Home MTA Absurdity The end of the Genius Competition: the good, the bad and the trains that don’t platform

The end of the Genius Competition: the good, the bad and the trains that don’t platform

by Benjamin Kabak

Which genius came up with the idea of awarding this plan money?

With any luck, this week will be the last we hear of the MTA’s ill-conceived “Genius Competition.” The brain-child of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Genius Competition arose in May of 2017 when the governor couldn’t ignore the drumbeat over declining subway reliability and decided to convene a panel hold a contest to fix every problem. It wasn’t well received within the MTA as the agency’s staff members who work hard to keep the subways running felt they were being ignored in favor of the glitz and glamour of a blue-ribbon panel, and the resentment has festered within the walls of 2 Broadway for months, another sign of the disconnect between Cuomo’s people and the MTA careerists.

The Genius Competition has taken up time and money, and a lot of the oxygen in the room, as Cuomo has tried to bill it as the thing that will prove people are thinking hard about how to fix the MTA. On Friday, the winners were revealed. The agency doled out around $2.5 million to eight ideas. Some of them — an ultra wideband wireless system for signal technology, for instance — the MTA had already been exploring. Others — a light-weight carbon fiber-based modular subway car designed by CRRC — should be part of the MTA’s ongoing improvement efforts. I’m not going to detail all eight of the winning ideas; you can read the press release or watch the videos detailing the winners. I’ve embedded the CRRC video below as it has some alluring future-tech rail car renderings.

But I want to talk about one in particular that won $330,000: Lawyer and transit enthusiast Craig Avedisian proposed, as the MTA put it, “changing passenger loading procedures and adding more cars to trains to increase capacity.” On its surface, that seems like a reasonable idea until you realize that all but a handful of G train stations aren’t long enough for longer cars. On closer examination, Avedisian is proposing an extremely customer unfriendly idea that would involve a third of his longer subway trains not platforming at every other station. And this idea won money from an MTA panel that includes the agency’s current chairman, president, managing director and chief development officer. If you’re asking if anyone is home, well, it’s a good question.

Avedisian wrote a 20-page application in support of his idea. Drawing the wrong sort of inspiration from London, Avedisian proposes adding 3-4 cars to every subway train so that more passengers can fit on one train, but only some cars will open their doors at a station. He has designed an A-B system where cars 1-10 will open their doors at A stations and cars 5-14 will open their doors at B stations. He claims this will increase capacity by up to 65% at a cost of $12 billion, far less than subway expansion efforts. (This of course ignores that subway “expansion,” by definition, reaches new areas underserved by transit, but Avedisian’s proposal doesn’t seem to reach this level of consideration.) The conclusion of his argument is “How can the MTA not do this for New York?”

There are of course numerous reasons why the comparisons to London fall flat and why this idea should be a non-starter. For a rapid transit system, it is an idea very hostile to riders who would need to know a lot of details about their rides that most people shouldn’t be expected to know, and without articulated trains, it can lead to a situation where riders are “trapped” when they end up in cars that don’t platform at their destination. In practice, as we can see with Amtrak and other commuter rail services, including those serving London, it increases dwell times to levels unsustainable for a rapid transit network. On a technical level, the plan ignores the costs associated with procuring enough cars for every train to be 40 percent longer or with adjusting the length of MTA signal blocks to accommodate longer trains. It’s an excuse for avoiding addressing the real capacity increase: a modern signal system.

Ultimately, Avedisian beat the MTA and its own game. He came up with an idea that shouldn’t be contemplated in a forward-thinking transit environment and bilked the MTA out of a few hundred grand. But the MTA seems to be taking this whole thing seriously. “People from around the world delivered groundbreaking solutions that truly represent a new wave of innovation for the MTA, and we are more excited than ever about the future of New York Subways,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said of the entire slate of Genius Competition entries. And officially, the MTA is going to consider this proposal, though it sounds as though the G train will be the one and only subway line to get longer cars. The press release states:

The MTA will evaluate the system’s busiest subway lines, stations where platforms are long enough to accommodate longer trains, and fleet and yard availability, to further explore applications of Avedisian’s idea. Some subway lines are viable candidates for a pilot program due to ridership demand and their station layouts. A study of fleet and infrastructure availability will be needed for a future pilot program or future car procurement.

But why it chosen as a finalist by a panel that included the top MTA leadership officials? In comments to press, Avedisian drew further faulty comparisons. “I think it’s, in concept, no different than local/express, J/Z,” he said to The Daily News. Of course, it’s not the same as an express/local situation in which riders know that every car will platform. It’s a confusing excuse for a solution to problems that can be solved — and that seems to be a metaphor for the Genius Competition writ large.

