Home New York City Transit Comptroller audit uncovers what riders already know: subway service is increasingly unreliable

Comptroller audit uncovers what riders already know: subway service is increasingly unreliable

by Benjamin Kabak

Since early 2007, Thomas DiNapoli has served as the New York State comptroller. He has outlasted two governors and more MTA CEOs or chairmen than I wish to count. He has, if he wants it, complete and total access to bones of the MTA’s financials. He could study its contracting processes and inefficient spending. He could try to analyze why capital construction costs orders of magnitude more in New York City than anywhere else in the world.

Instead, DiNapoli would like to tell you that subway trains are getting more crowded and service is growing more unreliable. This is truly breaking news from a nine-year veteran who should be doing more. This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized DiNapoli for his particularly unimpressive audits, and although DiNapoli brings up some valid points I’ll cover shortly, it’s worth hounding on the limited scope of DiNapoli’s examinations of the MTA’s practices. He is talking about improvements around the margins when someone needs to address the larger problems plaguing the MTA’s contracting efforts and spending patterns.

But we are left with DiNapoli’s reports as they are, and this one says that subway service is bad! Perhaps it’s worse than the MTA says! Breaking news! The New York State Comptroller is ON IT!

DiNapoli’s latest report – available here as a PDF — is a slog through the MTA’s wait assessment numbers. Wait assessment essentially measures headways and the MTA’s adherence to its published guidelines. A seven-minute gap between 6 trains at rush hour, for instance, means one or two trains missed their scheduled runs, and as such, wait assessment is negatively affected. Using only the annual figures, DiNapoli has determined that the 5 and A trains are the two worst performing lines in the system and that the MTA’s wait assessment figures show service growing more unreliable. The 1 and C or D trains have been the best, but DiNapoli is skeptical of the numbers he opted to study for this audit.

“The MTA is very clear that it considers its wait time assessment to be its most important measurement of the reliability of subway service and riders’ experience,” DiNapoli said. “It turns out the way Transit calculates this measurement obscures the reality of straphangers’ wait times. New York’s subway riders deserve better.”

DiNapoli’s critique focuses around annual wait assessment figures. For annual numbers, the MTA averages wait times across the year, and performance may look better than it is. But the MTA also provides monthly numbers in its Board materials, and for some reason, DiNapoli didn’t examine the granular details. “The MTA reports these wait assessment figures to the public every month for every subway line, and uses them as part of its many analytical tools to determine the root causes of delays and develop strategies for improving service,” the MTA said in a statement. “While the audit recommends changing how wait assessment is calculated and reported, the comptroller’s proposal misstates how subway service guidelines operate and would introduce statistical disparities if put into practice.”

This battle over some very inside-baseball measurements aside, it’s hard to deny that our subways are more crowded than ever and service can’t meet demand. The problem is that fixes are years away. First, the MTA doesn’t really have the rolling stock for significant increases in peak-hour service. Until the R179 order starts coming in, the MTA is constrained by the train sets they have on hand. Second, the MTA needs communications-based train control, but full systemwide implementation is still years or decades away. DiNapoli should instead explore why and what can be done to speed up this process.

As has become party line lately, the MTA blamed “crowding” as “the single most frequent cause of subway disruptions.” To me, this is victim-blaming. The MTA says trains are delayed because there are too many people using the trains. But ultimately, the MTA can’t keep up with demand, and trains are delayed because there aren’t enough of them to adequately carry passenger loads. That’s on them, not us, and it’s a problem that could be more readily improved if the New York State comptroller took on the harder questions.

You may also like


Larry Greenfield April 7, 2016 - 6:14 am

The money for more rolling stock and the crews to maintain and run them is not “on the MTA, ” it’s on “us.” Our politicians have yet to use new sources for this money even though there are practical sources available.

bigbellymon4 April 7, 2016 - 12:37 pm

On the L, you technically can run OPTO because of CBTC, so it is on the MTA. OPTO saves money, which can be used elsewhere in the system.

