Home MTA Technology Pondering the case for (or against) OPTO

Pondering the case for (or against) OPTO

by Benjamin Kabak

When the MTA dismissed an arbitrator who has often sided with the TWU in resolving disputes, an old issue reared its head. In discussing Richard Adelman’s past rulings, I noted that he had stopped one-person train operation on the L train back in 2005. It was but one story in the MTA’s never-ending saga to see through some form of OPTO in the New York City subway system.

As is often the case when OPTO comes out, a debate over its future arose in the comments. I’ve long believed that OPTO is a necessity in some form or another if the MTA is to realize significant cost savings on the labor front. Although the initial capital costs at readying the system for OPTO may be challenging, the year over year savings would more than justify the initial outlay. The trick in implementing such a system would be in identifying the proper form. Does OPTO make sense on the Lexington Ave. trains at rush hour? Does it make sense on the Brighton Line during the weekend? The answer may not be the same to both questions.

The opponents of OPTO — union workers who stand to lose their jobs — are strong though, and they’ve run the table on this argument for years. On the one hand, OPTO is a tough sell from the MTA. They’re basically telling everyone that there will be fewer employees on train cars, and the psychology of such a stick without a corresponding carrot is a tough one to swallow. On the other, those who oppose OPTO have made their case and stick to it.

Essentially, the opposition breaks down as follows:

  1. New York City’s subway system is older than other systems that use OPTO, and its platforms are too curvy. It’s trains are longer; it wasn’t built for OPTO.
  2. It’s not safe for passengers and leads to delays. Imagine how long it would a T.O./conductor to walk from the first car to the last in the event of a problem.
  3. It’s not safe for the T.O./Conductor and puts too much stress on them.

The first argument is New York exceptionalism at its finest. If it wasn’t invented in New York, then we can’t have it, and clearly, we’ll never be able to have it. It’s also the weakest of the arguments. There are automated lines in the Paris Metro and OPTO in place in similar systems to ours. It’s simply a matter of will and ingenuity, and it wouldn’t even take much to see it through. New York is exceptional in some ways but not in this regard.

The other two are legitimate concerns that prevent the public from getting behind OPTO, and this is where implementation would have to be done delicately and properly. An in-car intercom system would have to be developed; better security responses would have to be created. Again, it’s a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Meanwhile, moving conductors out of the train cars would allow the MTA to place some on platforms for crowd control purposes or others in stations as agents. Not all would have to be dismissed.

In this safety argument lies the delicate balancing act the MTA needs to execute to see through OPTO. It’s not right for every train line at every moment in time. It likely wouldn’t be a smart move for peak-hour trains along the most crowded of routes but certainly could be effective nearly everywhere on the weekends. It wouldn’t have to lead to more delays or more problems and could help the MTA free up operating money for other purposes.

Ultimately, this is hardly a scientific study on the costs and benefits for OPTO. I’m almost thinking off the cuff here, but it’s a conversation worth revisiting. Ultimately, the MTA should be working toward automation where possible, and OPTO is a good first step. If anything, it can cut down on unnecessary labor costs. But we’re stuck in this rut. It didn’t happen first in New York City so it can’t happen here.

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John-2 August 19, 2013 - 9:07 am

Seems like with CBTC coming to the Flushing Line, the big test of a long train (longer than the L) + crowds vs. OTPO is going to happen on the 7 train first. With only seven underground stations, none on any severe curves, it’s probably the easiest of the IRT lines to test it on. But even with the arrival of the Q to 96th, it’s hard to see them getting rid of the C/R on the Lex during regular hours Monday-Friday, and with the other trunk lines, I don’t know what the economies of cost reduction would be to basically employ conductors as shift workers for peak-hour trains in the AM/PM rush.

BBnet3000 August 19, 2013 - 9:09 am

They already have cameras for the conductor to see the ends of the train.

New York does have a particularly virulent strain of “not invented here” syndrome, even for an American city.

We have the technology in place to run trains with one operator, and we still have two people on board. Its a waste of money.

JJJJ August 19, 2013 - 11:16 am

Boston has an older system.

They went to OPTO on their heavy rail lines over the past 2 years.