After 10 months, the MTA is a few million dollars poorer and a real solution to the transit crisis remains a far-off spot on the horizon. The Genius Competition seemed like a distraction last year and ended as one this year. The good ideas, as told through hundreds of submissions, should be embraced without the pomp and circumstance of a contest; that is, after all, what a well-run agency would do to usher in its future. But at least Robert James, one of the “winners” for this ultra-broadband idea, can use $250,000 of MTA money to, as he told Dan Rivoli, build his home in Tampa, and isn’t that everyone’s dream?

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BrooklynBus March 12, 2018 - 12:57 am

I also question if Advedisian’s idea could actually work. It seems to be loaded with problems as you discussed. I am not at all impressed with this so-called genius program. But has any of Cuomo’s ideas worked? Look at the LGA proposaL that doesn’t even reduce subway trip times to Manhattan. But this is what we get with a governor who insists on not letting the chairman run his own agency. Again, we have a politician who is only interested in flashiness rather than getting to the roots of the problems. Then there was the recent MTA Reinvention Commission, another Cuomo idea. What did that get us? Was there one proposal that was actually utilized? Or just more publicity for the governor whose only interest is becoming President.

But let’s take a look at an MTA Program that really did work. It was called the MTA Employee Suggestion Program. Instead of seeking genius ideas from the outside, it sought to find ideas from within, those who really understand the system but can’t get their ideas heard objectively because of an over bureaucratic agency where your ideas must first go through your supervisor who you might not be on the best terms with or would sooner grab your idea as his own if successful and take full credit for it.

So what this program did was have suggestions reviewed by anonymously by a panel so they did not actually know who submitted the suggestion. Submitters received monetary compensation for worthwhile suggestions that saved money. Awards ranged from $100 to I believe in the neighborhood of $50,000 if a suggestion saved like $1 million or more a year. Managers were not eligible for monetary compensation only an honor but submitted suggestions anyway. Some departments were very receptive to new ideas and approved many suggestions. Others were less receptive and approved only a very small percentage of suggestions received.

What the program highlighted was that a simple procedural change involving a specific task could save millions annually and the potential for more efficient operations was tremendous. During the years this program was in operation, many millions of dollars were saved and many employees received great amounts of money. It was a win-win for all.

That is not to say the program did not have its problems. There were many, too numerous to mention now. The biggest problem was that the program was never really taken seriously by the MTA, which was evidenced by the fact that although they should have had a vice president in charge, the program was not even managed by a manager but by an analyst who did not have the power to run the program the way it should have been run. There was an appeal procedural whereby submitters could appeal rejected suggestions to the Executive VP, but the rejections were merely rubber stamped because all that was done was the person initially rejecting the proposal was asked to give it a second look instead of it going to his superior.

Because of all the problems with the program, the department I was in ran its own little Suggestion Program for about five years where the top prize every few months was only $100, but also resulted in thousands of dollars saved each year. I headed the committee that ran that program.

The point of this rant, is that there lies plenty of talent within the MTA that is stifled, and nothing is done to release this talent. So once like every ten years the MTA looks outside for new talent when everyone has lost faith with the MTA and just believes the entire agency is incompetent which is far from the truth.

Since I retired in 2005, I heard that the agency-wide Employee Suggestion Program was eliminated. Just as was brought out in Part 1 of The NY Times series that the reason the system is in the sad shape it is in today is due to 30 years of poor political decisions, it appears that the governor and the MTA still have not learned their lesson and are continuing today to make poor decisions with this genius program and by eliminating the worthwhile Employee Suggestion Program rather than fixing its problems. I forget the exact amount of dollars it saved the MTA during the 20 or 25 years it existed, but it was in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the genius program results in very little good.

Bolwerk March 13, 2018 - 10:28 am

I can’t think of any cases where the word “genius” in a brand isn’t cynical adspeak, a red flag that the people it’s meant to appeal to are not very smart.

AMH March 14, 2018 - 11:04 am

That’s exactly how I feel about the Apple “Genius Bar”.

Bolwerk March 14, 2018 - 1:44 pm

Yeah, well, that’s a grifting operation. Apple’s business model is preying on aspirational stupidity.

And the “Baby Genius” learning videos are supposedly about as useful as having your kid watch a test pattern.

