Home New York City Transit A look at the 20 Year Needs: Capacity constraints

A look at the 20 Year Needs: Capacity constraints

by Benjamin Kabak

In discussing the MTA’s 20-year dream of having open gangways in its next generation of rolling stock yesterday, I mentioned the capacity constraints facing the system. These new trainsets are vital to increasing capacity because, as Toronto claims, they can bump up ridership by 8-10 percent with an investment that happens every few years due to normal wear and tear. The MTA doesn’t need to spend billions on the slow process of building subway lines when it can add space simply by redesigning its rolling stock.

According to the 20 Year Needs Assessment, the MTA is well aware of the capacity constraints the system faces and the problems the agency faces in attempting to address this issue. In a section toward the end of the document, the agency discusses solutions to capacity constraints, and it’s a point worth exploring here. Essentially, there are a series of key choke points in the system, including the Queens Boulevard Line, the West Side’s IRT line (and some switches in Brooklyn), the L train through Northern Brooklyn and the F and M in Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. How can the MTA solve these problems?

Off the bat, the agency recognizes a simple but dismaying truth: Mega-projects are not a short-term answer. “In identifying solutions for these choke points in the subway system the MTA needs to be cognizant of the long time horizon that “megaproject”-type solutions require. For example, the currently under-construction Second Avenue Subway took nearly 10 years to go through planning, engineering and required environmental analyses, and will take nearly the same amount of time for construction of its first phase. This schedule makes it difficult for megaproject-sized strategies to address current or anticipated transportation needs in a timely manner.”

The answer is full of buzzwords and involves “additional strategic solutions that make the greatest possible use of existing bus and subway lines to meet the evolving needs of an ever more mobile population.” Here’s how the document puts it:

In addition to regular state of good repair maintenance and regular replacement of power, signals and track, there are needed upgrades to the existing subway system to support additional system capacity. Critical among these is expansion of Communications-Based Train Control. Currently available on the L line and being installed on the 7 line, CBTC will allow more frequent train service on crowded corridors such as the Queens Blvd. line.

Maximizing the benefits of CBTC, however, may require fleet expansion to provide more frequent train service, which in turn may require more yard space for train storage and maintenance, as well as increased power generation capacity for the busier subway lines.

Other strategies which may alleviate hotspots may include:

  • Corridor analysis studies to better analyze specific travel trends and identify cost- and time-effective capacity improvement efforts.
  • Rebuilding critical subway junctions where lines merge and separate (such as the Nostrand Junction on the 2/3/4/5 lines) to maximize train throughput and reduce delays.
  • Rebuilding constrained terminal stations (such as Brooklyn College/Flatbush Terminal) to address capacity choke points.
  • Restructuring existing service to maximize throughput.
  • Expanded Select Bus Service utilizing dedicated bus stop,s off-board fare collection and limited stops to provide alternative travel routes in congested corridors.

I worry about the inclusion of Select Bus Service on this list because it’s not really a substitute for improving and streamlining subway service. If anything, it’s a complementary to subway service and should be used to get people from underserved transit areas to subway stations. Without a massive increase in the number of buses on the road, Select Bus Service cannot be a substitute for improved subway service.

Still, we’re left with a list of unsexy but necessary investments. Without multi-billion-dollar expansion efforts that a decade and a half, at best, to go from proposal to reality, the MTA has to find incremental improvements somewhere, and CBTC and switch rebuilds are going to become a need rather than a luxury. We may dream about open gangways and reactivated rights-of-way, but it is here in these efforts that the needs of the 20-Year Needs Assessment come into focus.

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Stephen Smith October 22, 2013 - 12:33 am

How’s about we rebuild Flatbush Av-Brooklyn College by giving it a few miles of tail tracks and some extra stations?

lawhawk October 22, 2013 - 9:56 am

Combined with upzoning along the corridor with the revenues generated to cover the cost. That would work wonders though it’s likely that any expansion South of the junction would require deep tunnelling rather than cut and cover.

Moreover, the locals would hate any kind of construction, and would fight against upzoning since it would change the character of those communities.

Frankly, expanding service to Kings Plaza should be a no brainer as a hub, and would expand service tremendously to an underserved portion of Brooklyn that has to rely disproportionately on bus service to connect with the closest subways in Canarsie or at Kings Highway or express buses to Manhattan.

al October 26, 2013 - 12:10 pm

Short turn terminals. Run 40tph inside and 20tph outside. Same equipment/manpower demand.

marv October 22, 2013 - 8:24 am

Expand capacity on Queens Blvd IND local by solving the 71 St Ave terminal constraint by:

*sending some locals down a Rockaway branch
*rebuilding service through the Kew Gardens IND yard and then splitting the service between
—–a branch headed east along the LIE
—–a branch continuing up the Grand Central Parkway to LGA (not the fast route into the city but one that is workable)

A large multilevel park and ride with direct ramps to the highways should be built at/over Jewel Avenue. Any encroachment on parkland could be replaced with decking over the Grand Central to replace acre for acre.

