Home MTA Technology Transit Tech Update: What future the countdown clocks?

Transit Tech Update: What future the countdown clocks?

by Benjamin Kabak

Bad news from countdown clocks is better than no news at all. (Photo via Second Ave. Sagas on Instagram)

Over the past few years, the MTA has engaged in a rapid about-face on its handling of technology. Despite the revolving door at the top of the agency’s executive chain, Lee Sander, Jay Walder and Joe Lhota have all embraced and pushed forward various technological efforts. From countdown clocks to real-time data streams to information dashboards and an embrace of apps, the MTA has moved, if not to the forefront, at least forward in the realm of transit technologies.

Yesterday, in an effort to exert some of its oversight influence over the MTA, the City Council’s Transportation Committee hauled in a few agency officials to take about technology. By and large, we know the story: The MTA has a series of technology initiatives that are moving forward, some faster than others. The countdown clocks, for instance, have arrived on the A Division lines but will take some time to appear on the lettered subway lines. Yet, the testimony, offered by Craig Stewart, a Senior Corporate Management from Transit, and the subsequent questioning offers an insight into some ongoing projects. I’m going to provide a few updates from the hearings, and right now, we start with the countdown clocks and the availability of real-time data.

Now that Transit has added countdown clocks to the numbered train lines, the authority is rolling in data, very little of which has been made public. That will change soon. As I first reported in May, Transit will soon release both their own train tracking app and an open API for the real-time data stream. While no date has been established for the release, things are moving quickly.

“The MTA is very close to being able to provide real-time train arrival data without having to go into the station,” head agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said to The Daily News. “We want everyone to access the countdown clocks on numbered lines just by looking at their phone.”

The news on countdown clocks for the B Division trains though — the lettered lines less the L train — is a bit hazier. In prepared testimony, Stewart had the following to say. The emphasis is mine.

With respect to the B Division (lettered lines), NYC Transit has completed work at 24 stations on the Canarsie L line. This system was commissioned in 2007 as a standalone system that interfaces with the Canarsie Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system for train prediction information. The B Division has presented unique challenges due to its size and complexity when compared to the A Division. having 288 stations versus 156 on the A Division, 141 route miles versus 66 route miles on the A Division and 317 trains versus 203 peak trains on the A Division. Furthermore, the B Division does not have the Automatic Train Supervision (ATS) system, which provided a common platform that greatly facilitated the installation of Next Train Arrival Information on the A Division. Finally, most of the B Division is comprised of territory with four tracks and many interconnecting lines along its routes, making it impractical to replicate the approach taken for the A Division.

We have undertaken a few pilots in an effort to identify an interim measure for providing service information to B Division customers, including most recently, the use of electronic signage; however, those efforts have all fallen short in yielding the level and type of information we are seeking to provide our customers. Our ultimate goal is, of course, to develop similar capabilities for the B Division as exists currently on the A Division. However, it will take substantial investments to fully deploy the projected improvements in capability. To ease the delay, we are working on strategies to deploy functionality so that passenger benefits can be delivered as early as possible. This phased deployment will result in improvements that may not necessarily be across all areas. In order to begin providing benefits as quickly as possible, we have established an initial goal of providing the current B Division next train arrival information to customers by capturing dispatch/schedule information electronically.

NYC Transit will soon start design work under several projects to begin capturing train information across the B Division. Collecting train location information is a prerequisite step to providing real-time train arrival information and may take several years to accomplish. This design effort will also help us to determine the most viable options for implementation.

The MTA hopes to bring such countdown clocks to the B Division within 3-5 years, but that timeline is malleable. It depends upon funding and ease of implementation, two things with which the MTA has struggled over its history. Meanwhile, the agency will focus on providing train information via the new PA system, recently installed and upgraded in all B Division stations. It’s a baby step before taking the big and complicated technological leap.

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Michael Pomposello October 25, 2012 - 2:57 pm

Amazing how fast things are moving in A Division, at the very least that is some very good news. Crazy to read about the 3-5 year wait for something similar on the lettered lines. I have started noticing more announcements at 34th street A/C/E about approaching trains, which is VERY beneficial since the express and local are on different tracks. I think at the very least if they can better indicate to people on the local track that an express is coming and vice versa, that will feel like a big step in the right direction.