Alon Levy March 12, 2018 - 5:25 am

The CRRC suggestion is 100% rent-seeking. CRRC is effectively saying NYCT should buy its trains because of some unique selling point. Unfortunately, this selling point is not unique; it’s been practiced in Japan for about 30 years, which means that Kawasaki is aware of it, as are other vendors that have not yet cracked the NYCT market like Hitachi, Tokyu, and Sumimoto.

What’s more, Japanese rolling stock is cheaper than Chinese rolling stock domestically, at least in the high-speed rail market: an N700 Shinkansen sells for $3 million a car, a Chinese HSR train sells for $4 million a car. I don’t know how much subway trains cost in either country, but I’ve heard that Japan builds subway and commuter trains for less than $1 million per 20-meter-long car.

All of this is stuff the MTA should figure out itself rather than relying on the vendors to ask for grants. There are a lot of innovations out there in Japan, China, Germany, France, etc., and it’s important to prevent a vendor from being able to write the specs in a way that keeps out the competition’s technology.

Vicki March 12, 2018 - 7:42 am

He’s saying J/Z, and I’m thinking of what a nuisance the 1/9 skip-stop thing was. Does anybody who actually rode those trains past City College miss that one?

Sure, on a nice day I’d get on a 9 to 125th and wait in the sunshine for the 1 that would actually take me to 215th Street. Even on nice days, I didn’t have much company there. More often, I’d let that 9 go by, or get off at City College if I hadn’t paid attention to which train was pulling up to the platform in midtown.

Does the super-genius who came up with this realize how many people pay attention to which car they’re in, rather than reading a book, playing games on their phones, or napping? The 1 is instructive, again, in this case watching people move forward, or try to, in order to get out at the old, short South Ferry platform.

Bolwerk March 13, 2018 - 11:20 am

I only vaguely remember the arrangement, but if I recall the 1/9 scheme was somewhat bungled by the fact that the skip-stops weren’t very important stations. Essentially capacity was being cut at some of the more important stations, while less important ones got more service. Historically that stopping pattern might have made sense, but it didn’t make sense by the early 21st century.

There could be something to be said for strategic A/B skip-stopping, and you don’t need a third track to do it. Nor do you need more cars to do it. It needs to address crowds directly. One train stops at one crowded station, and another stops at another crowded station. It doesn’t seem helpful if it doesn’t reduce cumulative dwell time on the route

al March 13, 2018 - 1:24 pm

What’s more, it completely ignores the fact that the former BMT Eastern division (J M Z L) used to run 8 AB Standard (67′) car trains. That’s 536′ instead of today’s 8 car 480′ trains. They could add another 60′ car to existing trains, making them 9 car 540′ train consists. All cars will platform. That excess 4′ can be at the back of the train and be off platform, but the rearmost door is still usable.

That extra car on the L or M would mean a 12% increase in capacity. Combine that with car end modifications to create enclosed vestibules (open gangway car) and you get a 17% total improvement in capacity.

Another thing to consider is that the M currently serves stations with 536′ and 660′ platforms. With the incipient L train 14th st tunnel shutdown, it would be a good idea to modify existing cars to enclosed intercar vestibule (open gangway) cars, car selective door controls (to open doors on specific set of cars), and run 11 car M trains. 9 cars will platform on the old BMT section, with the the other two cars carrying people who want to use the IND sections (6th Ave, 53rd st, Queens Blvd). The wide intercar connection would allow people to move into them from other cars.

Tail end of the 71st Continental bound 11 car M trains would transfer for 6 @ Broadway-Lafayette, ACE @ West 4th st, 14th st, and 6 @ Lexington Ave.

11 car E and F trains would work similarly.

al March 13, 2018 - 1:41 pm

The long stretch runs of 660′ (71st Continental to Broadway-Lafeyette) and 536′ (Essex to Metropolitan) on M, or 660′ and 600′ (E, F) instead of a b a b a b.

PS: where are you going to find space for new subway yards? Aside from a few extra long yards tracks, and balloon tracks, there isn’t enough space for all these extra 4 car sets. You can find space for singles or squeezing in a 9th car.

SEAN March 12, 2018 - 8:47 am

It appears that April fools day came early this year. Seriously who in their right mind would approve such a crazy idea as extending subway trains beyond platform length.

I think Don Adams said it best, “that’s re… diculous!

John-2 March 12, 2018 - 4:13 pm

The MTA just spent $500 million to build, and then (post-Sandy) $600 million to rebuild the lower South Ferry station, specifically to end the problem of passengers being in the wrong cars after Rector Street and then being unable to get off the train at the old SF platform.

