January 19, 2018: Signal Rubs

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, a freelance writer covering many subjects, one of which is transit for the Village Voice.

Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback on the first edition. A few people asked how they can help. First, tap into your inner Gregg T. and if you see something, say something. But about the subway, not terrorism.
Second, and more importantly, spread the word. If co-workers, friends, or relatives are complaining about their commute and you feel so moved to share this newsletter with them, that would be tremendous. You can just forward this email and the link in “Signal Problems” above takes you to the sign-up page (or direct them to tinyletter.com/signalproblems).

Third, and most importantly, I am debuting a new section called Dog In A Bag. As you probably know, the subway has a rule that all dogs must be in some kind of bag or carrier. I would like to feature a photo of one such dog every week, with extra emphasis on dogs that are entirely too large to be in bags. Naturally, I'm going to put this all the way at the bottom so you have to get through the rest of the newsletter to see it. But I'll need your help to submit new dogs every week. Keep an eye out, and if you snap a good one—or have one on file—just reply to this email with your photo attached.

Last, but certainly not least, keep the newsletter feedback coming. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we're all in this together.

This Week In #CuomosMTA

The breaking news today is Cuomo's Fix NYC panel finally published their report on congestion pricing, although it's far more wide-ranging than that. It was only just released and I'm still combing through it. More on this next week, but you can read the report here if you're so inclined.


We all know Cuomo and de Blasio don't like each other (you all know this right?). But Cuomo seems to have taken the feud to new levels with the state budget released this week, using the MTA as a cudgel. Politico's got the breakdown, but here's the key point:

"Cuomo’s proposed $168 billion executive budget released Tuesday would impose significant liabilities on de Blasio and the city he governs by requiring it to assume more financial responsibility for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to budget watchdogs."

Cuomo did this three different ways:

  1. The city must provide "in full" all funding for capital improvement programs, including the massively expensive East Side Access boondoggle and Second Avenue Subway extensions. We're talking something like $17 billion here. This was uh, very much not the arrangement.

  2. It puts half of the $836 million Subway Action Plan on the city's tab, something de Blasio has previously refused to do.

  3. There's also a fairly complicated but important provision allowing the MTA to direct real estate taxes from certain areas towards MTA projects without the City Council's consent.

This is a thing you do to screw over an enemy, not good governance aimed at prosperity for a vital economic region. It's a huge dick move.

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

Back in July, MTA Chairman Joe Lohta announced an $836 million Subway Action Plan that would target the biggest source of delays: failed signals, broken rails, and malfunctioning trains. Lohta, Cuomo, and incoming NYCT president Andy Byford have all claimed the plan is working. The Fix NYC report provided some hard numbers:

"Weekday major incidents are down 21 percent in October 2017 from June 2017 and down 10 percent from October 2016.  Weekday major signal incidents decreased 36  percent in October 2017 from June 2017 and 45 percent from October 2016. Using the same comparison periods, weekday major track incidents improved by more than four percent, and weekday major power incidents improved by 50 percent."

The Post’s Nicole Gelinas disagrees. She mostly compares August, September, and October performance on a year-over-year basis rather than month-over-month. There are decent enough reasons to do this and it is helpful perspective, but it understates the impact the Action Plan has had, since things got worse between October 2016 and July 2017 when the Action Plan was introduced.

Unfortunately, the MTA’s “improved” performance metrics are still seriously flawed, so we’re stuck using stats that pose more questions than answers (for example: “major incidents” are defined as anything that delays 50 or more trains, so an incident that delays 51 trains counts the same as one that delays 600).

As usual, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. The Action Plan is a marginal improvement but not transformative. And, as usual with the MTA, they’re spending an awful lot of money to get that marginal improvement.

On another note, here’s some very rare positive news! New train cars called the R179 are finally being put into service. I say “finally” because they were set to be delivered by the manufacturer, Bombardier, in July 2015, but, of course, there were major manufacturing issues. This is why Bombardier had their bid for a recent large train car order essentially thrown in the bin.
The order of 300 cars is not expected to be completed until December at the earliest, but the cars will be put into service on the J, Z, and C as they come. The cars don’t offer anything new by way of customer experience, but they should help reliability since the cars currently in service on the J, Z, and C lines—which came into service in the 1960s and 70s—are older than most New York City residents. The existing cars have an abysmal Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBP) rate hovering around 30,000 miles. To juxtapose, the new R188s on the 7 line have an MDBP of around 450,000 miles. (Notice how the R188s have a higher number than the R179s but were delivered sooner? That’s because they were ordered after the R179s, but manufactured by Kawasaki, which delivered them on time.)

Unfortunately, the old cars won't be retired once replaced as originally planned. They'll be needed for the extra service required on the J, M, Z, A, and C lines during the L-pocalypse.

On to next 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 next week. If this affects you, then you've probably noticed this is happening this week as well. I would continue to 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. Things will be back to normal (?) next week.

J and M trains headed towards Manhattan will skip Flushing, Lorimer, and Hewes between 9:30 AM and 3:30 PM weekdays until February 9. This is part of the track replacement program that is installing seamless rails.

Late Night Changes to the 2/3, Especially in Upper Manhattan/Bronx. Jan 22-26, the 2 will NOT RUN from 96th St to 3 Ave-149 St and the 3 WILL NOT RUN AT ALL after 9 PM. The 4 will be making all 3 stops in Brooklyn. Shuttle buses will be replacing those missing 2 stops, which is terrible because there is no good alternative. It’s only for a few days though. Get home early I suppose. Oh yeah and there will only be local service between Chambers and 72nd.

You know how the E runs local for late-night service? It’s not doing that this week in Queens. It’ll skip all the stops between 67 Ave and Elmhurst like it normally does.

