Home MTA Technology Link: The Atlantic tackles NYC’s transit tech woes

Link: The Atlantic tackles NYC’s transit tech woes

by Benjamin Kabak

Despite journalistic claims of objectivity, some of the best reporting happens when a writer pursues something personal. In this instance, James Somers wanted to know why his F train stop at Carroll St. didn’t have countdown clocks, and what he undercovered made for a massive piece in The Altantic on the dreadful state of the MTA’s technology and its efforts at modernizing. As you may imagine, what Somers found is an agency beset by institutional paralysis, on the one hand, and a fear of taking any risks, on the other.

What Somers uncovered is an open secret amongst the transit literati. The MTA admits it to those who ask, but it’s rarely publicized. The truth is that the F train — and all B division trains — do not have countdown clocks because the MTA doesn’t know where the trains are. The fixed-block signal system doesn’t allow for MTA operators or individual towers to identify which trains are where, and those non-stop signal problems we hear about can, the MTA says, be caused by something as innocuous as debris on the tracks.

I’d like to spend more time discussing some of the issues Somers’ piece raised, but for today, let’s delve into one section — the tale of bringing CBTC to the L train:

[The RPA’s Richard Barone] explained that the Canarsie pilot suffered from problems that weren’t unusual for big transit projects in New York. The first was outmoded work rules. CBTC is designed so that trains can run themselves. But the L still has two-person crews on board every train. They’re not very busy: An April 2007 article titled “Look, Ma—no hands!” in the trade magazine Railway Age featured a delighted train supervisor named Lance Parrish riding in a CBTC-equipped train on the Canarsie Line. “All Parrish has to do is scan the onboard displays and acknowledge a flashing/beeping alerter every 20 seconds.”

…The second was a fear of change. It costs $168,000 per track-mile per year to maintain trackside signals, 90 percent of which is spent on labor—much of it done overnight and on weekends, qualifying the workers for overtime. If those signals were eliminated, millions of dollars could be saved each year. But New York decided to run CBTC on top of a reduced form of the old fixed-block signaling system, requiring that both be expensively maintained, despite evidence from other cities that no backup was necessary. (In Vancouver, the SkyTrain has had no CBTC-related accidents in more than 26 years.) And the fact that the two systems had to work together—requiring the supplier to study the old signals in depth—became a major source of delays.

Barone says New York just wasn’t willing to rip the band-aid off. Cities like London deal with major transit upgrades by packing maintenance and line closures into as short a window as possible, however painful that might seem at the time. New York, by contrast, draws out its track maintenance. When I spoke to the president of Thales Transport & Security, one of two major CBTC suppliers to New York, he said that “getting time on the track is by far the biggest schedule driver.” Crucial test-runs get queued behind miscellaneous track maintenance, so that it takes months to validate even small changes. “In the New York mindset,” he said, “there just isn’t the concept of the trains ever stopping.”

All that waiting isn’t free. These are huge projects for a company like Thales; they’ll spin up a whole office, a whole mini workforce, just to work on it. And when they’re waiting for track time, that workforce doesn’t just spin down—it continues to get paid. Anticipating delays, contractors inflate their bids.

So what we see here in this one little excerpt from a much longer story is an insight into why the MTA can’t seem to bring technology innovation to our system in a timely fashion and, in part, why everything costs so much. If we are to reform MTA practices and get more (or perhaps any) bang for the massive amounts of capital bucks to which the agency now has access, we’re starting to understand the best places to start.

More coming later when we look at how Somers explains the countdown clock conundrum. In the meantime, be sure to check out the full article. It’s well worth the read.

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Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 7:21 am

All true, I can confirm. Those who run the subways were so afraid of the first solid state interlocking, at Bergen Street, that they demanded a duplicate relay-based system be installed as well.

Moreover, it would be nice if all those “signal problems” were on lines with decaying, ancient signal systems. Those with systems installed in the past 25 years fail as well.