A. G. April 7, 2016 - 1:13 pm

The CBTC tech that’s used by the MTA is the same (Siemens’s) technology that’s to be used on the Barcelona L9 line, which will be completely driverless. Considering that half of the NYCT operating budget is conductor labor, they could even shoot for being revenue positive if they were willing to cut positions.

Chuck G April 7, 2016 - 1:35 pm

“Considering that half of the NYCT operating budget is conductor labor,…”

This is a joke, right?

A.G. April 7, 2016 - 2:02 pm

I could have sworn the number was 50%, but I may be mistaken (or thinking of the LIRR).

Take a look at the 2015 Feb operating budget:

See page 269, for NYCT’s breakdown of expenses. $5.6 billion in Total Labor Costs out of $7.3 billion in Total Operating Expenses (sans depreciation).

Page 81 lists 47k NYCT total positions. Page 83 lists 22k in operations. If I’m allowed to presume 20k of these people are train operators/conductors, then 22k/47k is 47% of the $5.6 billion, or $2.6 billion. That’s 36% of the operating budget. You’re correct, it isn’t not 50% by this rough estimate.

A.G. April 7, 2016 - 2:22 pm

For anyone who is curious, I’ve found a more recent Adopted MTA financial plan (as of Feb 2016):


Page 260 lists 10.8k full time (or equivalent) positions involved in Subway Operations. This is out of the 22k I listed above, which let’s revise to 23k as per page 260. So to revise the above, 10.8k/47k is 23% of the $5.6 billion, or
$1.3 billion in subway operations labor. Now we’re down to 18% of the total MTA operating budget!

A.G. April 7, 2016 - 2:33 pm

The same numbers for the LIRR (since I mentioned it):

2.4k LIRR operations personnel (page 172)
7.1k total LIRR personnel (page 173)

$1b in LIRR Labor expenses (page 165)
$1.4b in LIRR operating expenses (page 165)

(2.4k/7.1k)*($1 billion / $1.4 billion) = 24% of the LIRR operating expenses are labor operations. Worse, but not by much than NYCT. Fairly wrong of me to state NYCT could have become revenue positive on UTO #hangsHeadInShame.

Larry Littlefield April 7, 2016 - 8:38 pm

Here are the numbers from NYCTA Facts and Figures for 1986.

3,259 train operators
2,854 conductors

Total rapid transit operations 7,805

Total NYC Transit, including buses, 51,492

I don’t think they have gone to two conductors per train, so I think it’s fair to say the number is less than 3,500 and probably less than 3,000.

Alon Levy April 8, 2016 - 9:25 am

According to SeeThroughNY, there are 3,600 train drivers and 3,300 conductors on the subway.

A.G. April 8, 2016 - 10:08 am

Can you provide the link? I’d like the compare the figures to the published operating budget.

lop April 9, 2016 - 5:43 am


Train Operator (Rev.Vehicles) 3351 employees, ~$280million


Conductor (Rev.Veh) 2307 employees, ~$148million


Conductor (Rev Veh) 01-F 485 employees, ~$11million

Larry Littlefield April 7, 2016 - 7:38 am


In part due to deals I voted for to benefit my generation in the past at the expense of the common future, notably the massive 2000 retroactive pension increase and all the MTA debts incurred from 1995 to the present to send money elsewhere, the union workers that are part of my tribe are increasingly providing a service that is a ripoff to the serfs that don’t matter.


Therefore, at the highest state and local tax burden in the United States, I demand that my union supporters be given even more money to make NY government even more of the ripoff on the sort of promise that service will become less awful, if more expensive. In this case and all the others.

For those who only follow transportation, note that we already have the highest school spending per pupil here in New York.


But union backed organizations demanded another $6 billion, and a suing the state (ie. the rest of us, and those who want more money spent on transportation) to get it. The latest budget increased spending by $1.5 billion, over what is — again — by far the highest level in the U.S. The response?


“We’re getting closer to adequacy, but we’re not getting closer to equity,” said Richard Timbs, executive director of the Statewide School Financial Consortium.