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. Also on the 7, there will be no express service at all times starting February 17 until March 12, except for the very eastern portion from Main St. to 74th St. Unfortunately, this isn’t a service disruption to improve performance, although I suppose the train falling onto the LIRR tracks below the 61st St station because of the disintegrating support beams would constitute poor performance.

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 (Thursday-to-Wednesday) that the line had "Good Service." For example, 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 11-17, 2018 (there should be an image with a graph below, holler if you can't see it):

In general, this week was better than last week, which isn't surprising given last week washellfire. The 7 has been having lots of difficulties as of late, and that isn't about to get better with all the upcoming services changes. It's worth noting the 7 was originally scheduled to be fully upgraded to a modern signaling system, CBTC, by the end of 2017. That was pushed back to the spring because of software issues.

Weekly superlatives:
Most reliable: the L
Least reliable: the 7
Most representative of the entire system: the 5

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

This week's estimate: 2024

I increased it by two years since last week because Cuomo's budget shenanigans demonstrate he still sees the MTA as a political tool and not a thing that needs to be fixed because it is jeopardizing the economic vitality of his state.

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.
On Sunday until 5 PM, L trains are running between 8 Ave and Myrtle-Wyckoff Ave only. No trains east of Myrtle-Wyckoff. Think of it as a kind of reverse-Lpocalypse. This is for signal maintenance, which probably means it’s part of the Subway Action Plan signal-massaging-and-foot-rubbing work. And on Saturday, trains will run every 24 minutes east of Broadway Junction.
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.
C uptown trains run express in Manhattan and Jamaica Center-bound E trains skip Spring St and 23rd St for signal-massaging-and-foot-rubbing. The Weekender recommends overshooting your destination by one stop and transferring to a downtown train. You could do that, but it’s also supposed to be nice this weekend. May I suggest walking? Naturally, because the uptown C is running express, the downtown A is running local in Manhattan. Just to keep things simple and not confusing at all, of course.
Broad street-bound J trains will skip Flushing, Lorimer, and Hewes this weekend. 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. Warning: the M won’t be stopping at these stations either until February 4. See below.
Two ongoing, long-term projects you are probably already aware of:

Due to the ongoing Viaduct reconstruction until April 30, M trains don't run between Myrtle-Wyckoff and Myrtle Ave. There are shuttle buses, but come on. As if you didn’t need an extra reason to avoid the M on weekends, there won’t be any M service at all on the rest of the line on weekends until February 4 due to track replacement.
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. Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World Shanghai, the world's largest subway system measured by track mile (and which carries more than double the annual passengers as NYC) is moving to a cashless payment system Speaking of China, some estimates believe they'll have built 10,000 kilometers (!!!) of metro rail lines by 2020—that's 6,200 miles, or roughly 10 NYC subways' worth—not to mention their high speed rail and rapid bus transit networks. How? Because the federal government spends a crap ton of money on it: "Between 2010 and 2015, the nation spent the equivalent of $189 billion on such lines, and between 2016 and 2020, it is expected to spend between $262 and $308 billion more. The U.S. government dedicates about $2.3 billion per year in total for all transit projects, so less than one-fifteenth of the Chinese investment." Transport for London is being (speciously) accused of not adequately informing passengers about the second of the two major new train lines opening Berlin’s transport authority and Adidas release a pair of sneakers that doubles as a train pass Researchers in Japan have fitted a train with a speaker that barks like a dog and snorts like a deer in order to scare animals off the track before getting hit Did You Know...How Track Design Helps Screw Up A/C Service  
Since it was such a problem last week, I thought we’d take a closer look at what makes the A/C at Hoyt-Schermerhorn a flashpoint for potential issues.
For the most part, the A and C trains run on separate tracks, as one is express and the other is local. But there are important exceptions: the Hoyt-Schermerhorn merge in downtown Brooklyn, for example. Here, as trains approach towards Manhattan, the A/C tracks merge just before the station, as there is only one track in each direction going forward. The A does not get its express track back until north of Chambers Street in Manhattan.  It’s a pretty classic lane merge, with all the problems merging lanes create.
In 2015, NYCT issued a report on the line and found  that merge along with its Manhattan counterpart at Canal St “is a major constraint on combined A/C capacity.” The report found the upper limit is to run 26 trains per hour (TPH) combined, or one train every 140 seconds. But, because the express and local must run on the same track for a portion, that means the A is limited to 18 TPH, far less than the 29 TPH that can (theoretically) be achieved on the 4/5 express line, although overcrowding and station dwell times often restrict it to 26 TPHs. Still, that’s 26 express trains an hour versus 18 on the A.
But it gets worse. The 2015 report also found that in the Fall of 2014, the A/C achieved 26 trains per hour a mere 34 percent of the time.
Now, signals are important everywhere in the system, but they’re especially important at merges. This is why “signal problems at Hoyt-Schermerhorn” (or Canal Street) are the worst words for any A/C rider to hear. When there are signal problems on normal parts of the track, trains can crawl down the line veeeeerrrry slooowwwwly until it’s fixed. But if one of the many signals at a merge fail, that’s not an option. Everything grinds to a total standstill until, at least, a flag man shows up and waves trains through. Hence the 30-45 minute tunnel-dwellers last week.
So if you see that there are signal problems on the A/C line at Hoyt or Canal, I highly recommend finding alternate service.
  Angry MTA Mention of the Week  
From @IceRoadHooker: What do @MTA and @realDonaldTrump have in common? Every day they reach new unbelievable lows. Always tweeting misinformation. Not New York City’s best, that I can tell you. Dog in a Bag

Submitted by David Roth:
In the 1/12/18 edition, I referred to the new NYCT president Andy Byford as “Andy Byford Kanobi” in a reference to the Star Wars character. That character’s name is spelled “Kenobi.” To say I regret the error is a most profound understatement.