Lets not leave out the politicians. On the Canarsie line CBTC project, a major effort was planned over a weekend in December. Then the Bedford Avenue merchants organized to complain — “how could they do this to us and prevent those living in Manhattan from doing their Christmas shopping in Williamsburg?” They got the local state legislators involved, and there was a meeting. One engineer told me the pompous, bloviating State Senator was just like the Governor in Blazing Saddles. The work was cancelled, and this cost $millions.

“New York just wasn’t willing to rip the band-aid off. Cities like London deal with major transit upgrades by packing maintenance and line closures into as short a window as possible.”

How much more are we all paying for road work to be done on nights and weekends, for the convenience of rush hour automobile commuters? And to the detriment of those who commute by mass transit but sometimes drive places on the weekend?

Money is no object when poorer younger generations are paying. Which is what debt does. And why “capital money is less green.”

mister November 18, 2015 - 2:20 am

It’s my understanding that the backup fixed block signal system has nothing to do with redundancy for CBTC.

The QBL CBTC project is being designed with a fixed block system overlaid on it. However that system only gets you 7 tph on a track, a far cry from the 30 tph of today and the 33 (!) that they think they might get with a CBTC system in place. The whole reason for this system is that, at present, it seems as though they can’t find a way to figure out how to make CBTC work with their maintenance equipment. The new R156 locomotives were supposed to be CBTC compatible, but it hadn’t happened last I checked, and there’s other equipment that isn’t even in the cards to be CBTC compatible (Track Geometry Cars, for example).

So, the fixed block system is kept in place to provide signal protection for this non-revenue equipment that is still needed on the lines. I heard that the installations of signals was going to be at interlockings where they needed signals ANYWAY. I am not a CBTC expert, but I would imagine it possible to build an interlocking without the need add the technology for fixed blocks between the interlockings as well.

AMH November 18, 2015 - 2:38 pm

That’s my understanding as well. I have no idea how easy or hard it would be to install CBTC on work equipment.

EJ November 18, 2015 - 11:20 pm

Even if for some reason they had to purchase entirely new maintenance and geometry cars for the CBTC sections, it’s got to be a fraction of the expense of integrating and maintaining the existing block signals as an overlay on top of the CBTC system, if that’s really the only reason they’re doing it.

Nathanael November 26, 2015 - 3:01 pm

When London (UK) installed CBTC, they’d already started a “blockade” or complete shutdown procedure for track maintenance.

New York should try it.

Andrew November 26, 2015 - 4:17 pm

New York had a 24/7 blockade of the Montague tube – a relatively low ridership tube with a number of nearby alternatives.

New York had a 24/7 blockade of the Greenpoint tube – another relatively low ridership tube.

And New York often has overnight and weekend blockades of segments of lines that have reasonable alternatives or that have low enough ridership that buses can fill in. That includes parts of the 7 line.

So what exactly are you proposing?

Tower18 November 18, 2015 - 7:44 pm

In all seriousness, what tph can be accommodated by Line Of Sight? As you point out, you should only need interlocking signals for work trains. Work trains are so infrequent and travel at such low speeds, in general, that I can’t imagine they can’t travel “dark” if you will, for most of the line(s).

AMH November 23, 2015 - 11:23 am

How would passenger trains then be able to run at all, if they didn’t know what the foreign train was or how fast it was moving?

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 9:17 am

By the way, how much does the need to keep running service inflate construction costs on phases one and two of the Second Avenue Subway?

And if the solution is to “rip the bandaid off,” shouldn’t phase two be completed before NYCT needs to replace the signals on the Lexington Avenue line?

John R November 17, 2015 - 9:21 am

Ideally, we’d have CBTC on the Lexington Ave Line by then. And be on at least phase three. And have express tracks on the Second Ave Line.

Except the MTA can’t do any of that.

LLQBTT November 17, 2015 - 9:26 am

The MTA had their turn for 50 years. Now give someone else the chance. With a little care, the outcome can only be better.

