National News

How 2 MTA Decisions Pushed the Subway Into Crisis

Posted May 14, 2018 11:29 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — By now, New York City commuters are familiar with the wait. We descend from the bitter cold or the stifling heat to find subway platforms teeming with other bodies trying to make it to work on time. Delays ripple through the system, so there’s barely room to squeeze into the next train that arrives.

For years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority told us that rising ridership and overcrowding were to blame. Yet ridership actually stayed mostly flat from 2013 to 2018 as delays rose, and the authority recently acknowledged that overcrowding was not at fault.

Instead, two decisions made by the MTA years ago — one to slow down trains and another that tried to improve worker safety — appear to have pushed the subway system into a crisis with no easy fix.

— It Takes Just One Delay

The changes by the MTA have hampered the system’s ability to recover from delays as it once did.

First, the agency decided to increase the amount of space required between trains. It installed or modified hundreds of signals, which regulate train spacing. In that process, signals throughout the system were misconfigured — set up in a way that slowed the trains down even more than officials intended.

Second, the agency adopted new rules for track work that expanded safety zones and increased setup times.

An analysis of internal MTA documents and interviews with system managers and train operators suggest that these two changes removed extra capacity — the ability to run more trains than scheduled — from the subway system. This, on top of years of cost-cutting and deferred spending for maintenance in the 1990s and 2000s, is why the system is no longer able to rebound from disruptions as it once could.

“It’s a conga line of trains all the way down to Brooklyn,” said Kimberly McLaurin, a train operator on the numbered lines who started in 2008. “Any one thing can back up the line.”

Andy Byford, the new president of New York City Transit, “asked for an analysis of the impact of signal modifications on subway schedules” as part of a review announced in January, Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the MTA, the transit agency’s parent organization, said in an email.

— Faulty Signals Force Slowdowns

After a 1995 collision of two trains on the Williamsburg Bridge killed a train operator and injured more than 50 passengers, the MTA began installing and modifying hundreds of signals to prevent trains from going too fast.

When a train passes over a signal’s switch, a timer starts.

The MTA projected that the signal changes would not reduce the number of trains that could pass through a section of track each hour. But this assumed the signals would work properly and that trains would operate at the speed limit.

A good signal allows a train to pass through at the speed limit, but many signals are poorly maintained and misconfigured, triggering emergency braking at speeds below the listed limit. And some train operators slow down for all signals in case they are passing through a faulty one.

An unpublished 2014 internal MTA analysis, first reported on by The Village Voice, found that the signal changes caused a significant slowdown, more than the MTA expected.

Train operators face steep penalties after a number of instances of tripping a signal, like losing vacation days or time working.

“If you have two of those type of incidents, I’ve seen people forced into retirement because of something like that,” McLaurin said, noting that she approaches the signal timers ready to stop the train, regardless of the posted speed.

The analysis stated that if the MTA had known the signal changes would reduce the number of trains able to run on congested lines, they would not have been made.

But the damage was done. After the signal changes, two fewer trains could run on the southbound 4 and 5 lines hourly, forcing the thousands of passengers those trains would have carried to squeeze into already crowded cars.

Across the system, more than 1,800 signals have been modified since 1995.

— Safety Rules, and More Delays

After two track workers died within a week of each other in 2007, the MTA created a track safety task force. The task force recommended new slow zones adjacent to tracks where crews were working; an increase in the minimum crew size; and a longer, more careful setup process for work crews.

The slow zones, with lights and flaggers to alert train operators, contributed to an increase in work-related delays.

With the new rules, trains traveling near track work must go less than 10 mph — 30 mph slower than the systemwide limit. Even far from track work, the slow zones create bottlenecks and reduce the number of trains able to run. As the MTA adopted more safety rules, the share of overall delays attributed to planned track work increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 30 percent in 2014, despite a similar amount of work each year.

Protecting workers is critical to the MTA’s mission, but the tracks are still dangerous after these new rules. In the last five years, three more workers have died on the tracks, and near misses are not uncommon. The London Underground, a system of similar size and age, has had no such fatalities since 1998.

Tony Utano, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, said he would fight any change that could put workers at risk, saying “protections were put into place because our members were maimed and killed on the tracks.”

In an email, Weinstein said that “the safety of workers and riders is our No. 1 priority,” declining to answer specific questions about a track work-related increase in delays. New York City’s subway is the world’s largest 24/7 system, making it harder to protect track workers while doing maintenance without disrupting service. And even with Fastrack, when some tracks are shut down overnight to allow for a safer and faster job, the start of work can be delayed for hours.

As delays began to rise in 2013, the MTA blamed rising ridership and overcrowding. But delays kept increasing even after ridership plateaued and fell.

Train dispatchers have often used overcrowding as a catchall category for delays without a clear cause or for ones caused by the crowded platforms that follow when equipment failures or track work disrupt regular service.

Average weekday ridership actually decreased by 40,000 people from January 2013 to January 2018 as trains went from being on time 84 percent of the time to 58 percent. The MTA recently acknowledged overcrowding was not the root of the problem. It has also blamed old equipment, but train dispatchers haven’t recorded more instances of electrical or track problems causing delays.

— There’s No Easy Fix

Before the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, the MTA had installed less expensive brakes with longer stopping distances without adjusting the signals to compensate. Afterward, the MTA not only increased the distance between trains but also reduced the speed of train cars and installed speed-limiting signals.

Either lowering speeds or increasing spacing would have given the train enough stopping distance to avoid the accident. Since then, making both of those changes has brought the system to its current crisis.

When asked directly about the adjustments, Weinstein said repairs and upgrades were continuing as part of the Subway Action Plan, the MTA’s $836 million emergency effort to improve the system. Just 7 percent of the plan’s budget had been set aside for signal maintenance as of March 1.

In September, when asked when riders would see the impact of the plan, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo told reporters, “I would venture to say if you were looking very carefully, you would see improvement already.”

But the subway kept slowing down. As of February, the number of delayed trains was up about 8 percent since last September.