If you haven’t become a paid subscriber yet, there’s still time before I send out the first paid edition. It will be about what I learned about the subway in 2018, along with some thoughts for what 2019 has in store. So much happened! So much is going to happen! Subscribe now to make sure you get it.
Last week, I spent a few hours riding around the subway with Phil Dominguez, head of the SPEED Unit charged with making the subway faster. It was, to use a technical term, a damn good time. We raced trains, rode around with the front door open, and otherwise chatted about the tricky parts of his job. You can read all about it in Curbed.
On Wednesday, Dominguez and Andy Byford took over the @NYCTSubway Twitter account for a beautifully nerdy Q&A. I think it’s worth highlighting, not just because their answers are fairly detailed, but it exhibits a level of transparency and dialogue with the public that would have been unheard of just a year ago.
Here are a few of the most noteworthy exchanges:
Streamlining Dekalb Ave Interlocking
Jonathan Warner🥑🚇🤖 @JaxbotIs it true that trains going over the Manhattan bridge have to line up and wait for the tower to see them on CCTV instead of using automatic/punch box mode? If so, why, and how do we fix that bottleneck? #AskNYCT
Punch boxes are a series of buttons on a box next to the track. In order to align the switches properly so the train goes on the right track, the motorman will reach out the window and push the button for their line. Although it sounds low-tech, it’s actually a really efficient way to manage complex interlockings. The Dekalb Ave interlocking has worked differently for some time now, as the question outlines. It’s never made much sense to me, either! Glad to see they’re reviewing this, and the Dekalb interlocking issue in general.
More on the Manhattan Bridge later in the Q&A:
John Hendrickson @JohnGHendy@NYCTSubway On the topic of speed, why do trains go so low over the Manhattan bridge? Why do B and N trains in particular consistently pause on the Brooklyn side of the tunnel regardless of traffic? #AskNYCT
Reviewing the train plan, including crossovers
There were a couple of questions regarding crossovers and route changes in order to minimize instances where “a train is crossing ahead of us,” an announcement you may be intimately familiar with depending on your line. It’s great to see they’re looking into this, with Byford promising “more to come” next quarter, including the possible revitalization of the F express.
ToffeeFever @ToffeeFeverWill you also assess crossovers that deliberately causes delays, like when the N in both directions crosses over between the local and express tracks between 34th and 42nd in Manhattan? I believe moving the N to 96th-2nd could solve this issue. #AskNYCT https://t.co/JrhBBMn9rV
Jeremy Zorek @jeremyzorek@NYCTSubway #AskNYCT Will there be studies looking into future possibilities of altering routes or service to create more efficient use of certain line capacities - for example, using Jamaica-179th St's 4-track terminal for more than just the F and some rush hour E trains
Challenges in communicating speed changes
There was an interesting moment when an operator on the J line said Dominguez told him to ignore a speed sign and asked what Byford thought about that. My Curbed article got into the challenges of communicating these speed changes to operators.
gperryRTO @GperryRto@NYCTSubway Mr Byford. I work the J line & applaud effort to change speeds. TSS Dominguez told me to ignore a speed sign on the J line because he said "it was going to be changed". never seen this in my 5 years here. Will it be standard in the future from supervisors? #AskNYCT
Prioritizing improvements for the L shutdown
The J/M corridor in Brooklyn is going to be prioritized for SPEED Unit work in the coming months in anticipation of the L shutdown.
Samuel Santaella 🚲🚆🌳 @TransitNinja205#AskNYCT @NYCTsubway The J line can be a drag, slowing every 5 stops or so, either crawling, or stop-and-go. This is a line not plagued by delays due to train traffic, etc. Can we expect higher speeds @ Essex St, Williamsburg Br, Myrtle Ave-B'way, B'way Junction, & Cypress Hills?
High tech vs good tech
This explanation of why E trains now crawl in Queens is particularly interesting. Note how upgrading ancient components to new ones facilitated a redesign with “improved safety margins” i.e.; they slowed the trains down. This is why I wrote in Curbed, “Dominguez’s effort simultaneously highlights the need for [CBTC], and its limitations as a cure-all for what ails the subway…the machines won’t be determining the speed limits; humans will. CBTC, just like any other software, will only be as good as the humans programming and maintaining it.”
Rachel Nobel @RachelNobel@NYCTSubway I take the E from Manhattan to 71st/Continental every night. As soon as we hit Queens, we start to crawl. It often takes two or three times longer to go between express stops than what's listed on the MTA schedule. Can we expect improvement? #AskNYCT
What’s with all the emergency brake activations?
One person said that in her 40 years riding the subway she’s never experienced so many emergency brake activations (BIE). Byford didn’t respond this way, but I suspect she is not experiencing more BIEs. Instead, the Twitter feed and alerts are far more transparent about the number of times they occur. In the past, NYCT would either use different terms to report delays or wait until they figured out why the train BIE’d and whether it would be a prolonged delay. It’s possible there are slightly more BIEs now than in the past, but I suspect not that many.
MissRandiB @MissRandiBI've been using the trains for 40 years & I've never experienced so many trains where the emergency brake automatically activates. What is causing this & what is being done to fix it? #AskNYCT
Economic impact analysis underway
Byford’s working on an economic impact analysis for the Fast Forward Plan, which I presume will conclude “Doing this will generate a bazillion dollars in economic value, and not doing this will cost us a bajillion dollars.”
