A Train's Brakes Were Automatically Activated, Explained

In June, @NYCTSubway started reporting an awful lot of delays due to a train’s brakes being automatically activated. It had rarely using this phrase before, but all of a sudden they were using it all the time. After about a month, the reader questions started rolling into my inbox: what’s the deal with that?

In short, using this term is part of NYCT’s efforts to be more transparent and accurate about why trains are delayed. Yet, it also reminds us how misleading some of the reasons provided in the past have been.

Often, the first instance of a delay is a train’s brakes activating, which in NYCT jargon is called Brakes In Emergency or BIE. All types of things can cause a train to go BIE: signal problems, debris on the tracks, tripping a signal timer, or even a passenger pulling the emergency brake. Sometimes, a train going into BIE isn’t a big deal. Other times, it is the first sign of a larger issue, which @NYCTSubway will often explain in a follow-up tweet once they figure out what it is. Think of BIE kind of like the subway version of the Mac spinning beach ball.

Of course, nothing about the subway changed in June that suddenly caused all these trains to go BIE. The BIEs always happened, but the Twitter account just used a different phrase for such incidents. Sarah Meyer, NYCT’s chief customer service officer who was hired back in March, told me they used to say “train with mechanical problems” or, more rarely, would actually say “brakes in emergency.” An analysis done in partnership with S/P reader Andy Friedman shows this quite clearly:

Blue = “due to a train with mechanical problems” Orange = “because of a train with mechanical problems” Green = “brakes + activate”

(As an aside, I got a kick out of how they made the minor switch from “due to a train with mechanical problems” to “because of a train with mechanical problems” in Sept/Oct of last year, which illustrates just how controlled their phrasing is.)

So why the switch? As Meyer told me, “#1 it’s not an emergency, and we don’t want to cause unnecessary panic, and #2 writing that we had a train with mechanical problems was not 100% accurate either. For example, if a train encountered debris on the tracks, and went into BIE, that isn’t because the train has mechanical problems. The train’s safety system worked properly and the problem is on the track, not in the car.”

Indeed, vanishingly few cases of trains going into BIE would be the result of car problems. For example, only 1.1 percent of weekday delays in August and 1.6 percent in July were caused by braking or “other” subway car problems—as opposed to, say, door problems or propulsion—and it’s not clear all of those delays would necessarily result in BIE. (This information, by the way, is now publicly available in the monthly board books, which is also part of NYCT’s efforts to be more accurate and transparent. Before Andy Byford took over and hired Sarah Meyer, NYCT provided a much vaguer breakdown of delay causes.)

The average subway rider probably would have interpreted “train with mechanical problems” to mean a large proportion of incidents were due to broken subway cars when in fact they were not. Moreover, it was hardly an isolated case of misleading verbiage about delays causing widespread misunderstandings. Remember, this is from the same organization that brought us “insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown,” “overcrowding,” or “supplement schedule,” all of which have since been done away with for similar reasons of either being misleading, confusing, or downright incorrect.

So, announcing a delay as a BIE is a nice step forward, along with the more detailed breakdowns in the monthly reports, as NYCT tries to be more transparent and accurate. Bridging the trust gap is one of their most important tasks, especially as it sets out to embark upon a decade of extensive work. These might seem like small steps, but as we’ve known from the beginning, fixing the subway is going to take an awful lot of them.

Bonus Section: Running For Office On Transit

The only time I’ve met Ross Barkan in person was during a freelancers meeting at The Village Voice. About a month later, he announced he was running for state senate. “Good for him,” I thought.

He was running as a Democrat to unseat Republican Marty Golden in southern Brooklyn, one of the least transit-friendly state senators—or, indeed, politicians—this state has.

From the outset, Barkan made transportation a central focus of his campaign. Over the next 11 months, he hit the pavement, but ultimately lost to Andrew Gounardes, who is counsel to Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams. But, he did earn 42 percent of the vote, which at least to me seems very impressive given the circumstances.

Despite the defeat, Barkan’s campaign was noteworthy because he really did run on transit, something not enough candidates do. I wanted to find out what Barkan learned running on transit for local office. (This interview has been edited for brevity.)

Aaron Gordon: Your website declared “Transportation is obviously going to be a centerpiece of this campaign because getting around Southern Brooklyn is such a nightmare.” How quickly it became a centerpiece for you?

Ross Barkan: First thing, we did a comprehensive platform on the trains and buses. We talked about it a lot. It wasn't simply about oh, the MTA needs money or fix the trains. We really tried to get the details into nuance. And voters appreciated that. When I discussed problems with the 100 year old signaling network or mention that our buses were the slowest in America, people were really drawn to that. They don't want trite nonsense. This campaign really, I'm proud to say, offered solutions. And I would certainly run on transportation again.

AG: What views did you think constituents would hold regarding transportation? What were your preconceptions about how voters would react to your platform?

RB: I was optimistic. I believed that they know there's a problem but a lot of them don't quite know why. They don't really know other than the MTA stinks. They don't necessarily have the time or have access to the right information so they don't know. So for me, it was really just about running on what I felt was important, but also trying to address the particular struggles that my neighbors and I knew very well.

I really tried to explain, OK, I'm saying let's fix these things, but here's how we can really do it, here's what we should be doing, here's what we should be focusing on. If you're not going to offer solutions, then you shouldn't be in the arena.

