The MTA’s flashy new plan won’t solve the delays

Upgraded signals could provide significant service improvement, but to fully deliver speed and reliability would require changes to operating practices as well.

People waiting on a subway platform for the 4 train

People waiting on a subway platform for the 4 train Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock

The New York City Transit Authority’s newly announced subway modernization plan is a back-to-basics strategy, focusing on fixing a system that still hasn’t fully recovered from decades of deferred maintenance. Its core elements are the installation of a new signaling system on the system’s busiest lines, the renovation of over 300 stations, the acquisition of over 3,000 new subway cars and a new fare payment system that will allow riders to tap their credit cards at the gates. It also promises to reassess some operating practices that have contributed to delays. As he did in Toronto and London, Byford will seek to move collectors out of their booths and have them move around stations to act as customer service agents.

While riders may appreciate new subway cars and easier fare payment, the main source of their complaints is poor service: long and unpredictable waits between trains, overcrowding and constant service disruptions. Upgraded signals could provide significant service improvement, but to fully deliver speed and reliability would require changes to operating practices as well. Byford’s plan mentions the possibility of making these kinds of changes, but does not provide any specifics.

Byford wants to radically accelerate the process of re-signaling the subway network, which was previously expected to take decades. Now, if the needed funding comes from Albany, signals would be upgraded on most of the busiest routes in the system within five years and many of the remaining busy routes within a decade. A new signaling system should have less frequent breakdowns and be easier to repair than the current antediluvian model, reducing service interruptions. It will also add capacity on the system’s most congested routes. Right now, the subway signaling system is fairly simple, dividing the tracks into segments, called “blocks,” that more than one train can’t occupy at the same time. Newer signaling systems use moving blocks, so that trains are kept apart at the minimum distance required for them to safely stop without the excess space between trains that the current system sometimes creates. The added capacity may be marginal, but on the most crowded routes like the 4/5/6 on Lexington Avenue and the E and F trains on Queens Boulevard, it should make a tangible difference.

But new signals alone will not resolve the subway’s lack of speed, consistency and capacity. The subway moved considerably more trains and riders in the 1940s than it does today, and a lot of operational changes since then are to blame for its current limitations. Revising those policies does not necessarily require large capital expenditure, but it will require rethinking some entrenched practices.

The NYCTA plan mentions re-examining some procedures, including perhaps the most important: strict speed restrictions that have been imposed on many parts of the network in recent decades. They make trips longer, and some also reduce capacity in the way that a slow zone on a road causes a traffic jam.

These changes were imposed in the wake of accidents, on the theory that more precise rules will prevent operator errors. Instead of trusting drivers to drive their trains at the maximum safe speed, the agency set strict limits much lower to ensure that, even if they speed a little, there is no safety risk. Instead of permitting trains to pass a red signal at a walking speed and visually maintain a safe distance from the train in front, they forced drivers to sit at the red signal.

It’s not clear, however, that the reduced speed limits would even have prevented many of the accidents that prompted them. In the infamous 1991 Union Square crash, for example, the train was traveling well above the speed limit due to an intoxicated and sleeping motorman. Some of the changes were perhaps made simply because there was a feeling that something must be done in response to an accident.

Regardless, one of the key benefits of the new signaling system is precise monitoring of exactly where trains are located and how fast they are traveling. It can reliably stop trains operating unsafely, which should make it possible to eliminate some speed restrictions.

Another basic operational problem that limits capacity on the subway is turnaround times at terminal stations. Management needs to make sure there is always another crew positioned on the platform to immediately take over and send the train back out in the return direction. This is especially important on trains like the L, where there are no service tracks beyond the end station. Even a few extra seconds on turnarounds can have ripple effects up and down the line. While this is formally the procedure in place, it doesn’t always happen that way in practice. Likewise, having staff on the platform to make sure that people do not hold doors or do other things to prevent the train from leaving can reduce delays. These changes don’t require big capital investment, but they do require consistently maintaining a much tighter operation.

One operational change that the plan does discuss – and which has surprisingly received little attention – is that it proposes to “review potential route changes to reduce reliance on critical interlockings.” That refers to the fact that many routes from the outer boroughs merge and split again once they’re in Manhattan. For example, passengers at Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn can get on trains going directly to both the West Side and East Side in Manhattan. It’s a fairly unique feature of the New York subway that provides many people with a one-seat ride to their destination. The downsides are that all these mergers and splits can cause delays to spread through the system and they reduce capacity at key junction points. Subway planners have long sought to partially untangle the system for these reasons, but the inconvenience to many riders who will be forced to add a transfer to their route has made such plans politically problematic, despite the benefits they would bring to the broader system.

Another key reform to how the MTA operates that is missing from this proposal: construction cost reduction. Media have reported its cost as $19 billion, just as recent subway expansions have cost vastly more than the equivalent work in other cities. If the new signals account for even one-quarter of that amount, it’s high compared to peer cities. Paris recently announced a contract to install a new signaling system on one of its metro lines for $81 million, or $10.8 million per mile, a figure that is pretty consistent with similar contracts in other European cities. At that price, re-signaling the entire New York subway system, including many branches not covered in this plan, would cost around $3.7 billion.

Another striking element is the complete absence of plans for subway expansion, which has consumed much of the MTA’s energy over the past decade. One of Byford's most respected predecessors, David Gunn, led the restoration of the system in the late 1980s through a laser-like focus on keeping the system in a state of good repair. He wasn't interested in flashy expansion plans when the existing system was crumbling. Given the reliability crisis on the subway today, a similar approach makes a lot of sense.

There is, however, an important downside to abandoning all subway expansion for a number of years: The expertise that was built up at enormous cost through the 7 train and Second Avenue projects will quickly atrophy. That will mean more delays and higher costs on future projects when they do happen. Most of the successful systems around the world keep expansion up at a steady pace, partly so that they don’t lose their experienced people. There are perhaps some extension options that would avoid this problem without the huge budget needs of the recently completed generation of projects. Using the existing tunnels from the 1970s to extend the Second Avenue line northward, rather than building new tunnels under the existing ones, as the MTA currently plans, would be one way to build more cheaply. Another possibility is extending the 3 train one stop to rapidly developing areas in East New York along existing tracks that are currently only used to access a yard.

This plan, if implemented, will go a long way to putting the subway back on the right track. But if the MTA doesn’t also reform everything from the way it runs trains to its out-of-control construction costs, it won’t go far enough.