AG November 17, 2015 - 12:07 pm

But who and what structure? Most of the time there will be a Democratic mayor and governor. They new the unions to get elected. The minute one tells the unions they can’t get everything they want – hey are reviled as evil by their own party. Say what you want about Cuomo (I didn’t even vote for him) but he was the toast of the Democrats until he started talking pension reform. Now he’s trying to get back in their graces by guaranteeing 15 per hour minimum wage. All that will do is make upstate bleed more jobs as labor costs will drive more of those jobs to the south and overseas. Which mayor or governor is going to tell the union – nope sorry – no more jobs where you are allowed to just stand around for your own benefit… No more redundancy etc. there was a mayor that wasn’t beholden to the unions because he had his own campaign money. Every Union lined up to back probably the worst candidate just because he was the complete opposite. Long story short – I don’t blame the MTA – I blame the voters of NY.

Nathanael November 18, 2015 - 7:38 am

It ain’t the minimum wage which is the problem for upstate business.

It’s benefits (if the government paid for healthcare it would save a fortune). And it’s property taxes (if the government paid for Medicaid OUT OF INCOME TAX it would save a fortune).

Nathanael November 18, 2015 - 7:39 am

Of course the governor and legislature refuse to fix the actual problems, because that would imperil the graft which they are grafting.

AG November 18, 2015 - 11:27 pm

Well it can’t be minimum wage since it hasn’t got up yet… My point is that it will make the other issues even worse.

Nathanael November 26, 2015 - 3:06 pm

It’s not at all clear that it’ll make things worse. In areas with very few employers, increasing the minimum wage may have no effect on employment. Monopsony.

AG November 27, 2015 - 7:18 am

In those already depressed regions – small business owners are on tiny margins… They will have to make cuts. Money won’t just come out of nowhere…
Hi-tech jobs are being created upstate – but those can never add up to the amount of “low-tech” industry that was the former linchpin of upstate NY. Each month more of those jobs continue to relocate to lower tax/cost regions of the country and globe. Wage inflation upstate will only continue the exodus.
I mean even the jobs that have to be “local”… You think some of these “Silicon Valley” type engineers aren’t feverishly working to find ways to automate the fast food process as much as possible? Do people really think fast food restaurants will keep the same staffing levels when they have to pay everyone at least $15/hour? Upstate NY won’t be helped by this at all.

adirondacker12800 November 27, 2015 - 1:27 pm

People have been screaming about the imminent demise of upstate for decades.

AG November 27, 2015 - 2:41 pm

Except that it is an actual reality…
See 1997:

See 2015:

If you go back to 1987 you would read the same exact things – except NYC hadn’t begun it’s transformation yet… Those are facts of reality – not someone’s fictional story.

adirondacker12800 November 27, 2015 - 4:37 pm

Except it hasn’t.

AG November 28, 2015 - 2:30 pm

Ok – so because you say so? While every verifiable metric states that you are wrong? The natural landscape of upstate NY is gorgeous. The increase in joblessness and poverty – and the loss of population in many places is not. The only place listed as the most dangerous cities in the state that is anywhere near “big bad NYC” is Newburgh. All of the rest are “upstate”. Why? Poverty and despair and inadequate crime fighting resources.


adirondacker12800 November 28, 2015 - 7:02 pm

I look at figures from the U.S. Census bureau and see that the population loss in Upstate New York is measured in tiny fractions of a percent. Are you saying the numbers from the Census Bureau are unreliable? Which ones should I look at instead?

AG November 28, 2015 - 10:36 pm

You realize for a place to actually lose any population is a depressive state…?

adirondacker12800 November 28, 2015 - 7:30 pm

Newburgh is part of New York City’s Combined Statistical Area.

adirondacker12800 November 27, 2015 - 1:49 pm

If they are on tiny margins they are already using the minimum amount of labor they can use and not offend customers. They’ll have to raise prices. They’ll lose some customers but get different ones because the low wage worker in the next store over can afford the new prices with their new wage.

AG November 27, 2015 - 2:30 pm

Sure that the dream of those who implement those policies… No proof that it will ever work… Especially since such a large jump in minimum wage has never been tried. In any event – without industries that can sustain economic growth – wage inflation at the bottom won’t make any difference in the overall economic health. Especially as more mobile industries continue to leave.

adirondacker12800 November 27, 2015 - 4:35 pm

It’s not going to be a one time rise. Every time the minimum wage gets raised there’s a chorus of people with all sorts of dire predictions. They never come true.

