As subway service has gone from good to bad to worse over the past few years, signal timers have come up frequently as a topic of conversation. The timers, as I explored in March, arose out of a 1995 subway crash that was ultimately determined to be due to human error, and the MTA has spent over two decades slowing down the trains because, well, who knows. No one could explain why by the time year 23 of the signal timers arrived that many were being installed. Subway service has been slowed because the MTA opted to slow the trains, and now Andy Byford is starting to do something about it.
Emma Fitzsimmons of The Times broke the news in an article on Monday in which you will find a few comments by me. The essence is this: By attacking faulty signal timers and raising speed limits on others, Byford believes he can alleviate the system-wide slowdown caused by the MTA’s own internal decision-making processes without sacrificing safety. As anyone who has experienced a slow crawl of, say, a 2 or 3 train north of 86th St. or an R train ride up or down 4th Ave. in Brooklyn will attest to, eliminating these slow spots is a move that can’t happen soon enough.
The MTA announced the changes in a press release on Monday afternoon as part of the awkwardly-named “Save Safe Seconds” campaign:
This past weekend, several months of careful testing and study have led to the safe increasing of five speed limits between 36 St and 59 St on the nr line in Brooklyn, with 15 mile-per-hour zones being increased to 20 or 30 miles per hour. Twenty-nine more increases throughout the system have also been approved by a safety committee and will be rolled out in coming weeks, with Transit officials estimating speed limits to be safely increased at more than 100 locations throughout the system by the springtime. The speed limit changes already approved increase speeds generally in the 10 to 20 mile per hour range to speeds that reach the 40s.
The same team doing this work is also testing and fixing speed regulating signals called “time signals” or “timer signals,” with 95 percent of some 2,000 such signals tested since the initiative began in late August. Approximately 267 faulty timer signals have been discovered and approximately 30 of them have been fixed so far in what amounts to very labor-intensive work to inspect, diagnose and repair or replace numerous possible pieces of equipment during times of exclusive track access for workers such as weekends or nights.
“Safety is always our top priority, and we’re working hard to maximize our subway’s potential within the boundaries of stringent safety standards,” said NYC Transit President Andy Byford. “Subway cars have come a long way in safety and performance since the system’s speed limits were first put in place up to a century ago, and some speed-regulating signals have become miscalibrated over time, forcing trains to go slower than they need to. We’re taking a fresh look, with no compromise to safety, at how to reduce delays and get people to their destinations sooner.”
This announcement though seems modest in comparison with the findings in Fitzsimmons’ article. According to her reporting, the MTA has installed around 2000 signal timers throughout the system — or the equivalent of around 3 for every mile of track. Even though we can point to multiple causes for the declining reliability of subway service, it’s hard to understate just how costly these signal timers have been as trains have slowed to a crawl lately. The initial effort to remove them is a modest too. Here’s Fitzsimmons:
Over the summer, Mr. Byford created a new “speed unit” — a three-person team that traveled every mile of track on the system in an empty train to find areas where trains could safely move faster. The team identified 130 locations where the speed limit should be increased. So far, a safety committee at the transit agency has approved 34 locations for speed increases…
About 30 signals have been repaired in Brooklyn, from the DeKalb Avenue station to the 36th Street station, on the B, Q, D, N and R lines, and near the 9th Avenue station on the D line. Mr. Byford wants to eventually fix all of the faulty signals, though he cautioned that the work is complex and could take awhile.
I’m guardedly optimistic that this move is the start to a solution for our speed woes. As Fitzsimmons notes, NYC subways are among the slowest in the world, and as I keep saying, that’s largely in part due to the MTA’s own choices that slowed down speeds to an unacceptable level in response to discrete incidents caused more by human error than faulty signals. Unfortunately, 30-40 timer fixes every few months won’t do much to fix speeds, and any observant rider can reel off a handful of spots where timers have become more noticeable in recent years (the Franklin-Atlantic run on the 4/5, Grand Army Plaza to Bergen St. on the 2/3, the Q/N heading north into Union Square, the 6 between 51st St. and Grand Central, etc., etc., etc.). So for this to pay real dividends, Byford will have to push for a faster pace, and a faster pace is what frustrated NYC subway riders deserve. For this one, the MTA has only itself to blame, and only the MTA can fix it.