Copy-Paste Reform

Before we get to this week’s edition, two items:

  1. With all the big news recently—congestion pricing, MTA reform, a new chairman, board turnover, etc.—it seems like a good time to do another mailbag. Have any questions about…anything? Send ‘em in by replying to this email or hitting up signalproblems@substack.com.

  2. The David Roth Esteemed Rider of the Week Award will now be the David Roth Award for the Esteemed Rider of the Week. In other words, I’m opening up submissions to all Signal Problems readers. If you would like to nominate an esteemed rider of the week, this week or any other week, send it in.


Last week, I wrote about some of the MTA reform measures included in the latest budget that echo previous efforts. But one “reform” I didn’t mention was lifted from an entirely different source. It is also one of the most overlooked, even though it poses a huge problem for NYCT. And not the good kind of problem.

On page 264 of 266 of New York State Senate Bill S1509C, the one that makes all the legislative changes necessary for the latest state budget which includes congestion pricing and various MTA reforms, the legislature took an usual step. They put in the bill, and soon thereafter voted for, the performance statistics the MTA must regularly report. Some of them, such as on-time performance, additional platform time, and elevator availability, are not new.

Aside from the fact that this is highly unusual—which metrics to use is typically left up to whoever runs the trains or the board that oversees it—they appear to have lifted the new ones almost verbatim from the London Underground.

The dead giveaway is item (g), or the Journey Time Metric:

(g) "journey time metric" means the times of each component of a trip including access, egress, interchange, time in queue for tickets, time on platform and time on train. Journey time and its components may be based on a manual or an automatically generated sample.

I mean, “time in queue for tickets?” They didn’t even edit out the Britishisms. They also mixed up cost per km and cost per mile metrics:

Anyways, the Journey Time Metric for the London Underground also has a category named “Access Egress and Interchange Time,” or AEI. Again, the same exact verbiage as in the NY law.

However, one thing did not get copied over, and it happens to be the most important part. London defines a train as being late if it is 15 minutes or more delayed to the terminal. Currently, NYCT defines it as five minutes or more. The new law changes that to two minutes.

Over the course of a subway run, two minutes is nothing. That’s three extra seconds at every station on the C line, five extra seconds at every station on the 4, etc. You get the idea. These are not time scales within NYCT’s control. They’re rounding errors.

Similarly, the Major Incidents bar has been lowered. Currently, it’s any incident that delays 50 or more trains. Under the new law, it’s now 20 trains.

I’ve never been a big fan of Major Incidents. Due to the fact that most lines intersect and diverge throughout the system (“interlining” is the technical term) incidents have cascading effects across many different lines. Diverting trains from one line to another causes congestion elsewhere, which leads to additional delays. Someone somewhere is left with the task of determining if, for example, a 2 train was egiht minutes late due to congestion in Brooklyn because of a 4 train with a door problem or because there were two particularly long dwell times due to customers holding doors.

These blurred lines will get even blurrier when the bar is lowered from 50 trains five minutes late to 20 trains two minutes late. One small incident could easily be elevated to the distinction of a “Major Incident” even if it does not significantly impact service.

Taken together, this will have the obvious impact of making it seem like service is getting much, much worse when in fact no change has taken place.

This is not lost on NYCT, or the MTA as a whole. My sources estimate that, should OTP be moved to the new two-minute bar, OTP would probably plunge from the current 76.5 percent to somewhere between 10 to 20 percent, a ridiculously low number to the point of meaninglessness. In one fell swoop, it would wipe out the very real gains the subway has made over the past year, crushing whatever modicum of morale may remain at the authority. After all, why bother making things better if no one will notice or care? Why dedicate time and energy to chasing an impossible goal?

The other concerning part of these new reporting requirements concerns the actual collection of data required to report the journey time metric. London does extensive surveying, a process they have surely refined over years if not decades, to come up with a reasonably accurate metric of such things as the time people wait in lin…oh, excuse me, queue…to buy tickets, walk through stations, etc. That is a labor-intensive process.

Plus, the metrics now have to be reported on a weekly basis, which is an absurd burden to place on any railroad, as the data takes time to compile and clean up (London reports every four weeks). Further, it’s difficult to understand what the possible improvement could be of weekly versus the current monthly schedule.

Moreover, how, exactly, is NYCT, or the railroads for that matter, supposed to do all this highly labor-intensive performance reporting during a hiring freeze?

By the law—which has been passed by both chambers but according to the Senate website not yet signed by the Governor—the MTA agencies have 180 days after the bill is signed to start reporting this stuff. In other words, they have 180 days to convince whoever decided all this that it’s stupid as hell.


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

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

As always, head over to Subway Weekender for all your unofficial weekend and late night service advisory breakdowns

This Time Last Year

One of my favorite newsletters, Oversharing, has a section called This Time Last Year. It’s a great idea, so I’m stealing it.

A much less eventful state budget passed with the FHV surcharge. The MTA blew through its Enhanced Station Initiative budget after just 19 of the planned 33 stations.

The David Roth Award for the Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

Remember to send in your submissions!

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 signalproblems@substack.com.

Photo credit: @Kirkfitz

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. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

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