AG November 28, 2015 - 2:26 pm

Which part of “there has never been an increase of this nature” before equates to what has happened before. One thing we do know is that it is no panacea for preventing poverty. The reality is if these politicians were smart they would peg the minimum wage to the inflation rate. Minimum wage is just that – it is a wage paid for the least desirable labor which requires the least skill. No wage law prevented textiles from fleeing this country to go to cheaper nations. It’s no coincidence that as wages in those nations go up – the use of 3D printing and robotics are being invested in to eventually take over as much of the work as possible – as they have in more complicated manufacturing processes.
No wage law prevents GM from deciding to now even import Buicks to the US from China… Or Ford from building cars in Japan. Companies will go where they get the most “bang for the buck”. If taxes and costs and regulations are the reasons for the decline of the job markets in upstate NY – calling for higher labor costs won’t help jobs recover. This nation has the lowest labor participation rate (which is a MUCH better metric than the phony employment rate) since the 1960’s. You can be assured that technology will continue to erode that. Why do you think Amazon is working on robots to replace the vast majority of warehouse workers and drones to get rid of delivery people??? These are facts now – not just imagination any more. All Amazon will do is spend more resources to find ways to replace that human labor. Then what will have been gained?

adirondacker12800 November 28, 2015 - 7:14 pm

There never has been a rise from $9 an hour to $15 an hour because the minimum wage has not been $9 an hour until recently. I suspect that is not what you have in mind.

I paid attention in third and fourth grade. I can calculate percentages. Raising the minimum wage from 9 bucks an hour, which is what it will be in some states soon, to 15 an hour is an increase of 66.666666… percent. By two thirds.
The minimum wage in 1949 was 40 cents an hour and it rose to 75 cents an hour in 1950. An increase of 87.5 percent. I know this is terribly unfashionable, an increase of seven eights. Seven eights is bigger than two thirds. So I guess that’s not exactly the same as raising 66.6 percent.
Every time the minimum is raised there are all sorts of dire predictions. That never come true.

AG November 28, 2015 - 10:40 pm

In case you didn’t notice – a lot has changed in the world since 1950… And no – the referral was not strict percentage – but you already knew that. In any event vast amounts of labor was needed and wanted back in 1950. In 2015 businesses try to make do with the least amount of labor as possible. That is just one of the MANY difference between now and then.

adirondacker12800 November 29, 2015 - 12:08 am

In 1950 a 40 hour week, five days a week was an innovation. A 40 hour week isn’t part of the Constitution. Even if it was the constitution can be amended.

You can’t on one hand argue that nothing has ever been done like this, even though it has, and on the other that everything is different. The conditions were ever so slightly – or greatly different – every time the minimum wage has been raised. Every time the same list of dire consequences is trotted out. They don’t come true.

AG November 29, 2015 - 10:01 am

Ok… I guess it is also a dream that the labor participation rate in this country is the lowest it’s been in 50 years (though that is NOT true in major centers like NYC)??? Just like it’s a dream that upstate NY continues to shed job with no real growth for at least the past 30. No – those are facts. Facts that were NOT predicted when we started going down the road that caused them. I can’t predict tomorrow – but one thing we do now is raising the minimum wage has not eased poverty in society. It won’t now either – but it will stress small businesses further – in places where they can least handle it. Rest assured – the affects of it in NYC will not be the same as it will be in Binghampton and Syracuse. That much I am sure of.
Smart politicians would peg minimum wage to inflation. Artificially inflating it to what sounds politically “progressive” will cause wage inflation up the ladder and cause hiring contraction. Labor costs are most businesses largest expense. One thing I can guarantee is the companies I do business with who are low margin will continue to freeze hiring. Their hiring requirements for individual positions will also be more stringent. Meaning those with less skills will get less of a chance to get the lower jobs on the rung. Those I can tell you for facts. The persons with no experience and no or low educational attainment who got certain positions before won’t get them now. That’s not a guess… I’m talking direct from the people who set the agenda and strategy of these three specific companies. You can say it’s just anecdotal – but there are some things that are fundamental across businesses.
It’s the same thing with these companies with the healthcare law. Many full time positions became part time to avoid new requirements for persons working 30 hours/week. Again – this is not Goldman Sachs nor IBM we’re talking about… We are talking about the small businesses who make up most of the jobs. Many of them are not sitting on billions in cash and have profit margins that allow them to hire people at 6 figure salaries like nothing. I’m talking about the companies who fret when their healthcare costs go up by small percentages. Again – I’m not guessing. The problem is not that everyone needs insurance – the problem is that healthcare costs are just WAY TOO HIGH in this country. Until that is addressed – insuring everyone doesn’t do much. Costs are the issue – just like subway construction.

