Don’t block subway automation

The New York state Senate is reviewing a bill that would prohibit the practice of one-person train operations on the subway, but the bill's supposed justification, which is safety, is based on falsehoods, writes transit expert Alon Levy.

An MTA train conductor watches the platform as a train leaves the station.

An MTA train conductor watches the platform as a train leaves the station. Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit

The state Senate is reviewing a bill by state Sen. Kevin Parker that would prohibit the practice of one-person train operations on the New York City subway. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2017 but died in the Assembly. Right now, practically all subway trains have two-person crews, consisting of a driver and a conductor, who operates the doors and makes announcements. Management has long sought to reduce crew size to one, at least on some lines, by using partial automation to combine the operator and conductor jobs. So far the Transport Workers Union has scuttled all attempts to introduce partial automation to New York City’s subway main lines. Parker’s bill would enshrine this wasteful practice of overstaffing in law.

The bill’s supposed justification, which is safety, is based on falsehoods. Since many other cities around the world use only one staffer per train, Parker contends New York is different because of its size, with a reference to “the New York city subway system, the largest public transit system in the world.” This is incorrect: By ridership on subway lines or subway-like commuter rail lines, New York doesn’t even crack the global top 10. The two biggest European urban rail networks, those of Moscow and Paris, exclusively use one-person crews. The largest system in the world, Tokyo, uses a combination of one- and two-person teams.

Anyway, the size of a system isn’t even the most relevant variable: It’s the size of the train, and some other cities have fewer conductors and larger trains. Parisian commuter trains pack 2,000 passengers with just one crew member every day at rush hour.

New York exceptionalism relies on views of how important and developed the city is that are generations out of date, limiting the MTA’s ability to learn from global best practices, which include automation across rich and middle-income countries. Many of those systems are even transitioning toward full automation, with driverless lines in operation or in testing in ParisSeoulShanghai and Tokyo.

New York City Transit may not be unique in its size or complexity, but it is unique in its high costs. This goes beyond construction costs, covered in the media by myself and others. The operating costs on the subway are the highest per car-mile among the major metro rail systems of the world. Among the big American systems, the only one that’s as expensive to operate as New York City Transit is Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which went to one-person train operation recently and still employs former conductors in miscellaneous positions, letting them go by attrition, according to several sources at the Boston-based advocacy group TransitMatters.

London has had similar fights for a generation – the Underground began using partial automation at the end of last century, but some suburban commuter lines have waited longer. In 2013, there was a fight about one-person operation on the London Overground, which consists of suburban lines operated by Transport for London, which also runs the London Underground. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which represents train crew members, claimed conductors are needed for safety, but Transport for London noted that on the Overground, the already partially automated East London Line was actually safer than the rest. In accidents involving improper door opening, the East London Line averaged one incident per 7 million trips, compared with one per 4 million on the rest.

If anything, the computer control with one-person operation would improve safety in New York. The New York Times reports that in 2017, there were 900 incidents of people falling onto tracks, getting side-swiped by trains or otherwise accidentally intruding on the system. In 2012, these incidents led to 55 fatalities.

New technology can prevent this: platform edge doors, which are glass barriers between the platform and the tracks, would prevent passengers from falling onto the tracks. Automatic sliding doors aligned with the train doors would open when the train arrives. (This system is in use in some cities, including Beijing.) Platform edge doors do not by themselves require full automation. However, they do require the train to be aligned perfectly with the sliding doors, which requires tight computer control. The system that provides the needed precision, called communications-based train control, or CBTC, is available on the L and No. 7 lines, and there are plans for installing it on more lines. The MTA estimated that installing platform edge doors in every station would cost $1 billion. It would help pay for this life-saving measure if the MTA could recoup the costs over time in part by going to down to one operator per train.

In contrast with New York’s insistence on maintaining two-person operations, many systems around the world have begun automating operations. Some run entirely driverless. These include SkyTrain in Vancouver; Line 10 in Shanghai, which has about 1 million passengers on a weekday; and a growing number of lines in Paris, including the city’s busiest, Line 1, which opened in 1900 and was automated in 2012 for about $13 million per mile. Many more are not driverless but run using CBTC or similar systems with extensive computer control, including most new American systems such as those of Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco area, as well as most lines in London, all of which run with a single crew member aboard.

Automation is not just about laying off workers. Computers drive more precisely than humans, which allows them to be safer and run trains faster and more frequently. The automation of Line 1 in Paris raised average speeds by about 20% and permits trains to run every 85 seconds at rush hour, compared with 105 seconds on non-automated lines.

Automation is the future in cities that wish to take full advantage of what technological innovation has to offer. The vast majority of urban rail ridership globally, comprising more than 100 million daily trips, uses at least partial automation.

Bill S4890 should die. It plays to New York provincialism, arguing that the best city in the world has nothing to learn from others. But in a world in which New York City Transit isn’t even in the top 10 in ridership, refusing to learn and adapt means continuing to stagnate. The combination of early 21st century wages and early 20th century productivity has made New York City’s subway system cripplingly expensive to operate. The result has been poor service and frustrated riders. The MTA is often justly accused of inefficient spending practices, but the state government it answers to must get out of the way when it wants to harness technology to save money and improve its effectiveness.