January 12, 2018: Inaugural Journey

Welcome to the first edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. In case you don't know much about me, I'm Aaron Gordon, a freelance writer covering many subjects, one of which is transit for the Village Voice.

Here's what you can expect every Friday:

  • A breakdown of the week's major events, going beyond the MTA's suspiciously vague and ill-timed service alerts to tell you what's really going on in the tunnels and what, if anything, you can learn from it. Plus, line-by-line service ratings.

  • Big-picture news that will affect your commute both now and in the future, including upcoming midweek service advisories.

  • A running estimate of when things will get better (don't laugh...yet)

  • Weekend service advisories. I've written about why weekend subway service sucks before, but the answer is pretty simple: the MTA is cramming as much maintenance as possible into the weekends, leaving up to 40 percent of the system down or diverted. I'll help you find the 60 percent.

  • Random sections I make up as I go along

I also want to hear from you. The subway is vast and impossibly complex. I do my best to learn as much as I can, but there's no substitute for crowdsourcing. Tell me what you see.

Last, but certainly not least, I really want to know what you think about this newsletter. What are you hoping to learn from it? What do you like or not like about it? I want to know what works and what doesn't, which I can only find out from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we're all in this together.

This Week In #CuomosMTA

It was a mess out there, folks. Pretty much every rush hour experienced major service issues. On Tuesday, there was trouble on the **takes deep breath** 4, 5, A, B, C, D, E, F, J, M, N, Q, R, W and Z trains. The MTA would probably argue that many different things went wrong, but that's not the excuse they think it is. All of the issues were either deteriorating rails, bad signals, or failed trains. A signal between Rockefeller Center and 7th Ave was knocked out for two days because of water leaking onto it.

Of all the lines, the A/C had the worst week in terms of rush hour disasters. On Wednesday, there were not one but two different signal failures within stops of one another, first at Utica Ave and then at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Unhelpfully, @NYCTSubway told people the A had "resumed service" when the Utica Ave signal was fixed but before the Hoyt one was back up and running. So, in effect, it told people it was fine to take the A when it was very much not fine. Many riders reported being trapped on those lines for over an hour as they crawled between stations. I also saw multiple reports on Twitter that a C train stalled at Hoyt because the train operator missed the platform and couldn't get the doors to open. That was never officially reported. One conductor told his riders, "Sorry, it's just one of those days."

As it turned out, Thursday was also "one of those days." One C train with "mechanical problems" was stuck at High Street for 40 minutes which clogged the tunnels and ground the lines to a halt. A and C trains were diverted to the F line in Manhattan which backed that up and it cascaded from there.

This morning also had signal problems on the *checks list* everything but the G! Some of those lines had multiple signals down simultaneously. Around 9:30, passengers were reporting being told to leave a 7 train because service was suspended at the same time as @NYCTSubway announced 7 train service resumed. It sounds like there was a miscommunication between the dispatcher and conductor. All 7 trains were halted due to debris on the tracks at Queensboro Plaza (in addition to the ongoing signal problems) but I suppose the conductor thought the delay would be much longer than it was and advised customers to get off.

The likely culprit for the overwhelming mess was melting snow, which leaked onto the tracks, shorted signals, and disabled trains. Take last night's C train for example. The problem, according to @NYCTSubway, was that a train had its emergency brakes activated. This can occur automatically when a train crosses a signal that isn't working properly. In fact, it's sometimes how they discover the signal isn't working properly. It's a huge pain to get a train moving after this happens, so it causes major delays, especially during rush hour.

Water, you will soon find, is the subway's biggest problem. But that's a can of worms we will wait to open another time.

Line Ratings:

Using the fantastic Subwaystats.com website, I've compiled weekly ratings for each line. Each number represents the percent of time the last week (Wednesday-to-Wednesday) that the line had "Good Service." So if the number is 70 percent, that means the line had "Good Service" 70 percent of the time and any form of disruption—planned work, delays, service changes, etc.—the other 30 percent.

This is just one of many ways to measure a line's performance. It's not perfect. For one, it relies on the MTA's definition of "Good Service," which there are very good reasons to doubt. On top of that, most people would prefer a line be down all weekend for planned maintenance but not for the two hours during rush hour. I wish the MTA compiled Lost Customer Hours like Transport for London does, but then again I wish the MTA did a lot of things.

Week of January 3-10, 2018:

All lines: 71.1%


Weekly superlatives:
Most reliable: the J
Least reliable: the F
Most representative of the entire system: the R

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

Anyone who uses public transportation or drives or bikes or walks should be rooting for a robust congestion pricing plan to pass. It's not a political debate; it's a system that works. Which is why a report in Politico that indicates little has changed since 2009 when the legislature voted down a congestion pricing plan should make you angry.

On to the week's service advisories, not including the, uh, unplanned service changes which are sure to come:

  • The A/C/E is severely fucked up starting at 9:30 PM the next two weeks. I would not count on any of those trains in Manhattan south of Columbus Circle after 9 PM. The A and E will be rerouted along the Sixth Avenue lines in midtown/lower Manhattan, while C service will end completely at 9. The A will resume "normal" service after Jay Street-Metrotech in Brooklyn.