Any event – this is a transit forum… I’ll leave it there.

adirondacker12800 November 29, 2015 - 1:05 pm

It’s lower for men. Bureau of Labor Statistics says it peaked at 59.0 percent in 1965 and has been 62.4 percent or above in 2015.

…..just like 50-something women could decide to become housewives, after losing their job, in 1965, 50-something men can make the decision to become househusbands these days. The men in the peak of the baby boom are in their late 50s.

JJJJ November 17, 2015 - 9:36 am

Maybe self-driving cars will be helpful in letting people realize that self-driving trains do not need an operator, never mind two. They need to be gone, ASAP.

As for countdown clocks, if it was a priority, one could jerry-rig a system using cheap, low resolution video cameras, and image recognition software.

Train with an F in the front passes point X? Great, the A is 2 minutes a way.

My Dell laptop from freshman year of college could handle that task.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 10:47 am

The rail transit industry and the railroad industry need to get some of those Silicon Valley firms thinking about how they can re-engineer things. Everything else like this is getting better and cheaper at warp speed. It’s time to take a big leap.

This will all be worth it if someone suddenly steps up and installs CBTC on all the lines in five years for $500 million or less. That could happen. It should happen.

Phillip Roncoroni November 17, 2015 - 7:08 pm

The rail transit industry and the railroad industry need to get some of those Silicon Valley firms thinking about how they can re-engineer things.

That’s essentially how BusTime was designed and rolled out.

AG November 17, 2015 - 9:20 pm

I thought BusTime was local programmers/coders?? You sure they were from the Bay Area?

kevdflb November 18, 2015 - 12:45 am

I think you’re missing the point, which is that they are from outside the MTA.
Whether from Silicon Valley or Alley, it doesn’t really matter.
They fixed solved a problem that the MTA said would take years and cost billions, and they did it quickly and cheaply.

Larry Littlefield November 18, 2015 - 7:23 am

“I think you’re missing the point, which is that they are from outside the MTA.”

Not outside the MTA. In fact you’d have to have someone inside the MTA capable of doing the work.

Outside the rail/transit infrastructure contracting industry. The big advances are in other industries. There is a need to get those who are making them interested in rail infrastructure.

Larry Littlefield November 18, 2015 - 7:24 am

I meant you’d have to have someone inside the MTA capable of supervision the work.

BSPABNY November 18, 2015 - 8:52 pm

The BusTime app and website were developed by Cambridge Systematics, in collaboration with OpenPlans, using open source software called onebusaway. The software relies on some of the same on-board tech that is used for other automatic vehicle location (AVL) applications, such as diagnosing operational performance issues, and this on board hardware will support next gen fare payment, too.

None of this is coincidental or lucky. A few very bright minds in MTA’s IT group conceived of a plan to make everything, hardware and software, modular and replaceable, rather than using the tried and failed commercial off the shelf or turnkey procurement methods. And the groundwork they laid is going to pay off for years to come.

Larry Littlefield November 19, 2015 - 7:43 am

“A few very bright minds in MTA’s IT group conceived of a plan to make everything, hardware and software, modular and replaceable, rather than using the tried and failed commercial off the shelf or turnkey procurement methods.”

The problem is, the MTA went with bespoke, custom designed, never before seen technology for CBTC and ATS, and the result was a long, expensive morass.

