Home MTA Technology For Astoria, next train info without the clock

For Astoria, next train info without the clock

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the past few years, I’ve wholeheartedly embraced the MTA’s countdown clocks. Despite a seemingly interminable wait for technology that leading international subways have enjoyed for years, Transit finally figured out how to introduce a modern technology into its 100-year-old system, and now we never have to guess when the next 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or L train is coming. But what of the rest?

While the lettered lines are still years away from a countdown clock solution, one sliver of Queens is getting something resembling next train information today. As the Daily News first reported, five stations along the BMT Astoria Line — 39th Ave., 36th Ave., Broadway, 30th Ave. and Astoria Blvd. — will soon enjoy the MTA’s next-train announcements. These are audio messages broadcast into each station that proclaims a train one or two stations away. Decidedly low-tech, they allow passengers some measure of relief, but I’ve never been too convinced of their utility.

The system that will go live today in Astoria is the one in place at a few other stations. The BMT platform formerly known as Pacific St. has these announcements, and the IND level at Columbus Circle enjoys this system too. It’s not the most useful though. As Donohue notes, the audio announcements will not specify whether the next train is an N or Q, and it’s unclear how much advanced warning these systems give. As Queens riders note, it’s better than nothing.

My problem with this system is the lack of information. As opposed to offering something useful, the MTA here is providing a service that doesn’t deliver the key information. What train is arriving is equally as important, if not more so, than when that train is arriving. At Pacific St., the announcements simply talk of an arriving local or an express train one station away. That’s fine if you don’t care what train you’re taking, but except for Herald Square-bound passengers, everyone else wants to know if the next train is a D or an N. Columbus Circle suffers from the same problem. I want to know if a C or B is next because I need one and have no use for the other.

In Astoria, that problem is mitigated a bit. Most riders who board in Astoria don’t care if an N or a Q is next. Few of them are heading to the reaches of Brooklyn far from Queens where the N and Q diverge. It will be a relief for riders whose only way of trying to guess where the next train is involves peering down the elevated tracks. Still, these announcements can end up as noise pollution if they’re warning only of trains one or two (visible) stations away.

Meanwhile, according to the MTA, a countdown clock solution for the IND and BMT subway lines is still three to five years away. That’s a long time to wait, and I’m glad my nearest subway lines have countdown clocks. From the Subway Time API functionality to the in-system clocks, this technology has made waiting more tolerable and trip-planning easier. When these — and not just audio announcements — are available system-wide, the age-old New York complaint involving endlessly waiting for the subway may just go up in smoke. For now, though, the next Manhattan-bound train will be two stations away.

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Alon Levy August 7, 2013 - 12:24 am

Since they have a solution 3-5 years away, can’t they install clocks that will say things like “local train in 2 minutes” and then convert them to regular countdown clocks when the IND and BMT get ATS?

Theorem Ox August 7, 2013 - 12:40 am

That’s pretty nice.

Wish they could have installed it at Queensborough Plaza too, especially at the lower level where it is harder to see the approaching trains. The N/Q certainly doesn’t run with the same frequency as the 7 train.

Granted, the MTA has to find a way to integrate it with the automated 7 train announcements at the lower level. So I suppose it’s not really surprising why they didn’t install this time around.

I do agree with your point about the potential of noise pollution especially where stations are within the line of sight of each other, not exactly an uncommon occurrence for elevated stations (perhaps with the exception of curved sections). Perhaps limit the audible announcements only to when the train is two stations away and when it is approaching? (I imagine that this was also implemented with an eye on accommodation from blind subway riders as well)

JJJJ August 7, 2013 - 1:00 am

Why is the solution so far away? Same problem in Boston with the green line “it cant be done! The signals! So hard!”

Theres a CHEAP, EASY, and FAST solution.

