In about a week or so, Andy Byford is going to reveal his big NYC Transit subway rescue plan to a public anticipating a Big Idea. Byford was brought in specifically to build this plan and execute on turning around the struggling subway system. It won’t be easy, and one of the major obstacles in Byford’s way is New York City Transit itself. The agency often can’t seem to get out of its way, and many of the current problems with fast and reliable service are self-inflicted.
One of the biggest problems, as I discussed in mid-March, are signal timers slowing down service throughout the city. These timers were a reaction to the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, and in March, Aaron Gordon of the Village Voice explored how the MTA did not understand the effect the timers would have on capacity and service. A study nearly 20 years after the fact betrayed the MTA’s problems. “The 2014 study — the first time the authority had attempted to analyze the impact of any of the revamped signals, using its improved data system — found 2,851 lost total passenger hours per weekday could be attributed to thirteen modified signals alone. That was almost double the predicted impact; for comparison, the modifications of  thirteen signals alone created 5 percent as much lost time as that experienced by riders of the entire London Underground on its average day,” Gordon reported, based on internal MTA documents.
This past week, The New York Times revised the issue with signal timers in an easy-to-understand graphic explaining how signal terms slow down service and decrease through capacity on the subways. It’s well worth your time to play with the interactive interface, and it’s worth remembering that the capacity of the system cannot exceed throughput at the slowest choke points. The Times piece delves into how the subways no longer have extra capacity because of the intentional choices the MTA has made over the past few decades. Here’s Adam Pearce on the problem:
The M.T.A. projected that the signal changes would not reduce the number of trains that could pass through a section of track each hour. But this assumed the signals would work properly and that trains would operate at the speed limit. In reality, many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit. An unpublished 2014 internal M.T.A. analysis, first reported on by The Village Voice, found that the signal changes caused a significant slowdown, more than the M.T.A. expected. Train operators face steep penalties after a number of instances of tripping a signal, like losing vacation days or being forced into early retirement…
The analysis stated that if the M.T.A. had known the signal changes would reduce the number of trains able to run on congested lines, they would not have been made. But the damage was done. After the signal changes, two fewer trains could run on the southbound 4 and 5 lines hourly, forcing the thousands of passengers those trains would have carried to squeeze into already crowded cars. Across the entire system, more than 1,800 signals have been modified since 1995.
To me, this graphic is the biggest indictment of all.
These stations in Lower Manhattan are absurdly close together and largely along straight tracks. A train operator on a downtown 4 or 5 train can see each station from the one before it, and yet, the signal timers add 15 seconds per trip from Fulton St. to Bowling Green. Over the course of a line, this adds up to a significant constraint on capacity, and delays due to “overcrowding,” an excuse the MTA has hidden behind for years.
The success of Byford’s plan will hinge on how he treats and responds to these signal timers. It’s guardedly good news that he has, as Jon Weinstein said to Pearce, “asked for an analysis of the impact of signal modifications on subway schedules.” But it’s not enough to ask; he has to respond and fix the problem (without sacrificing safety). But more on that — and the new flagging rules The Times noted — in a follow-up post.