Mailbag!

To celebrate the newsletter’s one year anniversary, I’m excited to bring you the first Signal Problems mailbag, which does not mention the L shutdown once! If you enjoy this and want me to do more, let me know and perhaps it can become a regular (but not too regular) thing.


Why does NYC Transit have to use custom trains like the R179 being made by Bombardier instead of proven models that work in other cities? I understand if some of the superficial elements like electronic maps need to change, but why the whole car? -Jonah Burke

The tl;dr version is there’s no such thing as a standard subway car used across regions. Every subway car model is a custom car.

Unlike, say, motor vehicles for which there are hundreds of millions of buyers, there are only a few dozen regular buyers of subway cars in the world. Only a handful of them will place orders any given year, and they all need different things.

Two main factors that differ from system to system are the dimensions of the tunnel and the distance between the rails on the track. So the actual dimensions of subway cars from system to system need to be different, top to bottom, to physically fit in the tunnels, on the platforms, and around curves. Once you’re customizing a car to that degree, you need to customize the rest of it, too.

Even within the New York City subway there are two different rail car specifications: the A division and the B division. The A division is the numbered lines and the B division are the lettered lines. That’s why you may have noticed the cars on the lettered lines are longer and wider than on the numbered lines. When it comes to subway cars, the two systems are completely separate. One cannot run on the other.

Why two different specifications? The subway as we know it today is a corporate merger between competitors. The A division was built by the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation (IRT) and the B Division being the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and Independent Subway System (IND) lines (the IND being a publicly-owned venture). Here’s a good primer on the subway’s history if you’re interested in learning more. But the upshot is the subway as we know it today was not designed to be a coherent whole, but a series of routes designed largely to compete with one another. As such, there was no obvious reason at the time for the two companies to create a single standard.

Of course, there are design elements or concepts that get adopted into best practices from city to city, such as open gangways, but these tend to be pretty high-level, the kind of stuff you can sketch on a napkin.

That being said, the R179s—which, for those who might not know, Bombardier is years late delivering and the ones that are coming in have defectsis a very similar design to the effective trains already running on the subways. In fact, most riders would be unable to tell the difference between the new R179s and the well-performing rolling stock that’s been ordered in the last 20 years, starting with the R142s that were built by…Bombardier, the same manufacturer that’s screwing up the R179s. Also note that Bombardier has had manufacturing issues outside the NYC system. In fact, Andy Byford had to deal with this in Toronto as Bombardier couldn’t deliver new streetcars which launched a major investigation by the Toronto Star.

As an aside, this doesn’t strictly apply to NYC, but friend of the program Sandy Johnston reminded me that there was an attempt by the US Department of Transportation standardize light-rail vehicles (which are more or less modern streetcars) in the 1970s, but it didn’t go well.

I've seen people (including Corey Johnson) calling for municipal control of the subways. While it sounds appealing to take control away from Cuomo and legislators in Albany who don't have to take the subway every day, how would that actually work in practice? And would it actually make a difference? -Andrew Gothelf

So far, nobody I’m aware of has made any real thoughtful suggestions. Johnson has pledged to release a full report on the subject within 60 days. He told Streetsblog:

“The detailed plan I will unveil in the next 60 days … talks about debt obligation, bonding authority, the tunnels and the bridges,” he said. “And it does not just talk about the subways and buses, but talks about breaking the car culture by investing in mass transit, prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists and making New York City a livable safe city.”

This is important because the devil is surely in the details. To paint a very broad brush, the main benefit would be changing the governance structure so the people who use the system get the most say over who runs it. The cons are the uncertainty over what the new funding structure would look like since there’s no guarantee any of the existing funding sources except for fare revenue—which is a little more than half of NYCT’s operating costs and doesn’t cover a dime of long-term capital projects—would carry over to a municipally-controlled system.