Off the shelf worked fine for EZ Pass. The issue isn’t off the shelf vs. custom design. It is something else.

AG November 18, 2015 - 11:38 pm

Well no – it matters to me because I live in the literal world. So when someone says “Silicon Valley” to me that means the Bay Area of California. In my world – not everyone who writes computer code lives there.

Gary November 17, 2015 - 10:53 am

The goons in the TWU will do everything they can to stop advances like this. If CBTC does happen, they’ll probably sabotage the system to cause accidents so they can cry “See, we do need train operators. In fact, now we need 4 people working per train!”

AG November 17, 2015 - 11:28 am

You are correcting. I recall the fight they put up in the media when it was even mentioned that the L might not need two staff members with the “new” technology it (was) getting. Fact is the unions still control politics in NY and especially NYC. Let’s also be honest – they have a stranglehold over the Democras the most.

Nathanael November 18, 2015 - 7:40 am

The LIRR unions are even worse. The maintenance unions have apparently even avoided time clocks (so they can scam better).

Peter November 18, 2015 - 3:32 pm

Personally I would disagree with the idea of going to OPTO. I live in the DC area, Metro has OPTO and damn if the drivers are idiots about the doors closing.

Tower18 November 18, 2015 - 7:48 pm

What’s the problem with doors closing that is solved by 2 door closers, which is not solvable with a single door closer?

BDawe November 18, 2015 - 9:06 pm

The failures of WMATA should not be taken for how things work when they are run by people who run things properly

There are scores of high-volume subways out there that are entirely automated, and they work fine.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 11:33 am

There are two ways to “get ahead.” Productivity gains, which allow everyone to get ahead because work per worker goes up.

And making other people fall behind, charging them more for less while demanding that they charge less for more.

Due mostly to soaring retirement costs (particularly in the wake of the 2000 pension retroactive pension increase) public employees have been getting ahead. What makes their cash pay and pensions go farther is falling wages for the serfs.

No CBTC on #7 November 17, 2015 - 12:14 pm

Ben – Do you know if CBTC has been turned off or is no longer being used on the 7 line? I don’t know the terminology, if “turned off” is correct or not. I’m asking because over the past few months they’ve installed yellow signs at each end of the platforms for all stops along the 7 line. The signs read something like “CBTC signals here” or something to that effect. But I’ve notice over the past few weeks all of the yellow signs have been completely covered over with black electrical tape. what’s going on? In any event, I think CBTC is a complete waste of money. I don’t care to know when the next train is coming because one will always come, been riding the 7 and N trains since junior high. they should have spent the money to expand the system instead, what a waste.

Zach_the_Lizard November 17, 2015 - 1:16 pm

CBTC is not about countdown clocks. Countdown clocks are enabled simply because the technology knows where all trains are, so it’s easy enough to report this information.

CBTC is needed because it’s a modern, more robust signalling system. It’s basically a set of radios on the tracks that receive data on which trains have passed through, how fast they’re going, how fast they can break, etc. that is reported centrally and to all other trains. At least, that’s how I understand it.

With knowledge of which trains are where, how fast they’re going, in which direction, etc., it’s possible to run trains closer together. Fixed block signals reserve a fixed section of track. CBTC allows the blocks to follow the train around, giving just the right amount of buffer space. This means you can run more trains.

This also provides the infrastructure to run trains without any operators. There’s really no point to them with modern technology.

adirondacker12800 November 17, 2015 - 2:40 pm

Signal systems can’t tell if someone has leaped off the platform. Or some crazy person has decided to go berserk.

mister November 17, 2015 - 9:58 pm

CBTC can’t, but other technologies certainly can detect intrusions onto the roadbed. If autonomous cars can detect pedestrians, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that trains should be able to do the same.

bigbellymon4 November 17, 2015 - 10:25 pm

Also, the MTA had a pilot program where they were testing the different track intrusion systems (hehehe pilot program). It was put to work at the Rector St. stop on the R (due to the Montague Tube closures).

