Home MTA Technology B division countdown clocks set to arrive in 2018

B division countdown clocks set to arrive in 2018

by Benjamin Kabak
The MTA launched a 90-day pilot bringing these countdown clocks to eight stations in Manhattan.

The B Division countdown clocks will be based on the current pilot underway in Manhattan.

No more promises of “three to five years.” After over half a decade of promises, the MTA Board is set to vote Wednesday on a plan that would finally bring countdown clocks to the B Division trains — the subway’s lettered lines — by the end of March of 2018. Based off the current pilot running at eight stations along the BMT Broadway line, the new system will be run by Transit Wireless infrastructure and will be a part of an initiative to bring wifi to the system’s outdoor stations. It’s not based on the same signal system upgrades as the A Division countdown clocks but should cost under $32 million to install.

Following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s push to speed up the installation of the underground wireless and cell network so that all underground stations are wired by the end of this year, Transit Wireless has the capacity to implement additional technological upgrades, and the MTA and Transit Wireless are set to expand wifi capabilities at the 109 aboveground stations. The cellular carriers are on board — especially for popular stations where their networks can be overloaded — because of the ability to colocate cellular equipment within Transit Wireless base stations, and Transit Wireless is on board because this gives them an opportunity to expand their footprint in the subway system.

But the wifi is just a benefit. The main attraction are countdown clocks using commercially available off-the-shelf components that won’t run the MTA a bill in the nine-figure range. The technology will utilize Bluetooth, sensors, beacons and wifi to determine train arrivals times. Each of the B division stations with two LCD screens per platform and one outside of fare control. The data will run from the beacons to a cloud-based system that will determine arrival times, and all of the data will be available in the MTA’s Subwaytime app.

One way or another, Transit Wireless will bring these countdown clocks online, and if the MTA chooses to expand Transit Wireless’ wifi capabilities to the above-ground stations, the agency will save money on installation. The total installation costs for wifi and the countdown clock technology will be a little over $211,000 per station for the aboveground stations and around $54,000 per underground station (which are already wired for certain Transit Wireless capabilities). The total capital costs would run around $31.7 million with $5 million in annual operating fees, subject to a CPI multiplier each year.

The low cost is an extension of the wifi expansion plan I mentioned. If the MTA and Transit Wireless don’t agree on a wifi franchise license for the aboveground stations, the train arrival boards will move ahead but at a cost of about 50% more. Eventually, the wifi capabilities are going to be necessary for the MTA’s new fare payment system, but more on that soon. Meanwhile, the agency also let slip that it is in discussions with Transit Wireless for a plan to wire the tunnels as well, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

This is a pretty fast turnaround for a project we haven’t really been expecting. In spite of a funding request in the current capital plan, the MTA has given no indication that a systemwide plan was in the works. The BMT pilot came through via pressure from the governor’s office, and an ambitious 16-month rollout seems set to follow. It may not be the perfect system — but it’s far better than the current non-existent system. And after years of hearing that B Division countdown clocks are still three to five years away, we can say with some certainty that, if all goes according to plan, B Division countdown clocks are now just 16 months down the tracks.

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evo34 November 15, 2016 - 12:41 am

$32 million for a project that could honestly be done for under $1m and in under six months. I appreciate your reporting, but in no way can I applaud any organization/govt. for taking this long to supply basic technology.

Five years ago, if someone had told me that in 2016 you’ll know exactly where your hailed driver is down to the half-block, but still have no clue if the next subway is 2 min. or 20 min. away, I would have laughed — quite loudly.

Webster November 15, 2016 - 6:19 am

To clarify, $1 million would be roughly $9-10,000 per station.
Just curious, how do think it could be done this cheaply.

Maybe I misunderstoond, but it sounds like some of the costs include actually wiring the remaining [above-ground] stations?

tacony November 15, 2016 - 9:52 am

We’ll have driverless cars before we have driverless trains.

