As the MTA struggles to expand subway capacity to meet current ridership demands, the idea of rolling stock design has come under scrutiny. A few years ago, the MTA, to the public’s dismay, floated the idea of making a certain number of cars per train seatless during rush hour, but that didn’t go far. Another proposal, which is standard design in a number of international cities, is now getting its day in the sun. That idea is of course open gangways, and in MTA Board materials released this weekend, we now have a glimpse of what the MTA is envisioning for their prototype.
Open gangways are a familiar sight to international travelers, and in fact, one needs to travel no farther than Montreal or Toronto to experience this rolling stock design. The idea is simple: By sealing in and opening up the space in between cars, open gangways create freedom of movement and more space for passengers. It’s a safer design that eliminates the problems of isolated subway or metro cars and can increase capacity by around 8-10 percent per subway train. That we do not have them already, MTA sources have told me, is a mix of agency fears at doing something viewed by New Yorkers as “different” even if it exists elsewhere and some manageable engineering concerns about these types of cars’ ability to handle tight curves.
A few weeks ago, I explored how the 2015-2019 Capital Plan features an open gangway prototype order. For the upcoming R211 rolling stock, 10 cars out of 950 will include an open gangway design so the MTA can test this feature for future use. It’s a disappointingly modest part of a rolling stock order expected to by in service until the 2060s or 2070s. But hold that thought.
This weekend, the MTA released the rendering you see above. Intriguingly, the image suggests a June 4, 2013 creation date. So clearly the agency has been bandying this idea about for a few years. That it is taking so long to come to fruition, even on a pilot basis, is indicative of the MTA’s hesitant approach to ideas that are “new” to New York. (Considering how early 20th century subway cars featured open gangways, we could argue the semantics of whether these designs are actually new to New York for hours. Either way, they are new to the MTA in a post-1968 world.)
In accompanying materials [pdf], the MTA simply notes that the objectives for the $2.3 billion R211 order includes expanding capacity through better design. It’s not clear if, when the prototypes are successful, the agency could retrofit the R211s for additional open gangway train sets or if the MTA could amend an order in progress. I’m sure we’ll hear more about this plan during the committee meetings on Monday, but I hope this option exists. Otherwise, having around 1 percent of one rolling stock model feature open gangways won’t do much for the MTA’s capacity concerns.
And therein lies the rub. If the MTA receives these open gangway cars in the early 2020s and determines the design is feasible for many subway lines, the window for system-wide adaption will have closed for decades. The agency brags that 56 percent of its fleet is, at most, 15 years old, and the upcoming orders — the delayed R179s, the R188s, the rest of the R211s — aren’t open gangway train sets. Thus, the next order of cars that could be all open gangways won’t arrive until the late 2020s, and the MTA’s full complement of subway cars wouldn’t have these open gangways until the mid-2070s. By then, I hope another phase or two of the Second Ave. Subway is open as well. A slow approach to seemingly-innovative designs that are de rigueur elsewhere will get us nowhere.