Kai B November 17, 2015 - 1:22 pm

It is my understanding that CBTC won’t be live on the 7 until 2017.

My guess would be that the CBTC warning signs were put up for some tests and covered up otherwise as they are then inaccurate.

Tim November 17, 2015 - 3:04 pm

CBTC is about more than countdown clocks. It allows better fleet management and enables high through put of trains, so you can move more through in an hour. It’s badly needed to replace the ancient signaling systems currently in use.

Tower18 November 18, 2015 - 7:49 pm

Someone didn’t bother to read the article (or understand the problem, at all)

Herb Lehman November 17, 2015 - 1:06 pm

Extreme minority opinion here, I realize. But be careful what you wish for with the countdown clocks.

I ride the 4/5/6 line daily. With the clocks come the automatic announcement system, which have filled the stations with almost constant noise pollution (“May I have your attention please, 1,413 tons of trash…” anyone?) And they haven’t made a single train come a second faster.

At express stations, the clocks have little use because there’s almost always one announcement or another going on, with the text of the announcement taking up the second line on the clock.

The one way the clocks are useful is that if a train is packed (e.g. most 6 trains at 59th Street), you’ll know if the next train is in 1 minute or 8 minutes and it’s worth trying to pile on or not. But I’d rather the MTA focus on reducing headways so that there’s less of a psychological need for the clocks in the first place.

22r November 17, 2015 - 2:00 pm

Just because MTA has deployed clocks and announcements in a messy way doesn’t mean the idea is bad. Go to any first-world transit system and see how it works correctly.

Tower18 November 18, 2015 - 7:53 pm

I always think of this when looking at the road information signs, let’s say on the GCP approaching Triborough Bridge. The signs are, say, 10 feet tall by 100 feet wide. I have no idea how close to accurate this is, but it doesn’t matter, so bear with me. 10×100. That space has approximately 6×60 available for words. So you have a HUGE physical sign, but they only installed 2 rows of LEDs, so you have to truncate to things like GWB, HRD, MDE.

And to make things worse, often there are 3-4 rows of text available, but only 2 are used, and the sign CYCLES, so god help you if you drive past it before it cycles to Part 2 of the message.

It doesn’t need to be this way, but it is this way when idiots design things.

AMH November 18, 2015 - 2:50 pm

Agree that noise pollution needs to be reduced, both on the platforms and onboard trains. Do the announcements have anything to do with ADA? People complain about inaudible announcements, but deafening and excessively verbose ones are equally bad. On weekends when there are service changes it’s often impossible to hear yourself think.

22r November 17, 2015 - 1:59 pm

Couldn’t we at the very least install count-up clocks like in Moscow so people waiting on the platform know how long it’s been since the last train (and could more or less estimate how long until the next one)?

paulb November 17, 2015 - 5:35 pm

I read it and about the countdown clocks, I was bewildered. Unadvised, I’d have thought trackside and train transponders wouldn’t be all that huge a technical hurdle to install and could get train locations back to the towers. But it’s like the Randall’s Island Connector from the Bronx. You look at it and you just can’t figure out why it took so long to build. And I had another technical question. Are our subway cars heavier than in other places? They sure feel that way. It seems like if tracks were maintained to be smoother, the trains could be lighter, and that would produce less wear and tear on the tracks.

AG November 17, 2015 - 5:58 pm

As to the Randall’s Island Connector… I believe Con Ed was the problem. The construction didn’t start until the last 2 years of the Bloomberg Administration. Con Ed also has a blown up pier right there at he end of 132nd St. (which another group wants to turn into a park). How was Con Ed allowed to do these things…? Malaise…

Nathanael November 26, 2015 - 3:09 pm

Con Ed seems to be another institution with deep structural corruption problems. Most electric utilities are pretty bad, but Con Ed has a special reputation for badness.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 6:45 pm

A complication is that the NYC subway has multiple routes running on the same line. They could hook into the track circuits, but they can’t tell you if the train that is coming is going to your branch line or not, or if it will be going local or express.

At Jay Street. “There is a downtown F train two stations away. There is a downtown express train one station away.”