Step 1) Install cheap cameras in tunnel. Use a homeland security grant to do it, why the hell not.
Step 2) Link camera with $200 laptop
Step 3) Install rudimentary software on cheap laptop that can read the rollsigh/display on the train. A, R, C, whatever. Its a big giant letter.
Step 4) You know know where every train is. Make a damn countdown. B train just passed camera 27. That means its 1 min from x, and 6 mins from y.

I’ll take my consulting fee in cash please.

Roxie August 7, 2013 - 1:39 am

That doesn’t work when the trains don’t have proper rollsigns. Like the N, or the Q, or the 7 once it gets the R142A trains from the 6 line and the R188 trains are delivered.

Cheap cameras typically can’t discern things moving fast, like a train with a dimly lit rollsign (or a red LED sign) moving at speed; they’d come up blurry. No joy. So you buy higher quality cameras.

Now you’ve spent a ton more money to put these high quality cameras everywhere, and they still might not have the chops to catch a still image of a rollsign/LED sign. But let’s say it our camera can snap a perfect photo of the sign, every time, for the sake of argument.

So you’ve got a clear picture of a rollsign or LED sign from a train in its tunnel. Now what? You still have to write some kind of fancy OCR software to decipher what that funny-colored thing in the picture says.

And what happens if it misrecognizes some weird glare in the picture as a letter or number? Or when, inevitably, the camera breaks down due to the extreme conditions in the tunnels, or the server that reads and deciphers the camera data has a fatal part failure and you have to replace it, even if it’s 20, 30, 50 years in the future and they haven’t made that part for decades and you have no backup units?

These things absolutely HAVE to be future proof. That’s why setting them up is so expensive. That’s a big part of why it’s taking years to do without much progress. It isn’t much, especially the really annoying stilted-sounding B-division auto-announcer (I hate that thing), but it’s not as easy as you try to make it sound.

pkyc0 August 7, 2013 - 1:22 pm

how about send the video to india, so someone could punch the train line into a website and release that data publicly. let the app developers do the rest.

Kid Twist August 7, 2013 - 1:21 am

This is pretty useless. The Astoria line is elevated and has no curves. You can tell just by looking up the line when a train is one station away.

Jeff August 7, 2013 - 8:23 am

I believe the idea is so you don’t have to look over the edge of the platform to check if there’s a train coming.

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 10:06 am

Not if you are visually challenged.

I did find a curious error on the audio anouncements at Court Square23rd Street. Since the station anouncement only refers to Manhattanbound or Queensbound local/ express trains & not the line it opperates on, a Queensbound E train is refered to as a local while the train anouncement calls it an express. I would assume the same is true at Queens Plaza.

Demetria August 7, 2013 - 11:16 am

The Astoria line does have curves. At 30th Avenue and Broadway you can’t see Astoria Boulevard station.

I do still question the utility of this though. The stations on the El vibrate so much that if you want to wait downstairs beside the token booth for the train to come its no problem; you can always feel/hear a train approaching and tell from which direction its coming, giving you enough time to get to the platform. While it is nice somewhat nice to know that a train is 4 minutes away (and likewise, by the absence of the message that a train is more than 4 minutes away) I wonder if this is truly worth it?

An app though would be useful… knowing a train is coming in 2/4 minutes while still at street level allows people to figure out if they have enough time to get coffee, buy the paper, whatever.

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 11:40 am

The Astoria line does have curves. At 30th Avenue and Broadway you can’t see Astoria Boulevard station.

What, no ex-ray vision? LOL

Remember “Real Subway lines have Curves.”, and you cant always see around them.

Note the movie reference above.

Ian August 8, 2013 - 9:28 am

Where this could be of the biggest utility – Queensboro Plaza – is the one station it is not going. I’m guessing that’s probably a combination of budget constraints and a complex construction process that would require reducing service at a vital transfer point. Of the stations where this is going, between 30th Ave and Astoria Blvd is the biggest blind spot, or going Ditmars bound from seldom used 39th Ave. Manhattan-bound from Astoria Blvd, every train is one station away. There, an actual countdown clock would be really useful, rather than waiting to see which of two trains departs Ditmars first.

