Published February 23rd, 2016
What Reyes didn’t know was that a cascade of problems beginning at 14th Street was about to affect the mornings of hundreds of thousands of passengers, delaying, canceling, or redirecting 625 different trains and making October 16 the worst day, in terms of the longest cumulative delay, that the MTA had last year. But while the day may have been exceptionally bad, in many ways it was all too typical: Subway workers file some 250 incident reports each day — broken tracks, failed equipment, sick passengers, fights. They’re in a constant race against not just aging infrastructure but climbing ridership. So far, they’ve been able to stay one step ahead, doing repairs and installing new technology just fast enough for the trains to stay in motion. But it’s a precarious system, one that can — and does — break down.
By virtually any standard, we’re in the midst of a delay crisis. During the dark ages of the subway — the late ’70s, before a capital program rescued it from crumbling entirely — the system had about 320,000 recorded delays a year. From March 2013 through March 2014, according to the New York State Comptroller’s most recent audit, that number was 498,889. On bad days, the delays add up to a point of no recovery. On good days, it’s just plain bad.
The train’s operator called in to the Rail Control Center, the MTA’s mission control, located on a high floor of a skyscraper in midtown. Unlike much of the MTA’s century-old infrastructure, it’s modern looking, with a bit of a Star Trek vibe, ludicrously high ceilings, and lots of people on computer consoles staring at large screens. RCC dispatchers are essentially the air-traffic controllers of the subway system, and their challenge is often as complex. When faced with an incident, they must decide — in consultation with four levels of supervisors — whether to hold a train while the problem is resolved, allowing other trains to stack up behind it, or begin rerouting trains, which can prevent a backup but only by throwing thousands of commuters off their routes. And the dispatchers must choose in which way they’ll inconvenience commuters as quickly as possible.
“If we can’t get a train moving in five minutes, we are going to start impacting other lines,” says Barry Greenblatt, the MTA’s chief officer for service delivery. Dispatchers often face a series of bad trade-offs. For instance, the MTA’s train schedules are set to minimize crowding at platforms at crucial merger points, such as where the F shares track with the E, M, and G. Each delay, therefore, has ripples throughout the system. “Let’s say an F train has a problem at Lexington Avenue–63rd Street,” says Greenblatt. Assuming the problem is with the inbound F, coming to Manhattan from Queens, one option would be to reroute all F trains to the E line, where they can at least continue going downtown. But if it’s rush hour, that section of the E line includes M trains, and both the E and F lines are already running 15 trains an hour. The line can’t handle more than 30 trains per hour. “There’s too many trains,” says Greenblatt. “It just won’t fit. We’d probably hold trains back.” But if they don’t move enough trains through, there will be fewer trains at the end of the line to start the trips back the other way. “We’re not only moving the passengers on that train, but just like the airlines, we’re repositioning the equipment to make its next trip out,” says Tom Calandrella, the MTA’s senior director for advanced service initiatives.
To make matters even more complicated, the RCC has to order service changes without being able to detect precisely where every train is at any given moment. Calandrella calls that “the shocking part” of the place. “For 67 percent of the railroad” — that is, every lettered train line except the L — “we don’t actually see train movement or control any signals and switches from the control center.” Instead, they do it the same way they’ve been doing it for decades: train crews communicating by radio with a dispatcher. If there’s a delay, the dispatcher phones it in on the “6 wire,” an open party line, and awaits instructions.
A few minutes after the train operator at Union Square contacted the RCC, the dispatcher on duty called in a maintenance crew and diverted downtown local trains to the express track. While train 0620 sat idly in the station, trapped in place by the non-retracting gap filler, all the 6 trains behind it, from Union Square to Grand Central, were stuck at their stations with no place to go. Those north of Grand Central were able to reroute through the Union Square express track, sharing the line with the regular 4 and 5 trains, which meant the 6-train delays would soon ripple down all three East Side lines.
