What Will it Take to Fix the New York Subways?

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In New York, people don’t small talk about the weather—they talk about the trains. And, as the MTA’s 1930s-era system crumbles into ever-increasing disrepair, the talk is not so small and not so pleasant. Big gripes, you might say. During last seasons summer of hell, tensions boiled over as trained after train posted serious delays and passengers were trapped on platforms—and even trains—for exceptionally long waits. In response, New Yorkers got angry-creative (one man I spoke to donated a dollar to Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign for every minute of delay on his commute), Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio ducked for cover (emerging only to trade volleys with each other), and MTA’s executive director, Andy Byford, got to work, unveiling an ambitious plan to revamp the city’s subway on an accelerated timeline. The plan, Fast Forward, intends to accomplish in five years what it initially predicted would take forty, installing upgraded signal systems on five lines; making 50 new stations accessible to those with disabilities; repairing over 150 decrepit stations; and redesigning bus routes across the five boroughs. You know, no biggie. Once that’s accomplished, they plan to keep on keeping on, expanding renovations to new benchmarks every five years after that.

The price tag is steep—roughly $19 billion—and the funding is uncertain—Cuomo has been wishy-washy—but experts and everyday New Yorkers know that the cost of failure is even higher.

To break down the problems as well as the solutions, we plan to bring you a series on what’s ailing the city’s subway system, as well as the remedies to bring it back to health. But, as with most structural problem, the devil’s in the details—more specifically, a dizzying whirl of acronyms and technical terminology. Like today’s topic, for instance: switching MTA’s signal system from Fixed Block Signaling to Communications-Based Train Control. But don’t worry! We’re here to translate from bureaucratic Greek to layman’s terms, and to help you understand the significance of seemingly small changes.

And so, the nitty gritty. New York’s 6000+ subway cars cover 728 miles of track, stop at 468 stations, and carry 6 million people to and fro each weekday. That’s a herculean task in itself, but it becomes a scary proposition when you realize that we’re essentially doing it blind. Yup: for the last century, our trains have operated on Fixed Block Signaling technology, meaning that the MTA has no real-time information about where any train is at a given time. Instead, they break tracks up into 1000 foot segments, which send signals whenever a train is anywhere on its turf. The signals also operate as a sort of underground stop light system, flashing red for stop, green for go and yellow when a train appears to be too close for comfort (hence all those interminable stops on your way home from work). Because of the danger this imprecision entails, each train is given an additional 1000-foot safety buffer to avoid fiery collisions, etc. The effect? Trains have to travel unnecessarily far apart on their tracks, which in turns causes bunching, delays, and irate New Yorkers saying “I’m commuting here!” in Brooklyn accents.

The solution? Communications-Based Train Control signals, which use wireless, on-track and onboard transponders to send precise, real-time information to a central transit hub—a sort of Air Traffic Control for landed transit beasts—which can then use that information to direct, maneuver and shuffle trains around obstacles, construction, or each other. This allows for more efficient travel and more exact information on train timetables. It also is more climate resilient, since CBTC equipment is waterproof or easily replaceable—unlike the stodgy infrastructure required by Fixed Block Signaling. And, for those of you pulling out your ledgers, it would also save New York over $100 million annually, reducing maintenance fees and relying more on automation (whether the latter is good or bad is another debate). Of course, it would also require increased construction, which would mean increased weekend closures for certain train lines. But at this point, the immediate wait seems worth the long-term benefits, saving the subways from crumbling like Rome and bringing them, finally, into the 21st century.

Stay tuned for the rest of our series on repairing the subway, and remember some of these plans when you’re waiting, apoplectically, for your A train.

Ash Sanders