Eric Schwartzman August 7, 2013 - 4:56 am

Now living in Astoria by way of Roosevelt Island. I can say the audio only train announcements are working well. Most Astoria riders as Ben wrote don’t care which train. Yes having that info for some would be helpful but this helps keep us sane knowing how long we simply need to wait.

Eric Schwartzman August 7, 2013 - 4:57 am

Kid twist. There are a couple if curves. At 30th you can’t see back to Astoria Blvd at all.

Kid Twist August 7, 2013 - 8:17 am

At 30th Avenue, you don’t need an announcement that a train is one or two stations away. Every southbound train is one or two stations away.

Jeff August 7, 2013 - 8:30 am

Not really. It certainly would be useful to know if there is a train 1 station away (which means it’ll arrive in a minute or two) or 2 stations away (which means its arrival can happen anytime in the future since the train’s waiting to depart from a terminal). Or if you don’t get any announcements there probably aren’t any southbound trains coming at all which would be good to know also.

BBnet3000 August 7, 2013 - 6:21 am

On the Queens Blvd line a lot of people get on the first train that comes, for both local and express. Thats definitely one place where the announcements are handy. Also, if you already saw a train leave from the line you dont want and the next train is most likely from the line you do want, the announcements are handy.

Kevin August 7, 2013 - 7:41 am

They had the same audio-only system on the 7 last year but I’ve noticed that the announcements haven’t been playing lately. Does this have something to do with all the CBTC work that they’ve had to disable this system?

Peter August 7, 2013 - 7:55 am

This “system” is also in effect at stations along CPW (86, 96, etc).

They say a “downtown local” is arriving in x minutes. It’s fairly useless information, as any train that stops there is always a downtown local.

What you really want to know, is it 6th or 8th Ave, and how far behind the 2nd train is.. That would allow you to make some choices.

G August 7, 2013 - 8:19 am

Ben, do you know why it takes so long to implement those countdown clocks? 3-5 years seems absurd. If you’ve covered this already would you mind providing a link? Or maybe point in the direction where I can read more.

Always enjoy reading your posts.


Jeff August 7, 2013 - 8:42 am

I’m not Ben, but basically the reason is the existing countdown clock rely on upgraded signal systems to work (ATS on the IRT, CBTC on the L and 7), which take years to implement. And without these upgraded signals they’ll need to come up with some other technology to track the B division trains which will take time to develop and test.

G August 7, 2013 - 3:31 pm

Thanks, Jeff!

John-2 August 7, 2013 - 8:56 am

Hey, the MTA could probably get the clocks working sooner if they would restore the 8 train to Astoria. Roll out the Train of Many Colors and make sure the R-12 and the R-15 are located at the front and back ends…

Eric Brasure August 7, 2013 - 9:35 am

I’m assuming the technology involved can’t provide more specific train information?

Epson45 August 7, 2013 - 12:58 pm

B-division except the L line does not have ATS. If they have ATS, its a god-send to know where and when the train arrives.

Eric Brasure August 7, 2013 - 2:33 pm

Right, I guess my question is, I’m not as familiar with the train routing and tracking on the B division, how are they providing this information and where do they get it from? Just curious if there’s any way to get specific train route information. I would assume not, since they’re not doing it.

Joe August 8, 2013 - 4:49 pm

They’re just tapping into the track block sensors that control the signals. So they can tell that there is SOMETHING in a given block of track, they just have no idea what train it is.

kvnbklyn August 7, 2013 - 9:59 am

Considering all of these stations are elevated, it seems to me it would be both cheap and easy to provide train information with GPS like on buses. In fact, all of the above ground lines not currently covered by ATC/CBTC could do this with GPS. And that could easily include what the train is not just the location.

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 10:13 am

Perhaps someone should call Clever Devices?

Epson45 August 7, 2013 - 12:59 pm

Clever Devices wont work, they are mostly on the bus side.