John October 25, 2012 - 3:03 pm

I have noticed they are very good with announcements on the 6 and 8 Avenue lines. I notice it especially at stations along Queens Blvd and West Harlem.

Tower18 October 25, 2012 - 4:42 pm

Sadly this doesn’t appear to make it to Brooklyn. It seems at least a bi-weekly occurrence, if not 3-4 times a week, that I sit at Jay St for upwards of 10 minutes during rush hour waiting for an F. Where are they? God only knows. Oh wait, no, Jay St. has a tower. They COULD tell us. But they don’t. If I had more information, I could take the R via the nifty new transfer. But no, they stay silent.

In the Bush October 25, 2012 - 9:39 pm

On the L Train in Brooklyn, announcements are constantly made for the next train. I don’t bother looking for the archaic countdown boards.
L-ladies and Gentlemen, the next….
She almost never shuts up.

Someone October 25, 2012 - 4:44 pm

Sadly this has not happened to the Sixth Avenue line. The quality of announcements of those on the Eighth Avenue line are very poor, and happen to come exactly when the train arrives.

AlexB October 25, 2012 - 6:00 pm

The MTA is planning to upgrade the Flushing and Queens Boulevard lines to CBTC signaling next, but that’s all they are planning to do until the next 5 year capital plan. I know this is wishful thinking, but CBTC really is a game-changer for increasing capacity, reliability, and customer service; they should move forward with it everywhere as fast as possible.

Tower18 October 25, 2012 - 7:36 pm

Implementing CBTC doesn’t suddenly make more trains appear, increase the size of yards, or stop people from holding doors, so it alone is not a panacea for increasing service and reducing delays.

Matthias October 26, 2012 - 4:08 pm

No, but it allows trains to run closer together, increasing the number of trains that can use the line and reducing delays.

Someone December 7, 2012 - 11:14 am

They already have next train arrival signs on the 7 similar to the ones used on the Queens Blvd, 8th Ave, 6th Ave, and Broadway lines.

mike d. October 25, 2012 - 7:39 pm

dont tell the riders on the 7 train to …


in the short term.

Seth R. October 25, 2012 - 7:58 pm

I’m a little unclear on the implications of this.

A) are they saying that there won’t be real-time countdown information per-line until CBTC is fully functional on these lines?

B) How is ATS working on the A division lines without CBTC? Is this system to expensive to implement on the B division?

Alon Levy October 25, 2012 - 9:02 pm

Re b), automatic train supervision/control is far more common than CBTC/moving-block signaling.

Henry October 26, 2012 - 5:34 pm

ATS is a separate technology from CBTC, and is a lot less complicated. It works on the A Division because the Lexington Av and Seventh Av lines don’t mix particularly often.

With the B Division, you have some IND lines which are reasonably separated (A, C, E, G) but then you have the IND and BMT mixing together in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (Jamaica Line, Brighton Line, Fourth Av Line). According to the MTA, the interlining is too complex for ATS to handle, which seems plausible.

As for timelines, it sounds like they’re experimenting to see what they can do in the meantime (before division-wide CBTC, because that’ll take a while), but I wouldn’t hold them to dates just yet.

Frank B October 25, 2012 - 9:26 pm

What I don’t understand is why can’t they have that interim measure that they had on the IND 8th Avenue Line on the Upper West Side, where the clocks simply had an algorithm that calculated how fast the trains were going, based on the amount of time the train triggered each subsequent signal as it rolled down the tracks, then displayed its findings on the countdown clocks.

On the IRT, I sometimes see “2 minutes” to a train drop to “1 minute”, to train “approaching”, all within the space of 30 seconds, and that’s with the full technology implemented. Surely the algorithm will be less accurate that the full-rollout the IRT, but by how much? I greatly prefer, and I imagine a good deal of straphangers prefer, an estimated time of arrival displayed on a clock as opposed to a recorded message of “there is a Manhattan-bound local train three stations away”.