Think about how absurd that is. Cars navigate streets independently, in all weather, on streets where they mix with pedestrians and other random hazards. Trains run on a track, in a closed system. Yet tons of VC money is being poured into the study of how to implement driverless cars across the country, while the MTA and other major transit agencies are making no effort to roll out driverless trains, partly due to institutional inertia and partly due to union demands. (Not that driverless tech necessarily solves all our problems. The Port Authority manages to run the driverless JFK AirTrain on awful headways.)

It would be a huge understatement to say that the MTA and other US transit agencies are downright hostile to the technological changes that are being embraced around us.

Larry Littlefield November 15, 2016 - 11:49 am

The MTA spent $billions and $billions on technology projects such as ATS, CBTC, PACIS, the RCC, etc. I was there when it was happening.

There are several possible explanations of this.

1) The MTA moved to soon, trying to create what did not exist instead of waiting for a big leap forward elsewhere with cheaper and better technology, as in the Metrocard replacement. But it can move fast now.

2) The MTA went with old line transportation contractors such as Siemans who offered the low bid (high as it was) but couldn’t get the job done, because the weren’t new technology companies.

3) The MTA was fleeced by its contractors.

The optimistic answer is number one.

Anonymous November 21, 2016 - 10:27 am

The MTA was fleeced by its own engineers, who were proposing all these high-tech systems even though they knew that much cheaper and simpler solutions were available. Some systems were approved (like ATS) and others foundered as management went looking for other solutions (or pretended to – if they really wanted them we’d already have countdown clocks everywhere).

#2 and #3 certainly played a role, but only by playing along with the internal game.

David November 15, 2016 - 12:04 pm

While I don’t mean to excuse the MTA’s lousy track record of technological upgrades, in comparing uber to the subways, we’re comparing apples and oranges. Fundamentally, the subways are running off technology that in some cases dates back to the early 1900s. There is likely no one on this site who has a full understanding of the challenges inherent in modernizing this incredibly complex system. All of the modernization work that’s going on underground has to work with and around what is essentially ancient technology at this point. Even the London Underground, one of the most comparable systems to what we have in New York, is years away from implementing driverless trains on their oldest lines. In the context of what we’ve come to expect from the MTA, this news is pretty damn astonishing.

pete November 15, 2016 - 6:45 pm

There is likely no one on this site who has a full understanding of the challenges inherent in modernizing this incredibly complex system. All of the modernization work that’s going on underground has to work with and around what is essentially ancient technology at this point.

Apologist for grey haired union men. It is a concrete box. That is the only thing from 1900. 10 men watching 1 man drill a hole is why nothing gets done. 1 hour of working and 4 hours waiting for clearance to work. No blacklisting of contractors since there are just 2-3 contractors that ever bid on MTA projects. Suck the CO until it is a 20 year project or the MTA terminates the contract unfinished. Contractors that never show up to site access windows to make a project late on purpose and for OT $$$ to finish it later on time (supposedly). At the MTA, under the guise of safety, you can write a blank check through over-engineering, its not the engineer’s money why should they care?

Larry Littlefield November 16, 2016 - 7:07 am

A concrete and steel box. Otherwise you may have some points.

The MTA didn’t write a contract and hire Siemens to invent EZ Pass. That system was developed for the military by defense contractors, who needed something to so during the brief window of our “peace dividend” and brought it to the MTA.

Maybe that’s the way these things have to work.

And it isn’t just transit. Take a look at education. Barely north of 8 students per instructional employee. One retired teach for each working, those who leave in their first few years aside. Thirty kids in the class. A cost of $300,000 in instructional wages and benefits per 20 students. And they are suing for $50,000 more.

Adirondacker12800 November 16, 2016 - 1:44 pm

It’s just awful the way college educated women can choose careers other than teacher or nurse.

Anonymous November 21, 2016 - 10:37 am

The subway runs on electricity – high voltages to move the trains, and low voltages for signaling (to indicate a presence or absence of a train on each particular track circuit).

It is trivial to convert analog electrical signals to digital – the technology has existed for at least 50 years – and feed it to connect with dispatching software (where dispatchers tag trains with IDs to track them). Then connect that all with the schedule to create predictions. That’s all, and it could have been done 20-30 years ago.

