start like that, Ben? 🙂

Barry Childress June 14, 2011 - 10:24 pm

I just want to point out the other extremes which is just as maddening; the express train that waits at each and every stop for the local, and similarly a train that waits for several plus minutes at each and every transfer point.

Just be careful how complaints like this are expressed, requesting a few seconds of accommodation in situations like you describe

Matthew T. June 17, 2011 - 1:50 pm

I’m used to waiting 10+ minutes for the next train to come. Most of the time I leave early so waiting isn’t a pain. Can’t have trains hold for other passengers all the time.


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