Jeff October 22, 2013 - 9:31 am

Its the Queens Blvd express line that needs that extra capacity. Not sure if adding more local capacity is the solution. That would add to the extra overcrowding at Roosevelt Ave.

If anything the MTA needs to bring back the Super Express proposal from the 60’s.

LLQBTT October 22, 2013 - 10:34 am

See..from the ’60s! We are now half a century later and nothing’s happened!! This is what the MTA has done for us..too little, too late and now it will be suffocating under its own largess.

Jared October 23, 2013 - 11:16 am

No. This is what your State and Federal Government has done for you. You can’t blame the MTA, which is reliant on the State and feds for approval and financing on ALL of its projects. By blaming the MTA, you take the heat off your politicians. Wake up, you’re smarter than that.

LLQBTT October 23, 2013 - 2:58 pm

Perhaps you’re right, but I remember when the MTA published their vision. It was a big featue that in retrospect just appears like public relations. I do believe that they had and have far more power to influence the debate than they exercise. But how long can something be planned or conceptualized before there comes a time to act?

And also it just seems to take them a long time just to introduce incremental change.

Anon256 October 22, 2013 - 1:35 pm

Given that the LIRR is far less crowded than the subway, the obvious solution is to lower in-city LIRR fares to be closer to subway fares (ideally with fares integrated). Diverting passengers at Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Flushing and Woodside would do wonders for capacity on the E, F and 7. The lost fare revenue (perhaps $50M annually based on current ridership) would be tiny compared to the expense of even relatively minor capital projects given NYC construction costs.

Nathanael October 22, 2013 - 1:55 pm

Of course, this would require making the LIRR cooperate. Given the history of the LIRR’s non-cooperation, which dates back roughly a century, this might not be possible without shutting it down, firing everyone, and starting fresh.

Jeff October 22, 2013 - 3:43 pm

All the LIers will probably be against it too. Its a political nonstarter.

Bolwerk October 22, 2013 - 3:53 pm

The state legislature can pass a bill overruling just about any decision the MTA or its subsidiaries make with regard to labor, construction, cooperation, or most other things.

I wonder if they even realize it.

Anon256 October 23, 2013 - 4:04 am

Organisation before electronics before concrete!

Also, it’s not as though this entails a vast reorganisation of work rules or anything like that. The LIRR could (in the short run) operate exactly as it did before; conductors would just be told to accept a wider variety of tickets. It could even have its internal revenues the same as before, with whatever pot of money was going to be used to build the Queens Superexpress or other concrete solutions instead being used to reimburse the LIRR for in-city trips (which as noted would add up to much less).

Someday the battle to reform the LIRR will need to be fought, but between Jamaica and Penn trains are already frequent enough to relieve subway crowding without any actual reform.

Jeff October 23, 2013 - 9:51 am

Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about the LIRR can confirm or deny this for me… But doesn’t the it have capacity issues of its own? LIRR trains are pretty crowded during rush hours too. So not sure if this would solve the problem long term.

The thing about the Super Express is that it was supposed to have led to an additional track being built along the Main Line that was dedicated to subway use. Not sure if diverting more passengers onto the current main line is much of a long term solution compared to that.

Nathanael October 23, 2013 - 1:16 pm

But… LIRR management would have to TALK TO NYC Subway management! The horror!

Alon Levy October 23, 2013 - 7:53 pm

The trains are frequent at Jamaica Station itself, but at Rego Park and Forest Hills, off-peak frequency is hourly.

Andrew October 22, 2013 - 11:26 pm

Agreed that the LIRR is far less crowded than the subway, but the LIRR also has far more generous loading guidelines than the subway. So, by the MTA’s own guidelines, diverting subway riders onto the LIRR would trigger the need to increase LIRR service.

And regardless of the fare, since the subway and the LIRR use different unlimited fare instruments, anybody who regularly rides one cannot shift to the other without paying the full walk-up fare, which is frankly absurd.

The solution is to (a) tighten the commuter rail loading guideline within city limits (inbound suburban commuters will already have seats; outbound suburban commuters might have to stand at first, but only until seats open up in Queens or the Bronx) and (b) shift to a zone-based fare system, valid on both subway and commuter rail, that essentially charges riders based on where they are going rather than which mode they use. The fare system should also give significant discounts to off-peak riders (even with unlimiteds), so encourage anybody with flexible schedules to avoid rush hours as much as possible.

