NYC Subway Reliability Essay

by Teddy Ryan, age 16
NYC Subway Reliability Essay

“The New York City subway can improve its reliability by making alternative routes clearer for riders, hiring more platform controllers, and better managing the time allocated for construction and modernizing signals.”

Reliability within a transit system is always inconsistent. One can never predict with absolute certainty how congested traffic is, which route is quickest to your destination, and the overall travel time from Point A to Point B. But what can be altered is communication and improved infrastructure. In New York City, riders expect their subway commute to be the overall shortest of travel times, if all goes well. It is expected that when one leaves their house, walks to their station, waits a couple of minutes for their train, gets off their first train and onto the second, and exits at their destined station, that it will all be a seamless experience. A Time Out article written in February 2019 expressed that the two best tourist attractions in New York City are the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. If one were to look on Google Maps, they would find that on a weekday at ten in the morning, it would take around 30 to travel between these destinations by subway. One would have to walk one block to the Herald Square Station, wait for a choice of four trains departing within a span of seven minutes, get off at the Washington Square station after three to four minutes in transit, wait an additional five minutes for the next train, get off six minutes later at Fulton Street, and walk three blocks to the on-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. From door to door, this would take approximately 25 minutes, if a commuter could walk a block per two minutes and everything in the subway lined up perfectly. However, this rarely happens. The New York Times gathered in March of last year that weekday trains arrived early, on time, or as late as five minutes only 58.1% of the time. If each line has about twenty seven trains operating on the line at one time, excluding shuttles, that means that only about six of ten trains are considered by the MTA to be “on time.” By going more in depth, one can find out what can be done to improve the reliability of the United States’ largest subway system.

An easier change that can be made in the grand scheme of improving the subway’s reliability is the installation of WiFi in the system’s 472 stations, as well as encouraging train dispatchers to announce the status of the lines they are monitoring. Transit Wireless observed that the MTA celebrated the one year anniversary of installing WiFi to all of its 279 underground stations on January 16th 2018. While the installation of WiFi is still being worked on for the other 193 stations, the existing system has helped riders keep up to date on the status of their subway lines without the use of cellular data. When using Google Maps with Verizon’s 2GB cellular data plan, one is limited to 34 consecutive hours of usage before their charges go up. For commuters who deal with frequent delays and service disruptions, this data can be easily eaten up when included with regular data usage. The MTA’s service disruptions can cause Verizon users to pay excessive fees. By installing WiFi in each and every station, commuters’ phone plans stay intact, as do their wallets.

However, all commuters can appreciate train dispatchers providing station announcements when service is disrupted. The New York Times analyzed that delays have more than tripled in the span of five years, from 20,000 delays in 2012 to 67,450 in 2017. By encouraging dispatchers to make simple announcements such as, “(N) train service has been suspended due to a sick passenger in Astoria,” riders can be made more up to date on the current status of their commute. According to Psychology Today, “one of the most prevalent fears people have is that of losing control” (Cohen, 2011).  If riders can focus more on their alternative routes, instead of worrying about the unknowingness of when their train will arrive, the system will be more reliable for communicating with passengers when service changes arise.

A constant problem of the subway’s reliability is how long a train is dwelling in the station. Six Square Feet reports that “the system is designed for trains to spend only thirty seconds at each station before departing. However, in busy stations like Grand Central, the wait times constantly exceed this limit” (Gannon, 2017). The MTA has begun to address this problem by adding Platform Controllers at a few high ridership stations, who are primarily hired to assist train crews in maintaining the scheduled movements of trains. They are able to do so by reminding riders to step aside to allow people to alight, to step all the way into the train car so everyone can board, and not to congregate by one doorway. They also improve safety by alerting customers when the train is ready to leave, and by flashing a light at the train conductor, they assure them that it is safe to close the doors. With everyone following their instructions, trains reduce their dwell time in the station, leading to fewer delays in the system. What is shocking is how sparsely located Platform Controllers are in the system, only assisting at 11 stations according to the MTA. With ridership and delays increasing, Platform Controllers are a quick fix to both of these issues. Stations that could primarily benefit from platform assistance would be Herald Square, Penn Station (all lines), Columbus Circle, and Fulton Street. These stations all rank in the top ten for highest ridership, yet conductors do not receive any platform assistance. While there would be additional cost in adding extra controllers, the benefits of having fewer delays, which can cost the MTA as much as $389 million annually, far outweigh this con. In a city as big as New York, one delay can turn into one big catastrophe.