  • No 3 trains will be running after 9:45 PM, but I would not count on the 3 after 9 PM. The 2 will be running local in Manhattan to compensate, and the 4 will be making all 2 stops in Brooklyn.

  • Hudson Yards-bound 7 trains will skip 69, 42, 46, 40, and 33 Sts from 9:45 AM to 3:30 PM Monday-Friday until February 2. This is also happening on weekends and is part of the Subway Action Plan announced last summer. They're replacing rail joints with seamless track which breaks less often.

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

This week's estimate: 2022

Normally, I prefer to set expectations low and let the universe surprise me. But, I'm not sure this estimate is very pessimistic at all. How many years of slow maintenance designed to be as non-disruptive as possible can reverse decades of neglect?

When the system faced similar but even more extreme challenges around 1980, there was no real improvement in service until 1986. Only by 1988 was the subway noticeably better to everyday riders. In other words, it took pretty much the full decade for riders to feel like the subway was getting fixed.

But the current crisis isn't anywhere as dire as the 1980s. For example, ridership in October 1982 hit a 65-year low, an amazing statistic considering much of the system didn't even exist in 1917! So, five years seems like a decent enough guess for when we can expect to feel better about the subway. But a lot depends on who the next governor is, how long Joe Lohta is MTA Chairman, and how bad things continue to get.

My singular source of optimism is Andy Byford, the new head of NYC Transit. He has a great track record at other, better transit authorities and sounds like he knows what he's doing. He's on the job starting this month. Help us, Andy Byford Kanobi. You're our only hope.

Your Weekend Advisories

This is not a complete list of all the service changes and outages. But the MTA Weekender is clunky, clumsy, and annoying to use, as the interface hasn't been updated since 2012. So I've summarized here the disruptions that require major re-routing, which I define as the ones that make me go "Ah, crap." For a complete list of all the service changes, head over to the MTA Weekender website.

  • No F or D service in Midtown or Lower Manhattan this weekend. Technically speaking, the F will run along the Q and the D will run along the A until Brooklyn when they will each run along different lines once again, but now I feel like I'm in one of those thought experiments about when an F train is no longer an F train.

  • Hudson Yards-bound 7 trains will skip 69, 42, 46, 40, and 33 Sts every weekend until February 4. This is part of the Subway Action Plan announced last summer. They're replacing rail joints with seamless track which breaks less often.

  • 4 and 5 trains will be running local every weekend in January. I'm so sorry, everyone trying to traverse the East Side.

  • Broad street-bound J trains will skip Flushing, Lorimer, and Hewes this and next weekends (ending January 21). When I lived off the J I thought these were magic weekends when the J was still an express train until I realized it meant the train would go four miles per hour the entire way.

  • The N will run along the R track between Atlantic Avenue/Barclays and Canal Street, skipping Dekalb this weekend only (for now)

  • Two ongoing, long-term projects you probably are already aware of:

    • due to the ongoing Viaduct reconstruction, M trains don't run between Myrtle-Wyckoff and Myrtle Ave. There are shuttle buses, but come on. Also, the part of the M that does run will have 20-minute headways, so probably best to steer clear of the M altogether if possible.

    • The 2/3 tunnel reconstruction continues apace until Summer of 2018. Don't try and take the 2 or 3 between Manhattan and Brooklyn. I live off the 2 but avoid it like the plague on weekends.

Did You Know...Why Trains Randomly Skip Stops?

Ever been on a train that inexplicably doesn't make several of its stops? Here's why it happens.

In the good ol' days of 2009 when the subway was merely not great, NYC Transit wrote a report about why the F line was such a disaster. This is notable, I think, because the F line still performed better than the entire system does today. Anyway, it's mostly very boring, as MTA reports tend to be, but buried inside is a pretty frank explanation for why trains suddenly start skipping stops unannounced.

In short, station-skipping is done during major delays in order to get the train to the terminal station closer to its scheduled time. Why is this important? Because everything about the subway is governed by when a train arrives at its final stop. It's how train and employee performance is measured, how workers log their hours, when incident reports are filed, etc. It's also a way for the MTA to goose its performance stats, since an "on-time" train is measured as one that arrives at its final stop within five minutes of its scheduled time.

That's stupid, obviously. People care about trains making their scheduled stops in a predictable fashion, not when the E gets to Jamaica Center or whatever. From a customer standpoint, a delayed train that skips five stops is a *worse* performing train than one that is delayed but makes all its scheduled stops.

One major benefit of skipping stops is it allows the train to then make its next scheduled departure on-time, limiting the cascading effect delays can have across the system. This would be all well and good if the MTA didn't also have a policy of re-routing trains onto other lines to avoid stalled trains or broken signals, which in itself creates a cascading effect of delays across the entire system.

Angry MTA Mention of the Week


It Can Always Be Worse

Here's a story of a very gross man peeing in a delayed E train.