What on earth does that mean to me, the average straphanger? A guesstimation of “7 minutes” over “three stations away” would be greatly preferred. My mother said that they already were making announcements like that on the IND Queens Boulevard line 30 years ago. Old technology.

It is important to note that throughout The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, many stations are only served by one service and have no express service whatsoever. The BMT West End Line, the BMT Sea Beach Line, the IND Rockaway Line, the IND Crosstown Line, the BMT Culver Line (South of Church), the BMT Myrtle Avenue Line, etc. etc. are all largely only served by one service; signs could be programmed to say, as on IRT countdown clocks, “D Coney Island 8 min” as there is only one service anyway that could possibly be rolling down those tracks; this is preferred to “Local train 4 stations away”

Moreover, even in places WITH Express tracks, like the IND Fulton Street Line, the BMT 4th Avenue Line, the IND Concourse Line etc., the signs could still be programmed to discern between the two services; for example, at Nostrand Avenue on the IND Fulton Street Line, there are only two services; the A and C; the A stops at the upper level express tracks, the C on the lower level local tracks. The software would obviously just note that in normal operation only the C uses the local tracks, and the A uses the express, displaying “C Euclid Avenue 4 Min” or “A 207th Street 5 min” etc. (I note that the A train uniquely has 3 different railroad-south terminals; the signs would simply say “A Queens 2 min” for most of its length, reverting to the default “A 2 min” after Grant Avenue.)

The computer could also be programmed for unique situations like the IND Concourse Line where the express track is only used during rush hours. While it would not always be accurate, you could simply have it display from 6:30 AM-9:30 AM onward “B Brighton Beach 2 min” instead of “D Coney Island 2 min” as during rush-hours, the train stopping at 170th Street is the B as opposed to the D, which runs peak express.

And even on lines with multiple express or multiple local services, like the IND 8th Avenue Line or the BMT 4th Avenue Line, “Uptown Local 3 Minutes” or “Coney-Island Bound Express 2 minutes” would be greatly appreciated by straphangers.

It may be years before these lines see CBTC service, if ever. The basic technology is there, and would placate many passengers; its already been introduced on the Upper West Side for pennies on the dollar; it uses existing technology smartly to provide superior service. No offense to Lhota, who’s doing fine, but if Walder were around, this kind of ball would already be rolling.

This kind of decision is a no-brainer, really. A no-brainer.

joshua October 26, 2012 - 12:08 am

theres is absolutely no PA system on many of the g line stations… my mother lives on greenpoint avenue and i frequent there often… there is no PA system from 21st van alst to nassau avenue and then broadway

Alon Levy October 26, 2012 - 9:37 am

There is no PA system at any station. There are speakers playing streams of noise, but none playing any recognizable human language.

I bet you the people making those announcements are violently swearing at the passengers, knowing the passengers won’t be able to understand enough to get what they’re saying about their mothers.

Bolwerk October 26, 2012 - 12:55 pm

I honestly have little trouble understanding most announcements these days in stations and on newer equipment. The most bumblefuck part of the whole deal seems to be that they play announcements over each other. This often happens as you have a few seconds to decide whether or not to get onto the train whose doors may close.

Kai B October 26, 2012 - 2:12 pm

I don’t know what happened to the 2008 project to install pa systems at those stations…


mike d. October 26, 2012 - 6:53 pm

Progress is slow, they are testing various programs that is best fit for MTA to maintain the reliability and cost is cheap. Its going to take forever and its really too bad if they not going to installed ATS on the B division in the next 5 to 7 years…

herenthere October 26, 2012 - 3:42 pm

Ben, didn’t you report on how the MTA was testing Optimal Character Recognition technology for the B division in this post:


Ken Conaway October 26, 2012 - 7:27 pm

There is always something I’ve wondered about these clocks. I was wondering why they didn’t allocate a dedicated row for messages and alerts outside of having the last prediction temporarily hidden for that. I think this was alluded to in a post earlier this year.


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