The subway is New York City’s pulmonary system; the great class-leveling engine of urban life; the main reason, perhaps, that such an extraordinary concentration of innovation and power and culture happened here and not somewhere else. Thirty-five percent of the metropolitan area’s workforce commutes via subway, bus, and commuter rail; the national average is 5 percent. Nearly half a million children use MetroCards to get to school, and 65 percent of international tourists use mass transit, contributing $18 billion to the local economy annually, which is why delays aren’t just a matter of inconvenience; they pose a fundamental threat to the functioning of the city. This new era of delays has already taken a toll, starting with people late for work: Last year, commuters asked for delay-verification slips more than 100,000 times.
A recent audit by the state comptroller’s office found that the system’s weekday on-time record in 2014 was 74 percent, meaning one out of every four trains New Yorkers took during the workweek that year was late. The MTA responded by saying it preferred to measure effectiveness by the amount of time people wait for a train. But that measurement, too, known as “wait assessment,” fell short of the agency’s stated goals. Our standards are now lower than those of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., none of which have self-imposed on-time performance goals below 85 percent. New York’s goal, reset last year by the MTA, is now 75 percent.
Lateness, too, is defined pretty loosely by the MTA; any train that completes its route within five minutes of the schedule is considered on time. Which trains are delayed the most? The C and L lines, it may surprise you, are doing all right. The F, not so much. It recorded six times as many delays as the C and more than four times as many as the L. The citywide heavyweight champs of weekday delays, though, are the East Side 4, 5, and 6 trains — the Lexington line — each with more than 40,000 delayed trains from March 2013 through March 2014. The train with the lowest on-time percentage of all was the 4, just shy of a 50 percent on-time record.
At 8:50 a.m., Marks photographed and tweeted a packed express train at Grand Central. (“Thanks for the horrific delays on the 4/5 @MTA. Second train that’s this full with 10 min gaps between trains.”) What made the delay so bleak was not how distinctive it was but how routine. “Slowness between stations,” he says, “is pretty much a daily thing.”
MTA executives are naturally defensive about the criticism. They argue that, unlike in the ’70s, the current problems are a result of their own success — the subways are more popular than ever and therefore more crowded. Six million people use the subways on a busy day now; since 2010 the system has added nearly half a million daily users. The 6 line alone is up by 200,000 daily riders compared to a few years ago. “It’s like the sponge is soaked and we’re adding more water,” says Calandrella. Rush-hour crowds can start at six; the evening rush extends past nine.
Fifteen of the subway system’s 21 lines (not including the shuttles) have maxed out the number of trains that can ride safely on the routes, and ten of those 15 lines are at peak riding capacity, which means when something goes wrong, the dispatchers have no wiggle room. The MTA has blamed some 40 percent of delays on the system’s high ridership numbers, and the agency has few good options for tempering the crowds, including converting the train-car stock to “open gangway” cars, which annex the dead space between cars and convert it into usable space for passengers, increasing capacity by perhaps as much as 10 percent. Other cities have taken to rationing access to crowded stations or jamming passengers into cars Tokyo style.
“Their nightmare scenario,” says Gene Russianoff of theStraphangers Campaign, the venerable subway gadfly group, “is there are these people who are like bouncers who are standing in front of the staircase at Grand Central and put up a felt line and say, ‘You can’t go down for 15 minutes, because it’s too crowded down there.’ And it’s not an insane, paranormal phenomenon. It happens in London. And it would be terrible.”
Draconian crowd-control measures aside, another option to accommodate the hordes would be to expand — to build. But even that is just playing catch-up. When the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway opens, scheduled for December 2016, an estimated 225,000 people will shift over from the Lexington line. That’s a mere 12 percent of its 1.95 million riders. And now phase two is in limbo. Tunneling for it can’t logistically begin until 2019, and the MTA cut $1 billion of the project budget from its capital program. After a public outcry, MTA chairman Tom Prendergast said the agency would look for ways “to deliver the project faster.”