Remember dial-up modem ATM machines and credit card readers? Pretty old technology. Well, with every token booth having been wired for phone service decades ago, it would’ve been easy in, say, 1995, to direct-wire two track circuits per station (one arrival and one departure) to connect to a dial-up modem server. It would be basically the same system as is now being implemented with Bluetooth.

Roy November 29, 2016 - 1:26 pm

The Tube has automatic trains on (inter alia) the Northern (oldest section, 1890) and Central (oldest section, 1900) both of which have sections older than any Subway line.

The Tube also has had one-person operation (OPO) on all lines since 2000. The real scandal is why the Subway still employs conductors when every comparable metro system has switched to OPO years ago.

AG November 15, 2016 - 5:29 pm

Government agencies are not the place to look for fast moving innovations.

Chas November 15, 2016 - 6:02 pm

One clock per platform (two-sided) seems a bit low, unless you will be able to access the arrival times on your phone, which would seem like a very obvious thing to do.

Chris November 15, 2016 - 8:29 am

ONE screen outside fare control? That’s ludicrous. Only two per platform?

Also, why not integrate the data with the advertising boards that are on some of the stair cases?

Joseph Steindam November 15, 2016 - 9:42 am

I imagine the one screen outside fare control depends on whether the station shares a single or fare control area for both directions or travel, or if it has separate fare control areas for each direction. Two screens per platform is unfortunate, especially as they will be mounted together back to back, as opposed to be dispersed through the station. I guess this is a cost consideration, but as B Division platforms can be very long, this isn’t ideal.

As for the advertising boards outside of stations, my understanding is that those displays can run the SubwayTime app, which the countdown clocks will feed. So those boards should have access to the same information without any additional changes to their systems. Presumably they will be utilized to show the countdown data once the data come online.

Elvis Delgado November 15, 2016 - 8:57 am

I haven’t had an opportunity to see one of these new displays in action yet, so I’d like an explanation if anyone can give one.

The display in the photo is clearly at 34th Street, southbound, given that all three trains it’s announcing are headed to Brooklyn. So what is the (partially hidden) reference to Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42nd St at the very bottom? These stations seem irrelevant for anyone headed south from 34th Street, so what is the information being communicated here?

Joseph Steindam November 15, 2016 - 9:28 am

My guess is that the system can display a crawl message with delay or service change information throughout the broader system. The system probably is displaying the same information on both the southbound and northbound platforms, so that information may be more pertinent to riders going in the other direction. It’s safe to assume that they can display more relevant service or delay information (in their travel direction) as well.

JD November 15, 2016 - 12:58 pm

Joseph is correct. This is a service change notification on the bottom for the entire line.

tacony November 15, 2016 - 9:39 am

push to speed up the installation of the underground wireless and cell network so that all underground stations are wired by the end of this year

Wow, is this really still on schedule to be up and running in every station by the end of the year? We only have a month and half to go and still tons of stations where there’s no signal. Union Square and Penn Station for instance are still dark territory, and it seems like they’d be complex jobs. Have they even begun work there?

EN November 15, 2016 - 10:13 am

Yes, they have the antennas in those stations. They just haven’t finished yet.

JEG November 15, 2016 - 9:39 am

Is this just an interim solution until CBTC can be implemented throughout the B Division?

rewenzo November 15, 2016 - 10:46 am

Well, given that CBTC will probably never actually be implemented…

Benjamin Kabak November 15, 2016 - 10:47 am

Define “interim.” Without a massive push from Albany, it’s going to be decades before all B Division lines have CBTC.

Bryan November 15, 2016 - 7:11 pm

Albany or a massive crash that obviously CBTC could’ve prevented, and everyone goes up in arms screaming they need it *now*. Then the damned thing will show up over 2-3 weekends.

The “massive crash” has better odds. Unless we convince someone that USB and/or Wifi requires CBTC to work. Someone pointy-haired.