The opponents cried doom and gloom. Its too dangerous! There will be chaos! The passenger experience will suffer!

Obviously, not one of those predictions went through.

Instead, the passengers got more service – the second staffer was assigned to run off peak trains, so we they got better headways at night.

Doom indeed.

Epson45 August 19, 2013 - 11:32 am

MBTA only operated 5 to 6 cars. NYC has 4, 8 & 10 cars trains.

Joe August 19, 2013 - 3:00 pm

Chicago operates 8-car trains OPTO without issues.

Joe August 19, 2013 - 3:23 pm

Oh yeah, and it’s older than NYC’s system. Most of the platforms are relatively straight though.

Epson45 August 19, 2013 - 10:14 pm

Chicago trains are shorter then NYC.

Alon Levy August 20, 2013 - 3:14 am

Okay, so trains shorter than 146.3 meters do not count in any way and have no bearing on New York’s trains. Certainly we shouldn’t bring up examples of Chicago’s 117.6-meter trains – they’re too short to be relevant.

Epson45 August 20, 2013 - 11:40 am

Once again, they are different system. Compare to the length and size of the car. Chicago’s platform are straighter then NYC platform.

Bolwerk August 20, 2013 - 7:38 pm

In this case, “different” = ahead of us.

Nathanael August 20, 2013 - 11:11 pm

Freaking LONDON has OPTO. And it’s older. And has more sharply curved platforms. And more sharply sloped platforms. And 117.5 meter trains.

Alon Levy August 22, 2013 - 2:21 am

London doesn’t actually have curvier platforms than New York. I also thought it would since it’s older, but apparently the minimum curve radius in London is 60 meters, vs. about 40 at the City Hall IRT station. Paris has the same minimum in New York, though.

Alon Levy August 20, 2013 - 9:20 pm

The length of a train is a little less than in New York. Who cares? Ditto platform curvature, which incidentally is as bad at one of Paris Metro Line 1’s stations as at the City Hall IRT loop.

Epson45 August 21, 2013 - 1:54 am

Oh please, have you experience crush load riders on Lexington Av line at 14 ST?

Alon Levy August 22, 2013 - 2:23 am

I’ve experienced crush loads in Shanghai that far exceed any in New York. I don’t know what the train staffing level was, but there were no platform attendants at any of the stations (they got pushers a few months after I was there, though), and people just pushed themselves onto the train.

Miles Bader September 10, 2013 - 5:07 am

Tokyo’s Fukutoshin line uses OPTO with 10-car trains (at 20m per car)…

Bolwerk August 19, 2013 - 11:44 am

If the union had some foresight, they’d be pushing for OPTO and more rail service. New subway and LRT service would be a great opportunity to employ some conductors in positions where they already have transferrable skills.

dungone August 19, 2013 - 1:33 pm

It’s hard to know who to blame more. The unions are inflexible, but the government has a bad habit of shoving service cuts down everyone’s throat and taking centuries to construct new subway lines.

dungone August 19, 2013 - 1:45 pm

New subway service would benefit other unions who also have ridiculous manpower requirements.

Epson45 August 19, 2013 - 11:22 am

Face it, OPTO will not be in future. The riding public, union, public officials, and disable community will let OPTO to go through on all subway lines.

Epson45 August 19, 2013 - 11:23 am

will NOT let OPTO to go through on all subway lines.

VLM August 19, 2013 - 11:29 am

As always, insightful comment from you. I’m beginning to wonder if you’re actually literate and could string together an cogent argument to support your statements that often seem grounded only in the reality in your head.

Epson45 August 19, 2013 - 11:32 am

I could kiss you.

Alon Levy August 20, 2013 - 3:16 am

The trains in New York violate ADA guidelines; conductors are a hack meant to get around that. Trains of R62A vintage in Vancouver run with far smaller platform-train gaps (I believe about 2.5 cm vertical and 5 cm horizontal), and when I asked on SkyscraperPage, people reported that passengers in wheelchairs can get on trains unaided.

Nathanael August 20, 2013 - 11:13 pm

The trains in London violate DDA guidelines (a LOT), but instead of conductors they hire platform attendants. Works better.