The MTA has also explored private partnerships to help fund subway upgrades. Russianoff recently sat in on meetings with both the MTA and the developer SL Green to create more space on the platform at Grand Central. SL Green, in return for bankrolling the effort, would be allowed to erect a larger building nearby. “The MTA made it pretty clear that they thought they could get one more train an hour by doing $220 million worth of repairs,” Russianoff says. “And they were doing things like — this is my favorite one — shave a pillar, so you can walk around it more easily on the platform. It’s a cautionary tale — $220 million here gets you just one extra train an hour! It’s desperately needed, it’s the right thing to do, but it’s discouraging.”
That afternoon, a passenger who ultimately refused help caused a ten-minute delay on a 5 train at 59th Street at 3:34 p.m., affecting eight separate trains. Then there was a nonresponsive passenger on a 6 train at 4:58 p.m. at 77th Street who eventually was taken to Lenox Hill Hospital (it sat for 17 minutes, affecting 25 different trains); a sick passenger who refused assistance on a downtown 6 at 59th Street at 5:21 p.m. (nine minutes, six late trains); and a drunk passenger who fell on the southbound 6 platform at Hunts Point Avenue at 9:11 p.m. (25 minutes of delays, 16 late or diverted trains).
The section between 86th Street and Grand Central is a particular hotbed for sick passengers. “The p.m. rush hour is always more hectic than the a.m.,” Calandrella tells me. “The a.m. rush hour, nobody’s been to happy hour yet.” But the morning has its own challenges. “It’s very difficult to judge what is comfortable in your walk from your house to the train and what’s going to be comfortable to wear on a crowded train,” he says. “And people don’t eat breakfast, you know. A lot of sick customers are people who pass out just because they don’t eat breakfast.”
Systemwide, sick passengers were the cause of about 3,000 train delayseach month in 2015, nearly double the amount in 2012. But at least part of the sick-passenger problem is also a resource problem. The MTA’s policy is not to move a train out of a station until the sick passenger is receiving help on the platform. Most of the significant delays resulting from a sick passenger are a train waiting for EMS to come. What if an EMS crew were waiting during rush hour at every high-traffic train station? “We had EMTs at Grand Central,” says MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg. “I think it was moderately successful and it got cut in budget cuts.”
By the time the downtown 5 train resolved its sick-passenger problem and moved on, 19 different trains had been delayed or rerouted — a calculus the RCC operators must make for the good of the whole system. “There’s 2,000 people on the train behind that, 2,000 on the train behind that, and 2,000 on the train behind that,” Calandrella says. “The quicker we could redistribute the load, the better it is for the 6,000 as opposed to the 600.”
The MTA has introduced platform controllers equipped with wireless microphones at Grand Central, 51st Street, and 125th Street, who make announcements and coax people onto platforms. “It’s a different voice than just hearing the automated announcements, so it gets people’s attention if they’re not plugged in with their earbuds,” he says. “If the platform controller can assist them in getting to the platform, just getting off the train, we can move the train along.” He’s also a fan of the step aside boxes, large rectangles painted on the platform of some stations exactly where the train doors open that are meant as a visual cue for riders to make way for passengers as they leave each train car. “That’s the biggest problem,” Habersham says excitedly. “People really do stand right at the doorways when the trains are coming in, and people can’t exit the train.”
A little credit, first: The track-and-signal system is by far the most essential holdover from the early years of the subway system, and, in its time, it was revolutionary. The problem is, that time was almost 150 years ago. When rapid transit was first envisioned, it was impossible to track the precise location of a train. Instead, in the 1870s, William Robinson devised an ingenious work-around that made it physically impossible for one train to collide with another. Every few hundred feet of the system would compose its own circuit. Whenever a train tripped a circuit, an operator could assume the train was occupying a specific section of track, until the train had moved completely to the next circuit of track, and so on down the line.
Every time a circuit breaks, the signal goes red, and a foot-long metal rod flings upward from the track. This is the stop arm; any train coming past would hit it, flicking on the train’s emergency brake. It’s a foolproof method of preventing collisions, but it tends to overreact. “Any slight impediment, if you will, on the roadbed, on the track, the track circuit has to possibly see it as a train,” says Habersham. “It doesn’t know. We just know that energy is not getting to that electromechanical relay. We have to assume it’s a train. So the signal system has to react accordingly, and signals have to go red.” This is exactly what happened at Astor Place; a stop arm was in the “up” position, and no one knew exactly why.