But it’s important to note why we ended up with this lopsided governance structure in the first place. When the New York City Transit Authority got folded into the MTA in 1968, it was during a very different economic time. White Flight was well underway, the city was rapidly losing its tax base, and the industrial sector of the city’s economy was tanking. Overall, the city would lose something like 800,000 residents in the decade or so after the MTA’s founding, which is roughly equivalent to the current-day population of Charlotte, North Carolina. The city was hardly in a position to heavily subsidize mass transit, much less pay for anything else (this was Ford To City: Drop Dead times). The point of the MTA, broadly speaking, was to use Bridges & Tunnels toll revenue, buoyed by the spike in suburban commuting/car usage, to subsidize mass transit.

Obviously, things are different now. The city is economically vibrant and its population has grown by about 1.5 million people since 1990. That’s the equivalent of one present day Philadelphia getting plunked onto 1990’s New York. Meanwhile, it is many of the suburbs and rural areas that are hurting due to falling populations and property tax revenue.

So, the theory goes, time to give the city control back now that it is financially healthy enough to support it. The current MTA structure overly represents suburban commuters and gives power to politicians from all over the state, many of whom, as noted in the question, don’t have anything to do with downstate commuting. Here’s a TransitCenter report from 2014:

Nonetheless, there is some evidence that the existing structure is biased against New York City residents. For one, the board structure of MTA is inherently tilted towards suburban areas. The governor, with the advice and consent of the state senate, appoints all of the board’s 17 voting members, including the chairman.

This governance structure contrasts with the city-centered use of the system. By any measure, services within New York City are dominant. The vast majority of MTA employees work for New York City Transit (NYCT), the vast majority of riders use MTA services, and the vast majority of money is spent maintaining and providing MTA’s infrastructure. From this vantage point it certainly seems that the current governance structure is misaligned.

The main problem, the report noted, is that if NYCT (that is, the buses and subways) were spun off from the MTA, they would no longer receive the windfall of about 50 percent of Bridges & Tunnels revenue. Nor is it obvious they would benefit from any of the taxes currently imposed by the state to fund the MTA. “If independent,” the TransitCenter report noted, “NYCT would have to create new tax mechanisms within the city to fund itself, and even these taxes would have to ultimately be approved by the state.”

Could these problems be solved? Of course. But they’re political problems, and any decoupling is almost guaranteed to get messy. Politicians don’t tend to voluntarily give up control of big, important, expensive things they can use for leverage.

Many subway exits are closed even though I am betting there is data to show ridership has returned at the stops with closed exits back to the level they were at when they closed. Is there any movement to reopen those outlets and ease the train emptying scrum? -Brady Dale

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there is a “movement,” but the guy you’re looking for is Alan Minor. You can read more about him and the topic here. Also, peep this (incomplete) list of closed stations entrances.

What do you think could be done to remove TWU’s perverse incentives in driving up costs but also doesn’t amount to union-busting? -Charles Stewart

For those who might not know, Charles is talking about the Transport Workers Union, whose Local 100 is the largest union of MTA employees (some 44,000 workers). Maintaining the subway is a very labor-intensive project because the subway has not adequately modernized. By way of example, according to a 2014 Regional Plan Association report, the MTA spends about $111,720,000 on signal maintenance, inspection, and repairs per year, and 96 percent of that is spent on labor. TWU has opposed more efficient, automated inspection methods, arguing, for example, that having workers use hammers and wrenches is the only way to inspect tracks.

The RPA report noted that one of the key challenges of CBTC implementation would b getting labor on board in order to realize potential cost savings. One of the key benefits of CBTC would be dramatically lower maintenance costs. Another is eliminating the second person on the train for lines with CBTC. TWU has effectively blocked the latter, as the L and 7 both have two workers per train. Not only does this obviously hinder the MTA’s ability to realize savings or efficiencies, but it dis-incentivizes them from investing in more of them.

To be honest, I have no great answers about how to handle this. It’s a super complicated problem with no clear answer. Union-busting is both undesirable and unrealistic. It’s a really hard problem that’s difficult to discuss without sounding like an anti-union zealot, which is probably why very few people talk about it.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I think the only way to tackle it is through a slow, methodical effort to change the workplace culture to value speed and efficiency instead of surviving the day, something Andy Byford often references. But TWU Local 100 is a massive, complicated entity in its own right with different factions and messy politics.