With all the signs on the 1 line before South Ferry, and all the in-train announcements before an at Rector Street, the line still ended up with people staying in the rear five cars and ending up back at Rector again. Why would the MTA think anything different would happen on the other lines, if they started running 11-14 car trains where people were then required to know what part of the platform they had to be near at Station X to get on a car that would also platform when they’re getting off at Station Y. The end result would be everyone crowds in the middle of the platform at every station, because that’s the only place they know will have cars that will open their doors at every station.

The only way this is a ‘genius’ plan is if the genius in question is Wile E. Coyote (who also had a habit of failing to take into account the law of unintended consequences).

SEAN March 13, 2018 - 11:51 am

The only way this is a ‘genius’ plan is if the genius in question is Wile E. Coyote (who also had a habit of failing to take into account the law of unintended consequences).

So true.


Bolwerk March 13, 2018 - 11:40 am

It doesn’t seem like a good idea on a rapid transit service, where people often make a split second decision to enter the right train.

But it has precedent on mainline railroads I guess?

JJJ March 12, 2018 - 10:44 am

I think a smaller version of this could work. Increase the trains by 3 feet each way, so the last door is at the very edge of the station and theres a bit more room at the end.

Ads like 1%, but why not.

Bgriff March 12, 2018 - 11:51 am

Or even take the right lesson from certain London Underground stations and add an entire full car to NYC trains, with the first and last doors of the train not opening at stations. I don’t know exactly how long they are, but many IND platforms in particular are significantly longer than 600 feet. Is there a spare 30 feet between the wasted space at either end that could be used to add an additional couple of doors and an added car?

At some stations, the MTA has actively moved against this possibility — the Columbus Circle renovations moved the first access point at the southern end of the platforms further north, for example, and had the trains stop further north on the platform as a result, but the extra platform length at the southern end is still there, if a bit harder to access than it used to be. The northern end of the IND platforms at 34th St-Herald Square is closed off. And so on. But the space is still there.

Brooklynite March 12, 2018 - 10:53 am

Even 145th on the 3, which pretty much exclusively sees regular riders instead of tourists, regularly has people in the rear five cars trying to exit. I find it incredibly difficult to see this working out at any busy Midtown station due to the confusion it will cause, to say nothing of the problems with switches that will need to be moved…

smotri March 12, 2018 - 10:53 am

Virtually any time that I ride the subway, there is some signal problem somewhere in the system, holding things up. Come on, people, this ain’t hard: fix the signal system!

Brooklynite March 12, 2018 - 10:55 am

About the MTA’s general receptiveness to new ideas – it’s notoriously bad, to the extent that Prendergast had to issue a memo encouraging his staff to give due consideration to ideas from outside their department. BrooklynBus alludes to this above – the employee suggestion program doesn’t seem to run any more, and external ideas aren’t genuinely considered. The Genius Challenge is by no means the solution to this problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.

Stephen Bauman March 12, 2018 - 11:27 am

Advedisian’s idea is identical to one proposed by William Vickrey, in a letter to the NY Times. The letter was published on the 10th of January in 1949.

The Board of Transportation wisely ignored Vickrey’s suggestion

BrooklynBus March 12, 2018 - 7:01 pm

I don’t see how it could have been the exact same proposal but was probably similar.

It was proposed again for the Queens Blvd line in the 1970s, but wasn’t nearly as complicated. The first two cars would not stop in the station for the first half of the trip and the last two cars would stop outside the station for the last half of the trip. But then you were allowed to walk through the cars. I could see that working.

If for some reason, the MTA decides to go ahead with this idea, it won’t be to increase capacity but to reduce operating costs by operating less service so as not to significantly decrease crowding. After all, that’s what they did with articulated buses, so why would they not do the same for the subways?

Julia March 12, 2018 - 12:31 pm

Comparisons with the current London are rather inappropriate – there are a handful of stations where one or two doors don’t platform, but these are purely legacy problems where stations were built too short, or standards have changed so that end sections of platforms can no longer be used, and where external constraints and costs make fixing the problem too hard.

What *would* be a good comparison would be London’s Northern Line experimenting with 9-car trains in the late 1930s – where some open-air stations were lengthened from the standard 7-car length, but two cars were off-platform in tunneled stations (and even then not alternating between front-2 and back-2). The operational complexity never made up for the increased capacity and it was abandoned soon after.