Why doesn’t someone respond to this by asking “Thomas DiNapoli, why are you and your union supporters doing this to us? What right have you to treat us like a bunch of serfs?”

It is a report showing just how bad he himself is, along with the rest of them.

Larry Littlefield April 7, 2016 - 8:54 am

You know what this report is probably for?

When DiNapoli gets together with the people he wants to collect his ballot access signatures and donate to his re-election campaign, he can point to it and say “see how much we did for you?”

It should go over well among members of Generation Greed in Florida.

John-2 April 7, 2016 - 10:04 am

It’s definitely a stating-the-obvious report that at the same time holds no one in political power accountable, but simply dumps the blame off on the faceless (to the general public) bureaucrats and workers at the MTA.

Larry Littlefield April 7, 2016 - 10:38 am

I want to know where DiNapoli was when the deals were cut and the favors and privileges handed out that put us in this situation.

Actually I do know. He was in the NY State Legislature, with Sheldon Silver, Dean Skelos, Joe Bruno, and the rest. Back then the Comptroller was Hevesi, also convicted, and the Governor was Pataki, just as guilty of the real crimes.

And all the beneficiaries of those favors and privileges went all out to make DiNapoli the Comptroller, rather than someone from the outside. They are getting what they paid for.

tacony April 7, 2016 - 9:59 am

The MTA’s attitude is always that they’d be able to run their trains more competently if less people were trying to ride them, which is a horrible way to look at their job. You’re supposed to transport people!

Last night I waited more than 10 minutes for a 6 train at around 8pm. What was going on? No announcements. When a 5 train finally rolled in on the local track I was able to squeeze in, but some people were left on the platform. And this is becoming more and more common. Service is abysmal. “Signal problems” seem to be approaching a crisis level, and the solutions offered are USB ports on the trains. Don’t try to walk when you can’t crawl.

Larry Littlefield April 7, 2016 - 10:11 am

My wife has to work late almost every day. The quality of service for those leaving at 6 pm or later has become terrible at least one day per week, sometimes two.

This week’s disaster was particularly depressing, because it concerned the signal system centered at Bergen Street. That is a new, electronic system not an old, electromechanical system. This means you can fix the problem by investment, even if the MTA had the money for investment.

Thank goodness I was on a bike. Somebody should tell the MTA to unplug the system and the modem, wait three minutes, and plug everything back in. That’s what tech support always tells me.

Brooklynite April 7, 2016 - 2:53 pm

To be fair, the meltdown at Bergen was caused by a loss of signal power. There’s not much a signal system can do without electricity, no matter how advanced it is.

22r April 7, 2016 - 12:41 pm

While I agree with your digust at MTA’s victim-blaming, aren’ the passengers often to blame? Like when they try to squeeze through a closing door-forcing it to open again. Pushing one’s way onto the train before allowing passengers to exit probably also slows things down.

bigbellymon4 April 7, 2016 - 12:55 pm

I have seen that too many times on the L (Broadway Junction, Myrtle-Wyckoff, Lorimer, and especially Bedford). Sometimes people don’t understand that they have to wait. The other problem is passengers won’t step into the subway car. That’s what is the most important problem as the train could hold more, yet the people crowd the doors.

Brooklynite April 8, 2016 - 4:32 pm

Those two problems are related. There’s always more room on the train, which is why people shove on to trains that seem full. If people move in enough there’s always space…

A.G. April 8, 2016 - 4:35 pm

1 idea is as simple as removing the vertical bars (for people to hold onto) from in front of the doors. Or at least, replace them with ceiling rails that are less comfortable to steady one self with.

bigbellymon4 April 7, 2016 - 12:50 pm

Although The MTA knows that crowding is the issue, why are they not taking measures to de-interline the system to make service more reliable? And depending on how it is de-interlined, you could also have space for increased service to the riders. Instead of operating a max of 24-26 tph on combined segments (only QB Express hits 30 tph), even out the headway to a number that 2 lines can share equally on the trunk line instead of worrying about the branch frequency and then adjust it for the trunk.

