Anatomy of a Subway Meltdown

If you follow me on Twitter or read my last post, you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t taken kindly to the notion that Uber and other car sharing services are somehow responsible for the decline in subway service. To me, that’s attacking the symptom and not the disease. Yes, it’s true that there has been a slight decline in Subway ridership, but that’s because there has also been an admitted decline in Subway service, especially on the weekend, where the dip was significant (Weekday service is actually higher than ever).

Ironically, the day after my post on the subject, I was given the unfortunate opportunity to document what a such a decline looks like from the perspective of a frequent rider.

Below is an annotated photo essay. In the notes section I’ll briefly explain the problem, the cause ,and what (if anything) is being done about it.

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Problem

The Fulton Street IND (AC) are shuttered just as the rush hour is winding down. No train has arrived in more than 25 minutes.

Cause

The signal system employed by the New York City Subway is more than 70 years old in some places. These signals often break and even when working at optimal performance, aren’t very efficient.

What’s Being Done?

The MTA has been engaged in a massive project to install something called Computer Based Train Control, which will use computers to drive the trains instead of people, thus eliminating the need for conventional block signals. The bad news is that it’s going fairly slowly. Only the L and the 7 have been overhauled. At the current pace the rest of the system will take…decades.

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 Problem

A formal announcement concerning the suspension of train service was made. People start to leave (some probably took Ubers). A significant portion of the intended audience, however,  were wearing headphones and did not hear the announcement. New passengers who just arrived to the station missed the announcement altogether.

Cause

There are few information screens in the subway. Most real time information is given in audio. Information alerts aren’t sent to riders via text or apps. Screens in the trains themselves don’t display timely information.

What’s Being Done

The MTA is introducing digital arrival screens to the B division next year that should be able to display information, but we have yet to see how these screens will be used.

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Problem

The stations information screens that did work were displaying conflicting and inaccurate messages. Alerts, which correctly told passengers of the service suspension, were alternating between “schedules” that continued to claim that trains were arriving momentarily.

Cause

I’ve long been baffled by why the MTA choses to display “scheduled” arrivals at all. Riders confuse this information with real time countdown clocks that are on the A Division (numbered lines). The difference is that those clocks use real time information, while these just tell you the schedule. The countdown clocks tell you where the trains are, these tell you where the trains are supposed to be. Trains never run on schedule during the day. The schedules are basically irrelevant.

What’s Being Done?

Not much. Transit should have figured out by now how to push better information to riders. Or at least information that doesn’t conflict. Hopefully this will improve in the future.

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Problem

Passengers are forced to wait in a dirty station with peeling paint and other unsightly features. This station was renovated only 5 years ago.

Cause

Transit now has 472 subway stations and struggles to keep them presentable. A great deal of progress has been made over the past 25 years but most stations still aren’t pleasant places, only adding to the misery of such delays. Subways are the city’s most used public space.

What’s Being Done

Not much. Transit will continue with it’s capital programs but it’s often like playing wackamole. Transit lacks the resources to address the needs of all the stations at any given time.

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Even after the announcements, thousands of riders have no choice but to wait. They may live too far for a cab or bus to be worthwhile, or may lack the money to pay a high cab fare. The result is a delay that easily adds 30-45 minutes to their trips. For some that’s the difference between keeping and losing a job. For others it may be the difference between passing and failing an exam.

If incidents like this are becoming the norm, then it’s not all to surprising that passengers will chose other forms of the travel, especially on the weekends.

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Subway Meltdown”

  1. Among the many baffling things about the way the MTA is run, posting “scheduled” train information on those station information screens makes no sense whatsoever.

    Re Computer Based Train Control, I can’t help but see the inefficiencies of their installation when I look at the MTA’s video about it https://youtu.be/_1Bgmugve5M?t=1m27s and see what looks like 2 men actually working and 7 others watching. Plus, why can’t there be workers working at multiple points along a stretch of closed track?

    Like

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