Anon256 October 23, 2013 - 3:53 am

Obviously a fully integrated smartcard-based fare system would be ideal, but it’s not strictly necessary. Just install SBS-style machines at the relevant LIRR stations; people insert their Metrocard and get a proof-of-payment receipt they can show to the conductor.

How exactly do you propose to give off-peak discounts to riders with unlimiteds?

Rob October 23, 2013 - 12:47 pm

I agree, and I believe @AlonLevy has spoken at length about similar Paris RER-style innovations.

Do the subway lines in the Bronx have similar overcrowding issues? Why not do the same for MetroNorth stations within city lines. Or even include the big three inner suburbs filled with low-income workers who could use help with transportation costs — Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and New Rochelle. Most people in those towns are taking Bee Line buses to the subway termini in the Bronx.

johndmuller October 23, 2013 - 5:32 pm

The commuter RRs are already approaching capacity while charging premium fares. Whether they are getting a premium ride or not is debatable, but if you packed in a load of city-folk at discount rates, they would be burning their commutation cards and heading for the limos. “[they]… might have to stand at first…”; yeah, really??? Maybe if they had 1st & 2nd class cars, or ran some 2nd class locals (with 2nd class equipment) from the inner suburbs they could get away with increasing numbers of hoi palloi getting discount rides, but otherwise, …

If there are significant numbers taking the bus to the subway, extending the subway would not so much impact subway capacity, as reduce bus trips. The 2 line is practically in Mt. Vernon already, the border zone being more notable for where the el is or is not than any difference in streetscape, and downtown Mt. Vernon is not very far along from the existing terminal. The 1 and 4 lines are not exactly at the Yonkers border, but they are heading out on streets that are good candidates for transit in Yonkers. Connecting the 5 line to New Rochelle might be more problematic with nimby’s in Pelham.

I believe that there is some sort of anachronistic rule forbidding the subway from operating outside the city (and others that somewhat restrict the commuter RRs within the city), but one imagines these rules could be changed; perhaps a Westchester surcharge would be added at boarding and charged upon exit from an extended subway. Aside from financing, other problems could include adding more time to the already the long ride to downtown and suburban angst about importing city crime to prey upon their fair cities.

Nick Ober October 22, 2013 - 10:29 am

Would sending locals out to terminate at 179th street instead of 71st Ave eliminate the capacity problem? Doesn’t 179th street have a ton of unused turning capacity?

If so, does the MTA terminate the M and the R at 71st Ave to save money vs. buying enough new train sets to keep current headways? Or is it an issue of where the yards are?

Jeff October 22, 2013 - 11:57 am

Again, the Queens Blvd local isn’t the problem. Neither the M nor the R are particularly crowded during rush hours per Straphangers Campaign.

The problem is the express, and the fact that everyone on the line wants to use it.

SEAN October 22, 2013 - 12:38 pm

CBTC should help, but there’s NO excuse not to extend E & F service eastward towards Nassau County. In adition, M & or R services could be extended to where the E & F end today.

Benjamin Kabak October 22, 2013 - 12:49 pm

But now you’re talking about a megaproject and not an intermediate step that can quickly address capacity constraints.

SEAN October 22, 2013 - 2:45 pm

Yes, I am looking longterm as CBTC won’t solve the problem completely.

Anon256 October 22, 2013 - 1:15 pm

Extending the E and F eastwards would make their capacity problems even worse!

SEAN October 22, 2013 - 2:52 pm

No! Having unessessary cars on Queens Boulevard, Hillside Avenue & other wide avenues pumping palution is far worse than adding capasity on an expanded E & F trunk line.

Jeff October 22, 2013 - 4:01 pm

Extending a subway line does nothing for its capacity. It increases the geographic coverage, but doesn’t solve the problem of overcrowding.

A long term solution for the Queens Blvd line would involve building redundant or alternative lines, or adding trains.

fool October 22, 2013 - 11:18 pm

Not if you up-zone along Broadway, Northern and Queens Blvd to allow for more dense commercial development (NIMBY’s Ahoy!). Shifting the average destination on the line Eastward away from Manhattan.

Really a shame that between Northern Blvd and Queens Plaza is home to big box stores. Between the turn of the 7 off of Queens Blvd and Grand Avenue on the R/M is also very low density.

Alon Levy October 23, 2013 - 1:00 am

Commercial upzoning in Queens is incapable of reducing Manhattan-bound traffic volume. It will raise ridership by more than it raises peak crowding, but it will not reduce peak crowding.

fool October 22, 2013 - 11:11 pm

Create a new EL from the 7 to woodhaven. Queens BLVD could use the diet.