Tower18 November 18, 2015 - 7:56 pm

But that’s where a RFID transponder in the front of each train would fix this problem. Reroutes aside (in which case, even ATS is terminally fucked), a train would be RFID 000045340532957 and would leave Coney Island as an F train to 179th. Each way station it passes would read that RFID number and know that it’s an F train. The G train that passes the same way station has a code for G to Court Sq.

Larry Littlefield November 19, 2015 - 12:01 pm

That’s what ATS has. Somehow this is hugely expensive. NYCT has the only electronic infrastructure that keeps getting more and more expensive.

Larry Littlefield November 17, 2015 - 9:05 pm

Now think of yourself as an MTA manager.

You try to shut down a line, to expedite the work and get things done in the long run. But you know that your bosses, the machine politicians, will pander to those interests that just care about today because they will be gone in the long run.

You try to get a better deal from contractors and unions. But your bosses, the politicians, are getting financial support from the contractors and unions.

Those who think about what is best for everyone in the long run don’t get ahead. And now it is the long run.

AG November 17, 2015 - 9:25 pm

You summed it up perfectly.

Nathanael November 18, 2015 - 7:41 am

The key feature is the the machine politicians *don’t use the subway*.

In London they have machine politicians. Oh boy do they have machine politicians. But they all *ride the Underground*, so they care about making it faster and more effective.

bigbellymon4 November 17, 2015 - 10:53 pm

As CBTC facilitates the neccessary removal and disposal of fixed-block signalling, it has many benefits as it brings real-time information to not only the MTA but also to the customers. However, instead of waiting for CBTC to be installed and then installing countdown clocks, why can’t there be countdown clocks installed on all the platforms and display the scheduled arrival time of the next train? Wouldn’t that help with the “when is the next train arriving?” problem? It would also help the MTA to somewhat know where the trains are.

Bronx Resident November 18, 2015 - 12:16 am


I have read that CBTC can enable shorter headways through increased frequency, improve safety, and automatically operate trains.

But can the system also enable trains to ride faster? Haven’t read anything about increased speeds anywhere.

mister November 18, 2015 - 1:56 am

It certainly can and does, although the MTA doesn’t promote it and it’s targets for speeds are decidedly underwhelming.

Currently, max speed throughout the system is 45 mph (although trains rarely reach this, but they can exceed it in certain places). The New Technology Trains are limited at this speed. With CBTC enabled, the NTTs are limited at 55mph. Of course, before the Williamsburg Bridge accident, many of the older trains were already approaching this speed anyway.

I think that they should be looking to provide better service through faster speeds. Trains are slow enough right now that many lines could see 20% travel savings through enhanced speeds, and you would need fewer trainsets.

AMH November 18, 2015 - 2:46 pm

I read somewhere that trains hit 60mph in the 60th Street Tubes, which should certainly be possible in other straightaways.

mister November 19, 2015 - 12:33 pm

Keep in mind that the trains are on a steep downgrade into the 60th st tunnel. Also, when it’s a new Tech trainset, the trains will stop taking power after they reach their top speed.

The 125th to 59th street straightaway on the CPW line is a good example of the low standards of speed on NYCT. Southbound, trains struggle to maintain 30 mph until they reach 86th street, at which point a downgrade helps them speed up. But then they are immediately running into timer signals, which dramatically reduce speeds (routinely, local trains make the trip between 72nd and 59th faster than express trains). Track Geometry could allow much higher speeds, but the performance of the rolling stock and the MTA’s insistence on using timers to slow trains down to solve problems timers weren’t meant to solve means that trains are much slower than they need to be. CBTC could solve this problem in a major way, but they are only shooting for a modest increase in speeds. Ultimately, the equipment itself would need to be a bit more powerful too.

Tom November 18, 2015 - 1:15 am

Even with a fixed-block signal system, couldn’t we get an approximate arrival time? We know the time each train enters a block, and make an educated guess as to how long it’ll take to get to the station from that point. Each time a train enters a block, we recalculate.

mister November 18, 2015 - 1:57 am

Read the full article. It explains this issue quite well.


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