Alon Levy August 22, 2013 - 2:25 am

Or they could just start following the law. It’s not impossible.

Bolwerk August 19, 2013 - 11:40 am

#3 doesn’t even make sense. #2 sounds like a crock too. If conductors do ever leave their cabs to help people, it is probably rare enough to, uh, make the news? There can still be a crowd of over a thousand people and distance of ~5 full car lengths between a conductor and the victim of whatever it is we imagine conductors are supposed to swoop in to fix.

Spendmore Wastemore August 19, 2013 - 12:14 pm

Even the job loss objection is a crock. With the slow and ultimately limited implementation of OPTO, conductors can just be not replaced as they retire. There are other jobs in the system they can be moved to, anything from train op to signals to transit cops, with a moderate amount of additional training.

Count on anything that makes sense being shot down by the union and a whiny, gullible public.

Bgriff August 19, 2013 - 1:04 pm

I have been in train cars in recent months on two occasions where passenger incidents required the use of the R160 emergency intercom, and it was not particularly effective or fast even now, and in at least one case the TO ended up joining the conductor in visiting the incident site. I can’t imagine it would be much worse under OPTO. These incidents were in the station, so the staff ended up walking along the platform to the affected car, whereas it would take longer to get to the incident if the train were stopped between platforms, but I can’t think of many incidents where the conductor would investigate while the train was between platforms anyway, perhaps unless someone (wrongly, in almost all passenger distress situations) pulled the emergency brake. And an e-brake use would cause a significant delay regardless of where the staff are walking from.

The curvy platforms is an issue, and shouldn’t be completely dismissed if only because OPTO does require significant capital investment in cameras and screens (investment which is currently going to waste on the L). But there are plenty of stations where the current conductor can only see parts of the platform via video monitor anyway, so there’s no further reduction in safety if that video coverage is used for a greater portion of the train.

As for the length of cars, it is true that NY subway trains are significantly bigger than those of some other systems, including the Paris Metro (RER trains are NY subway-sized, but not Metro trains) and the Boston T, and it is also true that some systems with trains of similar size to New York’s are much younger, including the DC Metro and many Asian Metros (the Hong Kong MTR comes to mind, though I think it might use two operators). But it’s not entirely clear, other than the two arguments I just debunked, what the relationship is between a big train and needing a second conductor to operate it.

Epson45 August 20, 2013 - 12:01 pm

Hong Kong is OPTO, but they do have platform conductors on certain rail lines.

Nathanael August 20, 2013 - 11:15 pm

More station staff on platforms. The TWU local in NY is awful, or they’d offer that deal — cut conductors and ticket-booth agents, but guarantee on-platform staff in larger numbers than the cuts.

Wouldn’t save MTA money but at least the employees would be doing something useful.

Epson45 August 21, 2013 - 2:00 am

MTA will still not save money, they will need to find money to prevent OPTO failure which they still have no plan set.

dungone August 19, 2013 - 1:43 pm

Whenever these kinds of arguments arise, I can’t help but imagine a day when a nearby city seizes the opportunity to build a better transit system in order to siphon some of NYC’s cultural and business dominance. That they haven’t started doing so already betrays what I feel is the sheer incompetence of American urban planning.

Andrew Smith August 19, 2013 - 6:22 pm

Can someone explain to me why platform curves matter one way or another to OPTO?

I’m not being sarcastic here. I simply can’t see the benefit.

Using crowd levels to time the door opening? That can be done by a schedule. They know how crowded platforms will be at any point.

Not shutting the door in a dangerous way? They shut the door on people now all the time. The doors won’t crush you. And they clearly signal when they’re not all closed so the operator can open them and close them again.

So what is the argument?

Duke August 19, 2013 - 9:13 pm

The argument is that the motorman cannot see the whole length of the platform at once. Which is true as things currently stand, but nothing a little CCTV can’t fix.

Bolwerk August 20, 2013 - 7:20 pm

I think it’s a fair point that the curves are a concern, though they are hardly a show-stopper. The conductor has both CCTVs and visual clearance right now, and maybe going OPTO takes away the visual clearance.