Jeff October 23, 2013 - 9:54 am

The 7 is already at capacity, and I certainly hope you’re not proposing to divert trains from Corona/Flushing to this new line to Woodhaven Blvd.

tacony October 22, 2013 - 10:46 am

How about the developers and business interests pushing for the Midtown East rezoning pay for new open gangway trains on the 4/5/6 and the E? Seems like a good compromise that pulls together two recent transit and development headlines.

SEAN October 22, 2013 - 12:31 pm

1. Off the bat, the agency recognizes a simple but dismaying truth: Mega-projects are not a short-term answer.

Of corse not- “mega-projects” are ment to adress future passenger needs. So what’s so dismaying about that?

2. “In identifying solutions for these choke points in the subway system the MTA needs to be cognizant of the long time horizon that “megaproject”-type solutions require.

Part of the problem here is we have become condissioned to instant gradification both politically & socially. If it cant happen at this moment, then it’s not worth it. Are we at the point when nessessary “mega-projects” stopped getting built because they cant be finished in less time then it takes to buy coffee at Starbucks?


Bolwerk October 22, 2013 - 1:00 pm

…strategic solutions that make the greatest possible use of existing bus and subway lines….

Translation: build nothing, buy buses, and increase labor costs. It’s exactly the type of strategizing that got us into this mess.

Nathanael October 22, 2013 - 1:56 pm

Yeah. One Person Train Operation would make a lot of sense — releasing funding for a lot more train drivers — but of course the featherbedders at the local unions don’t want it. So, raise labor costs while providing minimal increases in service!

Bolwerk October 22, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Both bus drivers and conductors would make excellent LRV operators.

Also, I don’t see why the existing buses need to go to waste. They’re perfect for experimenting with new routes that need to be vetted, or expanding service in places where there isn’t sufficient service.

Tower18 October 22, 2013 - 5:37 pm

Gatineau, Quebec (Ottawa, Ontario’s New Jersey) is wrapping up construction of a fairly stupid BRT system (stupid because it doesn’t actually extend the bus-only ROW into Ottawa, and parallels an existing rail ROW, but doesn’t use rail, but I digress). However, they’ll have a central BRT artery that should have service every 1-2 minutes at peak, and every ~10 minutes throughout the day. This allowed them to reorganize their entire bus network to create more frequent neighborhood service and new routes that connect to the BRT system.

Done right, this allows many more people to have much more frequent service, albeit with one transfer (wait maybe 2 minutes? okay).

Rob October 22, 2013 - 3:09 pm

And/or could operate 660 ft trains [11 60 ft cars] on the Queens Boulevard Line, as was done in the past.

Is it not ironic that they got their big bucks cbtc on the L, and that’s now a line with the biggest capacity problem? [i.e. I have a hunch that cbtc is serving someone else’s agenda]

anon October 22, 2013 - 8:30 pm

Are you saying that cbtc on the L is a conspiracy?

Rob October 23, 2013 - 3:10 pm

no conspiracy. just a recognition that pols and bureaucrats tend to go for the “glamorous” alternative that they can proudly attach their name to, since it is not their money — egged on by the consultants and vendors who peddle it — rather than the most practical cost-effective alternative. For example ,just reference the discussion in these pages abt the proposals for a new Penn Sta, or the new WTC PATH terminal.

Andrew October 22, 2013 - 11:41 pm

Just FYI – CBTC hasn’t been constraining capacity at all. Trains are more crowded now than prior to CBTC simply because ridership has skyrocketed. AM rush service has jumped from 12 tph in 1998 to 19 tph now – a 58% increase. CBTC can support up to 26 tph, so there’s room for more growth if the cars are available.

But enjoy your conspiracy theories if they make you happy. Because those old 1920’s signals would have lasted forever, right?

pete October 23, 2013 - 12:42 am

Old signals had 20 mph timers every so often so sometimes the trains can get to 30 mphg. With CBTC your subway train will be a continuous 20 mph timer. A bike will beat the subway with CBTC.

Anon256 October 23, 2013 - 4:07 am

What can be done to raise speed limits?

Joseph Steindam October 23, 2013 - 8:09 am

I imagine the 20 mph time is set by the CBTC control system to maximize tph on the line. I honestly don’t know if you want or need subways traveling that much more than 25 mph in service (when one used to be able to spy into conductors cabs to see mph, they were rarely reaching 30mph before having to brake). There are precious few stretches in the subway system where trains can reach any considerable speed, and since they can only do that a couple of times during their whole trip, the time savings are pretty small.

Rob October 23, 2013 - 3:14 pm

no conspiracy.

But perhaps new circuit-based signals and platform extensions would have made more sense?

PS – my 7/68 schedule showed 17 tph.


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