Nicole Gelinas 🎁🎄☃️❄️🔔 @nicolegelinas#asknyct When will we see a specific schedule on the Fast Forward plan -- e.g. time and cost breakdowns, plus mitigation plans, for specific subway-line resignalings?
Maybe the subway should just go slow? GTFO
I’m a little concerned about the person who asked this question, but I love the way Byford handled it:
MsGee @GL0401@NYCTSubway The words “subway” and “speed” do not belong in the same sentence
I know that many of the issues raised in this Q&A have been irking riders for months, if not years. In most cases, Byford and Dominguez addressed them head-on. Previously, concerns like these were often dismissed by management—if they were even aware of them—as nitpicking. Maybe these won’t get fixed as quickly as some might prefer, or maybe they won’t be happy with the solution. Nevertheless, it’s worth taking a moment and reflecting on the fact that these earnest, detail-oriented conversations on speeding up the system signal by signal are even happening at all.
News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood
Not that I have to talk any of you into it, but I wrote an essay for Medium’s Love/Hate theme month about how we aren’t going to invent anything better than the subway at moving people in dense urban environments.
Reading the Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Working Group Report this week about how to fix the MTA, I was reminded of the Ship of Theseus, an ancient Greek thought experiment about whether an object in which every part is replaced remains fundamentally the same object. If the Ship of Theseus has every wooden plank replaced one by one, is it still the Ship of Theseus? If everything about the MTA needs to change, would the new version still be the MTA? Anyways, the working group recommends congestion pricing along with a host of reforms, few of which will be new to regular S/P readers. I was particularly pleased to see health care cost reforms, culture change, and governance issues got prominent mentions.
Also noteworthy, the report dedicates several paragraphs to what if we just admitted the MTA was a big mistake? It’s a good question but one the working group admits was outside their scope. If nothing else, I’m glad these high-level questions are taken more seriously than they have been in decades.
A state judge placed an injunction on the for-hire vehicle surcharge that was supposed to kick in on January 1, netting the MTA some $400 million in annual revenue which is earmarked for Subway Action Plan-like initiatives and a $50 million outer borough transportation improvement fund. Corey Johnson tweeted that this even furthered the case for congestion pricing, but even if Albany passed congestion pricing immediately, it would take about two years to implement. By my math, every day the FHV surcharge is not active from January 1 onward costs the MTA about $1.1 million, or the equivalent of 400,000 fare evaders.
The Times did a tweets-in-review summary of the subway’s year, which mostly served to remind me that the way we perceive the subway relative to other eras is highly influenced by riders’ unprecedented ability to document and widely distribute every inconvenience, mishap, or irritation.
Head’s up: the MTA is closing the 53rd St tunnel (where the E/M runs between Manhattan and Queens) from December 26 through December 31 for signal, power, and track work. The E will run along the F. More info here.
Fair Fares is supposed to launch on January 1 but as of now nobody has any idea how to sign up for it or how the program will work.
Here’s a really clever use of open data: using noise complaints to figure out the best subway stations to get off and party.
No, Amazon coming to LIC doesn’t change anything about the BQX.
Citymapper will now show you what your L-less future looks like.
Dollar Vans think they can help during the L shutdown. But the city is ignoring them, presumably because they don’t have a fancy app.
Good news in Albany as the longtime head of the Assembly Transportation Committee, David Gantt, has been replaced by William Magniarelli. Gantt has been a consistent roadblock to safer streets initiatives such as more red light cameras. Infamously, he’s held a bill that would make it a felony to drive after your fifth license suspension in committee for A WHOLE DECADE. I’m consistently awed by how state laws bend over backwards to let pretty much anyone drive no matter what so long as they passed a test when they were 16 years old.
A NJ Transit reform bill is expected to be signed into law by Governor Murphy. It mostly addresses governance reforms such as modifying the size and makeup of the board, creating an ethics officer to make sure whistleblowers don’t get railroaded, and requiring regular audits.
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.
E F – All service is local-only in Queens
F – Jamaica-bound service runs via E line between Rockefeller Center and Roosevelt Av
G – No service between Bedford-Nostrand Avs and Court Square
M – No weekend service
Late Nights (Wednesday late evening to early Friday morning only):
2 – No service between Chambers St and Atlantic Av
E – All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and W 4 Street (all times through Dec. 31st)
J – No service between 121 Street and Jamaica Center
L – No service between Lorimer St and 8 Avenue
N – Coney Island-bound service runs via Manhattan Bridge
Q – Reduced service between Atlantic Av and Coney Island
R – No service between 36 St/4 Av and Whitehall St
Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World
California will require all new city buses purchased starting in 2029 to be all-electric, which would put the state on path to full-electric fleets by 2040. I get the excitement around electric buses, but the best thing for the environment is not to electrify buses, but to get more people to take transit. Buses make up an infinitesimal fraction of California’s vehicles. So if any transit agencies have to cut service to pay for these buses or retire diesel ones early, it will be a net-loss.
E-scooters may not be ready to take over urban transportation just yet.
Speaking of electrified things:
London launches a five-year plan to try and get more people to cycle. It involves building even more bicycle superhighways and infrastructure, not just tweeting from the city DOT account or giving out helmets. Also in the article: London has a Cycling and Walking Commissioner.
Staying in London, a museum wants to feature more stories of women who made London transportation better.
David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week
A well-dressed man who looked like Matt Harvey who refused to hold onto any of the available handholds and was flopping all over the place. His friends kept telling him to hold on and he kept insisting he didn't need to.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Alyssa Katz
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.
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As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to email@example.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.