Terrell March 12, 2018 - 10:15 pm

It’s even sillier once you think about the realities of the way the subway system works today:

The biggest issue I see that hasn’t been touched on too much – what happens if a train reroutes after you’ve boarded? This happens a lot to make up for lost service elsewhere. What if, then, your new destination station is a “B” station but you’re in a limited “A” car because your original destination was an “A” station? Now you have to (if in an open-gangway train) push through a crowd on a moving train or (if otherwise) get off the train and move up or down the platform, likely having to wait for the next train.

Also, this plan assumes that people would be willing to take the chance getting into the limited cars in nearly equal numbers to those who aren’t (that may actually be the case, but I doubt it). I just see this increasing dwell times because everybody’s going to be trying to get into the cars that stop at every station just to avoid confusion.

And if a person actually does choose a limited car when they should not have, then fixing that mistake (assuming they realized before the stop) requires them to get off their train *and* move further up or down the platform. That’s not user friendly at all.

AMH March 13, 2018 - 10:54 am

“I just see this increasing dwell times because everybody’s going to be trying to get into the cars that stop at every station just to avoid confusion.”

That’s exactly what would happen. Very few people are going to chance it on the part-time cars. People would also confuse A stations with the A train, B stations with the B train, and red/blue stations with the 7 Av and 8 Av Lines.

Bolwerk March 13, 2018 - 11:11 am

The longer cars idea seems dumb to me, but there might be something to be said for encouraging people to wait in certain places to reach certain key points. An example for me on the L Train: I know if sit in the back of the second to last car toward Manhattan, I’ll get let out next to a staircase with one of the more convenient transfers to the 6 Train. But if I want to go to the west side of Union Square I might sit in the front of the train.

SEAN March 13, 2018 - 12:02 pm

It’s good planning to know where to place yourself for your next move. I do something similar when on the 7. If I’m connecting to the E at Court Square, I goe to the back of the train & I go as far forward as possible when returning to Grand Central.

BruceNY March 13, 2018 - 1:57 pm

The Tokyo subway has posters in the station with diagrams of all stations further up the line showing which cars of the train will be near stairs and convenient transfers so it’s easy to plan ahead which car you should ride in.

On the matter of all cars not platforming at certain stations, I wonder why can’t the LIRR just lengthen the platforms at Forest Hills and Woodside already? I always see frantic passengers trying to move through the train to “the first four cars”, which there’s no easy way of knowing how far that is, so they can get out.

SEAN March 13, 2018 - 3:28 pm

I’m not certain if the platforms at Kew Gardens & Forest Hills can be extended. I don’t know the Kew Gardens station layout, but I do know that it’s hemmed in to the south & east. Forest hills has extensive ramps that prevent extending the platforms there unless the station becomes off center from 71st Avenue. There’s also the Forest Hills Gardens community with townhomes along Burns Street to contend with.

William March 15, 2018 - 12:45 pm

Adding extra cars to trains is not practical because of the locations of switches at terminals. A 12 car train at a terminal that only accommodates 10 cars would hang over the switch, preventing it from moving. Essentially, the terminal would be locked out. No trains could get in or out.

BruceNY March 15, 2018 - 1:42 pm

To quote Homer Simpson: “DOH!!!”

Stan-Clare Closendawes March 15, 2018 - 1:00 pm

I’ve mulled over this for two days now, and still the most intelligent comment I can come up with re: the 14-car train proposal is that it’s perhaps the most jaw-droppingly stupid idea I’ve ever heard.

Given the MTA’s penchant for comically overspending, I’m at least grateful that only $330K, and not $33 million, is going to be wasted on this instant non-starter of an idea.

Is $12 billion really considered cost-effective? Wasn’t the first stage of the Second Avenue Subway, which we all know was grossly overpriced, completed for less than that? Serious question.

Maclondon March 21, 2018 - 10:24 am

Agree with basic issues highlighted by everyone. Bgrff does bring up the more realistic option of extending by a small amount (say 1 car or where longer cars replace shorter 60 foot cars) where the first/last doors do not open which is being used in London as a more cost effective way when the new S stock entered service on the Circle/H&C lines and the case was made to stretch capacity – the key is that is only used at certain/less busy stations and you have open gangway trains so that you can still get off if you find yourself in the wrong bit of the train. That is one part of how LU increased capacity by around 20% before the new CBTC signalling system is implemented, increasing capacity in total by 60% – about half of the extra capacity on the Circle line is about increasing the length and accepting that some stations would need SDO – doing it as proposed so that all stations are using SDO is madness!

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