While the examples above have provided quicker fixes to reliability, the main issue with the system is its signaling system. This, along with better construction management, will help fix many of the system’s issues with reliability. Curbed NY reports that the current signaling system, known as block signaling, is:

A manually operated method that has been used since the subway’s inception. Subways have blocks, each typically some 1,000 feet long. Fixed-block signals are visible from subway platforms, and the information they provide to train operators are based on the location of the most recent train to have passed—this is known as a moving block system. But this method is imprecise, and because of the age of the signals, subway personnel do not actually know the exact location of the subway cars using block signaling. Much of the current system was installed from the 1930s to the 1960s, and requires custom replacement parts to be made in-house because the machinery is so outdated.

To summarize, this quote demonstrates that a majority of the subway’s signaling is ancient, and trains are spaced out by how many signals they pass in a certain period of time. If another train is too close to the signal where a train just passed, the signal will appear red, delaying that train. This system is also very inefficient, as spacing is higher than what the demand requires at peak hours. 

To make the subway more reliable, this ancient system must be replaced. The MTA has begun the transition to Communication Based Train Control (CBTC). CBTC refers to automatic, computer based signaling. This leads to MTA personnel knowing the exact location of trains, and also decreases the space between trains. This system was fully integrated onto the L line in April of 2012 and the 7 Line in November of 2018. The system is far more durable, leading to fewer breakdowns. Curbed NY clarifies, “Weekday rush hour commutes were marred by signal problems 92% of the time in 2018.” By expediting the process of CBTC, riders will be on time more frequently and the MTA will have larger profits. The 7 Line, which operates from Times Square, Manhattan to Flushing in Queens, has seen on-time performances increase from 56% in March 2018 to 91% in March 2019. With the modernization of signals, trains during peak times have increased from 25 to 29 trains per hour, the Sunnyside Post reports. The article then continues, mentioning that the “MTA said that the L Train and the 7 have the best performance in the system” (Sunnyside Post, 2018). By expanding CBTC to other lines, such as what the MTA has been doing to the E, F, M and R lines in Queens, consistency of train service will become more reliable. To increase the implementation of CBTC, more funding will be needed.

When lines are closed for a myriad of reasons, better use of time for construction will also help improve reliability within the system. Trains are frequently and erratically out of service on weekends and overnight hours. Riders are told this is “because of construction.” For instance this year, J Train service was suspended from Broadway Junction to Jamaica Center on Memorial Day Weekend. The following weekend, service was suspended from Crescent Street (halfway between Junction and Jamaica) to Jamaica Center. This is evidence of poor construction management from the MTA as the replacement of bending rails, breaking signals, and decaying stations could not be expected to be completed in a weekend. The Daily News supports this conclusion by discovering that the “MTA budgeted 900 workers for a job that apparently needed only around 700. Those unneeded 200 workers were pocketing an absurdly high rate of around $1,000 per day” (Samspon, 2018). This all adds up to extra taxpayer money, higher union worker salaries, and less money for crucial mass transit repairs. It can be theorized that working on an eight mile stretch of the J line in one weekend was not feasible as construction costs were too high. This shows poor construction management as more of the line was closed than was necessary This is supported by the fact that the following weekend, parts of the same line were still closed. To better repair crucial infrastructure within the subway system, union contracts for NYC subway workers need to be reviewed and lowered so construction work can be faster, more efficient and cost less money.

In short, the NYC subway can improve its reliability by making alternative routes clearer for time conscious riders, hiring more Platform Controllers for high ridership stations, better managing the time allocated for construction by revising union contracts, and expediting the installation of Communication Based Train Control. In recent years, there have been proposals to improve the system, such as hiring new representatives with fresh ideas. Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan involves improving the subway by introducing CBTC to more lines and introducing longer line closures. With more organized management, the subway has also seen more renovated stations, newer subway cars, and improved infrastructure. However, it is not enough to keep the system functioning for eight million New Yorkers. With stations as old as 115 years old, more action needs to be taken to keep the New York City subway system thriving. New York is the biggest city in the United States, with almost twice the metro area of Los Angeles. With a city this big, it can take as long as two hours to travel from one end to the other in a car. With the subway, it could take one hour, or three. Cities depend on reliable transportation to grow and expand. Without it, the city cannot sustain its populace needs, leading to a more troubling future with a worsened economy. The New York City subway should be thriving. As of now, it’s merely surviving.

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