Mike from Whitestone April 14, 2016 - 10:53 am

I suggested de-interlining the Brighton Line and the 4th Ave express lines on the transit forums (N/Q via Brighton, B/D via 4th Ave Express). I got flamed for that. People on those boards complained about how DeKalb and Atlantic would both be overwhelmed by all the extra people changing trains at those two stations. It didn’t matter if more reliable and frequent service on all four lines could be run.

Pinkluigi3 April 7, 2016 - 1:16 pm

Can someone please tell me why they can’t run 30 tph (at least) on the 1,6,7&L trains? These lines are all independent of other lines and don’t interline so I don’t get why they can’t run 30 tph. In London they are managing 36 tph on the Victoria and soon the Jubilee line too so 30tph should be at least achievable in NYC

Brooklynite April 7, 2016 - 2:55 pm

Dwell times, timers, and poor operational practices mean that the scheduled ~25tph that leave the Bronx on the 6 becomes ~23tph by Grand Central. An assessment needs to be undertaken to see how service can be sped up.

tacony April 7, 2016 - 4:40 pm

The uptown 6 trains very frequently don’t leave Brooklyn Bridge on time. It’s an open scandal that no one seems to care about.

When the first IRT subway opened in 1904, local trains ran:

5 A.M. to 6 A.M., every four minutes
6 A.M. to 8:30 P.M., every three minutes
8:30 P.M. to midnight, every six minutes
Midnight to 5 A.M., every ten minutes

Yet we apparently can’t manage these headways on the 6 train today.

Berk32 April 7, 2016 - 6:21 pm

Local trains weren’t 10 cars back then.

Brooklynite April 8, 2016 - 4:34 pm

There is no virtually no layover space or time on the south end of the 6 because of the loop at City Hall it uses to reverse. That’s a drawback operationally. However, it doesn’t explain why 6 service is as poor as it is.

The Russians run 40tph with block signals, and have been doing so for years. Why we can barely manage 25 needs to be looked into.

Ivan April 8, 2016 - 10:17 pm

Stations in Moscow metro are very spread out. For example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya_Line is 26 miles long and has 23 stations. Lexington avenue line is 8-9 miles long (could not find an exact figure) and has 23 stations.

Pat L April 7, 2016 - 3:55 pm

In the case of the L, my understanding is that the turnaround at 8th Ave is the bottleneck. Adding tail tracks at 8th Ave would allow trains to enter the station and unload faster, and it’s one of the extra improvements that’s been proposed for the upcoming Sandy repair shutdown.

bigbellymon4 April 7, 2016 - 7:42 pm

The 1 is limited by the bumper blocks at 242nd. South Ferry is a loop, but because it is a sharp curve that is also a limiting factor. These are the track/geometric problems besides crowding and dwell times.

The 6 is the most heavily used line. The amount of passengers on the line increase the dwell time of the train, limiting frequency.

The 7 train was said to operate 28-30 tph at the Times Sq terminal (before HY opened) but I don’t know where I read it. However CBTC will increase the capacity of the line to 32-35tph.

The L can’t handle more than 25 tph because of the bumper blocks in the 8th Av station.

Brooklynite April 8, 2016 - 4:40 pm

The 7 used to operate 36 tph in the 1950s, and CBTC is expected to raise capacity to 30tph. It’s an issue.

The L could use the middle track west of 6th Av to turn some trains around if switches were installed, but there would then be an issue with MTA’s rules regarding train fumigation…

LLQBTT April 7, 2016 - 1:34 pm

How about a wait time assessment audit for buses?

smotri April 7, 2016 - 1:41 pm

This article reminds me of a previous one on this site: http://bkabak.wpengine.com/201.....the-rails/

Does di Napoli – or any other elected official – ever experience subways, buses, commuter trains and the stations? The day in, day out experiences of the people who are stuck in this commuter bind are beyond these officials’ intellectual capacity. They don’t suffer the way countless hundreds of thousands of others do, and therefore they don’t get it.


Leave a Comment