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 4:16 pm

Sorry, I was trying to make humor out of the prior comment. But what you say is true – Clever Devices http://www.cleverdevices.com, makes bus equipment such as GPS’s, dianostics & farebox systems.

JD August 7, 2013 - 10:16 am

The system has actually been up and running since at least 7/30 on the Astoria line. It’s much better than what’s on the Queens Blvd line. It gives the next arrival in minutes. They went with a digitized voice instead of recorded announcements that are served up, so it sounds like an old GPS navigation system. I wish it told us which train is next.

Ron August 7, 2013 - 11:08 am

I’m not sure about the Queens Blvd line but a lot of the other announcements throughout the system are actually made by a person and are not a recording.

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 11:43 am

Grand central on the 7 in the afternoon rush is that way as well.

JD August 7, 2013 - 3:44 pm

Yes, there are many live announcements in the system, but the countdown announcements on all the other lines are pre-recorded and each part of the announcement is pulled up as needed.

BoerumHillScott August 7, 2013 - 10:36 am

At Pacific, the announcements for the Northbound Express are extra useless, since when it says “One Station away, at 36th street,” I have found the train will arrive anywhere from 1 minute to 7 minutes later.

Joseph Steindam August 7, 2013 - 11:44 am

I generally find the announcements at Pacific Street to be useless. At the very least they should install the train arrival boards that are at Dekalb Avenue. Does anyone know how the train arrival boards at Dekalb Avenue work? Granted, they are not countdown clocks and only signal the next train less than a minute or so before entering the station, but I’d be interested to know how it works. Those boards are a bit more informative than the general announcement that an express train is 1 station away, at 36th Street.

Epson45 August 7, 2013 - 12:56 pm

The 4th Avenue is using an older signal equipment. Supposedly, MTA will upgrade in the next 3 to 5 years. All of the B-division except the L line does not have ATS.

Jeff August 7, 2013 - 2:45 pm

They are not upgrading the signals in 3 to 5 years. They are looking for an alternative solution to using ATS for displaying next train info in 3 to 5 years. There’s a big difference there.

shawn August 7, 2013 - 2:25 pm

This has no use. What possible decision could you make with this info?

At least with a countdown clock I can walk over to another train line if I see a train is 8-10 mins away.

but the knowledge that a train is 2 stations away doesn’t tell you anything.

Eric Brasure August 7, 2013 - 2:34 pm

Sure it does. It tells you that a train is 2 stations away. :p

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 4:21 pm

Two local stations away, or two express stations away? Big difference there.

why do i even need a name August 7, 2013 - 9:28 pm

I don’t know about most lines, but I think the QBL announcements say “The next local train is 2 stations away” or “The next express train is 2 stations away”.

why do i even need a name August 7, 2013 - 9:30 pm

Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Ignore above comment.

JD August 7, 2013 - 9:23 pm

The Astoria line announcements are in minutes so they are useful.

Andrew August 7, 2013 - 4:46 pm

I’ve always wondered, while waiting at Columbus Circle and hearing announcements that the next downtown express train is one station away, does that mean that the train is just leaving 125th Street or is it the distance of one local station away and passing 72nd?

SEAN August 7, 2013 - 7:46 pm

See my comment above.

Kai B August 7, 2013 - 10:28 pm

Meanwhile, over at Junction Blvd, these fancy dual-language countdown clocks have been installed:

SubwayNut August 7, 2013 - 10:45 pm

In Washington Heights/Inwood we have had those from the start (we were the oringal pilot stations, there between decent and useless half the time they say there is a downtown A train 3 stations away (like sitting at 207 street) one enters. The terminus at 207 Street even has them. They announce terminating trains that are entering the station (who cares) I also can’t figure out if when we get the voice telling us at 181 street that a Brooklyn-bound A train is 3 stations away if its triggered by the trains departure or if its sitting in the station.

Going uptown at 59 Street it’s handy if it says the next uptown trian is approaching on the express track I feel like it has to be an A train since the D doesn’t seem to trigger them before it switches from the track shared with the B on the flying crossover before the station.


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