Track circuits break constantly — systemwide, signal failure occurs once every 11 hours on average. “Probably 70, 80 percent of signal-related failures are caused by the track circuit,” Habersham says. Sometimes it’s a piece of garbage or debris that gets caught in the wrong place — Habersham recalls the time, not long ago, when they had to shut down the East Side trains at Bowling Green during the afternoon rush hour. “We had teams out there. Forty-five minutes to set up, because the approach to Bowling Green is in an under-river tube. We got down there to find out it’s just a bottle of water in between the switch point that was causing the switch to fail.”
Sometimes it’s metal plates bolted to the track that have come loose over time. Sometimes it’s the worn-away insulator of a “turnbuckle” — a short metal rod inserted across the width of the rails to help it maintain the proper distance of 56 and a half inches. Sometimes it’s a shaving of metal from the brakes or the wheels or the rail itself. Whatever the reason, the signal can’t go green again and trains can’t run until the cause of the failure is determined. The good news is that this is why you never hear about a collision in the New York City subway system. The bad news is that during rush hour, a track-circuit failure means game over for your commute. A team might even have to set up “flagging,” with track crews manually signaling trains through at slower speeds. (This is what’s happening when you see workers waving lights along the track.)
Sixteen minutes later, at 11:06 a.m., the 6 train at Astor Place was back in service. The cause of the glitch remains a mystery. Four trains were made late in that time — or later than they already were — and three others were canceled. This was a good outcome, compared to the norm: The MTA’s data shows that in 2014, each weekday incident based on signal problems caused an average of 17 separate delayed trains.
The long-promised Holy Grail of system upgrades, for some people, is called Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) — a whole new technology, already being used on the L line, that, once it’s fully rolled out, probably a generation from now, would largely replace the musty track-and-signal system. Under that system, trains sometimes keep thousands of feet apart from one another, when the minimum safe braking distance between trains is just 325 feet. But CBTC’s signaling equipment radios its position so that a central control knows the exact speed that train should be at to make it through the next step on the route. More trains could run on the existing lines safely. CBTC also supposedly all but eliminates the need for a person to drive the train. “Don’t call it a robo-train!” Calandrella says. “There’s always a train operator on it. Don’t be the New York Post.” (But it basically is. On the L, the train operator’s job is largely limited to pushing a ready-to-go button, staring out the front of the window, and every 20 seconds pushing another button to let the RCC know he’s still there in case of any problems.)
CBTC won’t be coming to the whole subway for decades. It’s not just about replacing the track-circuit system. It requires remodeling or replacing the entire fleet of subway cars. Even when it does come, it’s an open question whether CBTC really will keep up with the demands on the system. On the L line, Habersham says, the MTA thought it would need 18 trains per hour, so it equipped 22 trains. “By the time we went live with the system,” he says, “we needed at least 25 trains. The ridership just ballooned by like 500 percent.” The L’s end-to-end travel time has gone down just 3 percent with CBTC. Yet without it, the crowding, and the delays caused by that crowding, would have exploded.
Money is naturally behind all the system’s shortcomings. Last year, after the MTA leadership declared a funding crisis, the city committed a record $2.5 billion to the agency’s capital plan, and the state committed $8.3 billion. Even with that new $29 billion budget, only 68 percent of stations will have countdown clocks by 2020.
There’s another argument that the real problem behind the increase in delays isn’t the culture of subway ridership or even a budget shortfall but the culture of the MTA. When the agency lowered its on-time goals, was it being realistic or accepting defeat? I’m reminded of the recent comptroller’s report and its condemnation of the MTA’s dysfunction. “Transit officials,” the report concluded, “had no formal corrective action plans or programs to minimize the chronic underlying problems that caused delays.” Instead, the delay problem is being picked apart by more than a dozen task forces, studies, and initiatives. It’s like they say in track-safety school: There’s no such thing as a simple shortcut. Only quicksand.
FIND THE ORIGINAL AT: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/02/mta-one-day-625-delays.html