Big deal. So, how much safety do we lose and how many oodles of $ do we get in exchange? And what can we do with that money to improve safety?

Andrew Smith August 21, 2013 - 2:02 pm

I’m actually asking how being able to see the length of the platform enhances safety.

It certainly cannot be to avoid shutting the doors on people because they do that all the time. Is the argument for being able to see that some MTA official will be able to respond in very rare cases when people slip under trains (can that happen, phsysically?) or have a heart attack on the platform?

Why do people believe it matters if the operator can see?

Bolwerk August 23, 2013 - 12:58 am

It’s probably stuff like that. Shutting doors on people probably isn’t a big danger, but they still want to make sure no one is caught in the doors (e.g., by an article of clothing) before moving or moving to far. A conductor can lean out the window and watch to make sure things are clear as the train leaves the platform, while a driver can’t.

Sanctity of human life, yadayada, but the MTA’s cost tradeoff here is probably trading hundreds of millions of dollars in labor costs for a small bump in court settlement costs. And that’s assuming the savings can’t be reinvested in other (more effective) safety measures.

Keith C. Edwards August 19, 2013 - 11:13 pm

The man’s right. It costs them more to administer it.It could be done, but the operating conditions must be fast. They are not with all these timed signals and when the operator has to give a long speech at each station. What you have is not working. It’s long enough. now.

Keith C. Edwards August 19, 2013 - 11:32 pm

Conductors used to operate max-length trains at curved stations with no problem.

Kai B August 20, 2013 - 12:20 am

I would argue that even though newer train cars can operate in OPTO, they are not optimized for it.

OPTO that I’ve seen in NYC requires the operator to get up, open a window, stick his/her head out (maybe utilize CCTV if there is one), stick a key in a slot and turn it to open and close the doors, then return to the location of the operational controls.

This is ridiculously time consuming.

Optimized OPTO, besides plenty of CCTV and/or large mirrors, has the operator sitting in the center of the cab (to see CCTVs on either side equally well) and operating the doors from this position without getting up.

Most of this could probably be overcome with some modifications to the existing rolling stock, but I wouldn’t say the MTA is truly OPTO ready.

Kai B August 20, 2013 - 12:53 am

A few video examples:
London (opening doors): http://youtu.be/gIMKnFVLzyo?t=2m53s
Paris (closing doors): http://youtu.be/D6yfGhB6zkc?t=1m11s
Berlin (both): http://youtu.be/SVXxmX9-VUc?t=1m45s

pbrowning August 22, 2013 - 12:05 pm

Interesting videos. I wonder how long those monitors would last in a NYC station before either 1) graffiti 2) broken or 3) stolen.

Benjamin Kabak August 22, 2013 - 12:18 pm

A while. Many stations already have monitors at the conductor’s spot on the platform that aren’t covered in graffiti, broken or stolen.

"Tony" August 23, 2013 - 3:05 am

The majority of the monitors by the conductor’s position are mounted above the platform. Pretty hard to vandalize, unless the vandal is really stubborn. On the other hand, the monitors for OPTO on the L are mounted right on the platform, making it easy to vandalize. It’s not unusual for the screen to go blank as well.

Nathanael August 20, 2013 - 11:16 pm

The modifications are cheap, as London found; they have been avoided due to TWU intransigence.

Epson45 August 21, 2013 - 2:06 am

London unions are almost the same character’s in NYC unions.

"Tony" August 21, 2013 - 5:41 pm

Forget about public safety and curved platforms. No system-wide CBTC w/ ATO equipment= TPTO.

That’s it. No arguing around that. The powers that be @ NYCT will not allow Train Operators to operate a full length train and assume the role of conductor w/o modernizing the system 100%. OPTO f/t on the L and 7 will happen, just not as fast as some of you want. Same w/ the G, unless they add more cars which I doubt. OPTO elsewhere, keep dreaming. Not going to happen unless my first statement happens.

Alon Levy August 22, 2013 - 2:27 am

All you’re saying is that management doesn’t want it in addition to the unions. There are zero OPTO supporters I know of who think much of NYCT’s management – hence the rush to adopt ideas from other cities’ subways rather than what NYCT management proposes.


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