Tower18 November 15, 2016 - 12:06 pm

What am I missing? How could implementing wireless in aboveground stations cost 4x doing the same in underground stations? Aboveground you can even utilize existing cellular networks, or hell, probably even line of sight microwave repeater transmission lol.

AFC November 15, 2016 - 12:14 pm

I’m confused by this as well, but I *think* it has to do with the fact that a lot of the wireless work has already been done in the underground stations, but not in the above ground ones, since as you say you can just get a cell signal out there.

JD November 15, 2016 - 12:57 pm

The $211,000 per aboveground station includes wiring them for wireless, which none of them have. The $54,000 per underground station uses the previously installed wireless system.

Alon Levy November 15, 2016 - 5:23 pm

…is $32 million supposed to be a lot for this? I don’t know that it is. It seems like a nice tech fix. It can also be used to improve capacity, by making dispatching cheaper: if the system is accurate enough to tell a driver how far ahead the next train is, it’s possible to use it to maintain even headways.

In Moscow, they run 39 tph by using time-since-last-train clocks at stations to maintain even headways. This requires lines not to branch, since it can only work with headway maintenance and no fixed schedule, which wrecks branching (think why).

So, credit where credit is due. This looks like pretty good work. You see? Americans are capable of doing some things right with public transit.

Benjamin Kabak November 15, 2016 - 5:30 pm

I don’t think $32 million is a lot of this considering the scope and practicalities of it. I’m impressed they’ve managed to get a workable solution in for that cheap.

Michael549 November 16, 2016 - 1:48 am

Isn’t it interesting that the MTA comes out with a beneficial project that had been talked about for years but without funding. The MTA finds a way to fund this project using existing installed technology, as well as expanding that same technology to places that does not have it – all at reasonable costs. The entire project comes in at a total cost UNDER $32 million bucks, and can be completed by March 2018, an estimated date far sooner than anyone predicted before.

And the kicker is that some folks here say:

1) How come the MTA could not do it cheaper and keeper?

Just WOW!

Michael549 November 16, 2016 - 1:49 am

(I meant)

How come the MTA could not do it cheaper and quicker!

Peter L November 15, 2016 - 5:42 pm

This still amuses me.

You didn’t mention the cost per train for beacons since there has to be something for the in-station devices to talk to. I *hope* they are passive, not unlike a toll tag on an automobile, else the degree of difficulty goes up at least 1 order of magnitude.

Has anyone said what the MTBF for the train-mounted devices is expected to be? Does anyone know if trains will be taken out of service to repair (replace, more like, especially if they are passive)? I doubt it since they aren’t actually part of the trains’ systems.

Phillip Roncoroni November 16, 2016 - 5:27 am

Maybe Ben can inquire about MTBF of BusTime hardware and procedures regarding repair when those go out of service, as a comparison?

Eric November 16, 2016 - 7:27 am

” I *hope* they are passive, not unlike a toll tag on an automobile, else the degree of difficulty goes up at least 1 order of magnitude.”

You do realize that trains have electricity in them, in fact, they run on electricity?

Peter L November 17, 2016 - 9:06 am

What? No! Except for the West Side and Yonkers Patent Ry, everything is steam. Duh.

If you have to connect whatever they plan to use for transponders to the train’s electrical system, the degree of difficulty in both installation and maintenance goes up at least an order of magnitude. If they use toll-tag-like passive transponders (that squawk back their ID when they receive the signal from the interrogation transmitter), then it’s pretty easy. If one dies or falls off, you stick another in it’s place and update the database.

This is an interim solution at best. And for the person who thinks this will be use to keep trains apart, etc, keep dreaming. #robocars will be here before they use this system for that.

Phantom November 17, 2016 - 1:31 pm

Last night, at the downtown 23rd St R/W station saw a working clock just like the one you see in this photo. Very cool.

LLQBTT November 18, 2016 - 9:00 am

Seems like a bargain compared to the usual MTA project cost profile. And it’s customer facing, and good info. Since the B Divison headways are greater, this information is more essential than elsewhere.


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