How often did transit come up when you were talking with people? Where did it rank in people's minds on issues they wanted their state senator to address?

Transit came up all the time. I was in subway stations a lot and delayed trains meant I had more time to talk to voters on the platform. So the MTA did me a service this summer.

It was definitely at the top of people's minds. It's the issue that really cuts across ideological divides too. You could be in conservative neighborhoods or talking to conservative people who maybe on other issues do disagree but I mention, hey you know the MTA has a spending problem here's why, that would really resonate with people. I remember talking specifically to a man in Bay Ridge who was a democrat but voted for Marty Golden and really had soured on the Democratic party and was telling me why liberalism had destroyed America. And I was like, well, you know, I disagree with you, but I really think we have to tackle this transportation crisis. We really have to address the inefficiencies in the MTA, the spending problems, the fact that the procurement process is broken. And he was really receptive. We came away in good place, because he was like wow, you're the first Democrat who has really talked to me in that way about these issues.

Ideology undergirds everything. I'm not naive in that way. But it's also, to me, it's not about progressivism versus conservativism as much as: we've got a problem, it's going to take years to fix it, and it's either we're going to try to do it, or…?

It's an interesting contrast to how Cynthia Nixon played off the subway which was a lot of blaming and not really focusing as much on solutions, more focusing on who broke it.

Right. I do believe in assigning blame, and I was always the first to say I'm a democrat who is going to say that the state controls the MTA and Andrew Cuomo is the de facto leader of the MTA. He appoints the majority of the board, the chair. People want to hear that, but they also want to hear, OK, we're assigning blame, now what?

I talked about how the state Senate could be a real oversight body, a real watchdog, and it's abdicated that completely, as have the Assembly. There's been no hearing on the state of the subways and buses. There's been no serious look at the spending problem. There's been no attempt to address both funding shortfalls and also why the MTA blows budgets. And as a state senator, I would have been very interested in tackling that right away. And that was interesting to voters because it's not a normal way to talk about transportation for the most part. Like you say, it's either about assigning blame or just kind of crying out fix transit, fix transit and there's no real follow up. I didn't want to be that type of politician.

What surprised you most about people's attitude towards transit?

There's an assumption maybe that just because you live in a transportation desert the MTA doesn't really resonate with you. I think about Marine Park in particular, a part of the district that is not served by the subway. I remember first going there and not really talking about the MTA. What I found is a lot of people take the bus. They go bus to Kings Highway. Or even if they're driving, they understand that the decline of the transportation system does affect them. It affects congestion, it affects how they get around. So you can really discuss these issues anywhere even if you're in a place that isn't served by a subway or isn't thought of as part of the traditional transit network, places that are viewed as suburbia in New York City. I went into this thinking I would talk about it more in Bay Ridge vs Marine Park, but that wasn't the case. Transit was everywhere all the time.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • Cuomo came out with his strongest pro-congestion pricing remarks to date, saying that in terms of finding the money to fix the subway, “The only realistic option is congestion pricing. We have to get it done. We have to get it done next year.” He further dismissed the millionaire’s tax as “political blather.”

  • Meanwhile, De Blasio says he might use the city’s veto power to stop MTA capital projects if costs continue to be exorbitant. To be clear, he’s talking about the City’s veto power over the four-year capital plans, not using his appointees to the MTA board—who do not have enough numbers to veto individual contracts or projects—so it’s an all-or-nothing type deal. I don’t think such a move would accomplish what he thinks it would accomplish, but hey, at least he’s addressing absurd MTA costs in some form (when asked by the one reporter who did a deep-dive into it on a stage at a festival in Austin).

  • Some unfortunate folks were trapped in the Clark St elevators for almost an hour, which sounds absolutely hellish.

  • The Mayor needs to get his act together on buses, a new Bus Turnaround Coalition report finds.

    TransitCenter@TransitCenterThe NYC Bus Turnaround 2018 Progress Report Selected grades: * Street to prioritize buses: DOT D+ * Enforce bus lanes: NYPD D * Make buses easy to use: MTA B DOT B+ * Redesign bus network: MTA A- @Straphangers @RidersNY @Tri_State https://t.co/CPeEIocik0

  • I’m doing a three-part series over at Curbed NY about the L shutdown. The first part, about the subways, went up this week. Parts two and three, about the buses and other stuff like bikes and ferries, will follow.

  • There is near-unanimous agreement raising an extra $1.5 billion a year that will go directly towards fixing the subway and buses won’t be enough.

  • Here’s some news you actually can use: Google Maps is rolling out a major update for commuters that attempts to give more useful, real-time info. The features seem to bring it more in line with the offerings of existing transit apps like Citymapper and Transit.

  • The Bronx bus redesign had its first community workshop. It could help residents get more connected to the city in which they live.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log (the links are where I explain the change):

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 2 – Wakefield-bound service is express-only between 3 Av-149 St and E 180 Street

  • 4 – No service between Bowling Green and New Lots Av

  • 5 – No service between E 180 Street and 149 St-Grand Concourse

  • 7 – No service between Queensboro Plaza and 34 St-Hudson Yards

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – No service between Prospect Park and 96 Street

Late Nights:

  • 4 – No service between Brooklyn Bridge and New Lots Av

  • F – All service is local-only in Queens

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo credit: Alex Zimmerman

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.