In learning more about the issue I’ve found myself circling back to German-style Workers’ Councils quite frequently, which separate negotiations over contracts that determine wages and benefits from workplace issues like discipline, hiring, firing, and restructuring. I increasingly think this is the right way to think about the MTA’s labor issues. It’s not that workers are paid a scandalous amount, but that work rules require many of them to be doing things that don’t increase productivity or help riders. So decoupling the issues of compensation from work duties/rules would be beneficial. I don’t think this is something that can be done about the problem, but it might help frame it better.

Thoughts on express service on the F or G between Church and Bergen?...I tend to swing wildly between "if it's not broke don't fix it" and "I will pay in blood to shave five minutes off my commute." -Alice

I get this question a lot so figured I would bend the “no parochial questions” a bit. I asked Larry Gould, former NYCT planner for his thoughts. In short, he’s not in favor. It would require splitting F service into local and express trains—since you can’t add more F service due to upstream merges with the M and E—which would reduce service at some of the F’s busiest stations that would become local only like Carroll St. Under an F express, two of the three highest ridership stations on the F line would be local only with a train coming only every 10 minutes during peak hours (you could reduce the number of express trains in favor of more locals, but then you’d only have four expresses per hour or fewer). “So, this is why I view an F express as risky and not compelling,” Gould summarized. “Lumpy loading, unattractive frequencies, long dwells.”

Say that tomorrow you magically wake up as the God-Emperor of New York, with total managerial control over the NYC subway. What's the first thing you change about how it operates? -Liz Riegel

I was recently stopped by a canvasser for the runoff election for Public Advocate. Of course the candidate listed "fixing the MTA" as one of their top issues. I had to laugh, because that's all we can do these days. All that being said, if you were appointed MTA Tzar tomorrow, and given endless budget and timeline, what would you do to truly fix the MTA — from top to bottom. Abolish the board? Bring back Bklyn-Qns streetcars? Everything is fair game. -Molly Pearl

These are basically the same question, one focused on short-term, semi-practical ideas and the other a total fever dream wish list regardless of practicalities. Which is to say, these are two totally separate questions.

Before I dive into this, I’d like to note two things. First, this is a fun exercise and I’m happy to participate because thinking about how things ought to be is healthy and good, but it is not intended in the spirit of “the people who are in charge are IDIOTS and any moron could run the MTA better.” That is a popular sentiment, but an incorrect one.

Second, if I was made God-Emperor of New York, here are non-MTA but transportation-related things I would do: pedestrianize lower Manhattan south of Chambers St; declare all existing parking placards invalid and set up a new placard enforcement office because NYPD won’t bother; and, if I haven’t been assassinated yet, instruct NYC DOT to only create fully-protected bike lane networks going forward and that community involvement will be limited to how protected bike networks are installed, not if.

OK onto the MTA things:

-Reform the MTA’s FOIL Department

FOIL is short for Freedom of Information Law, the open records law of New York State. I’m partly choosing this answer because of my deep familiarity with just how broken the MTA’s FOIL system is, but also because I truly believe this is one of the most substantial, long-term improvements that could be made relatively easily.

I filed hundreds upon hundreds of public records requests with various government offices and state universities around the country. I have never dealt with anything close to the blatant disregard for a public records law than I have from the MTA. It’s also a low-key testament to what a profound failure the MTA is. Each participating agency has its own FOIL department. They couldn’t even merge the FOIL departments successfully!

Public records laws exist for a reason: so the public can learn what government agencies are doing with the people’s money and services. When FOIL doesn’t function well, it’s much easier for agencies to hide what’s going on. Even simple documents like contracts, MOUs, payments, and consultant reports are shrouded behind a veil of mystery because the MTA FOIL department is incapable of responding to requests within the legally mandated time frame (or respond at all). This means the public cannot possibly be informed about what the agency is doing in a timely manner. If the MTA was serious about reform, they would start by simply following the law.

-Get operators to come into stations fast

One of the low-key reasons the subway kinda sucks now is because a lot of the experienced operators (the people who drive the trains) retired during the cost-cutting post-recession years and got replaced by operators trained during the "Why is speed on there?” era, instructed to prioritize safety to an extreme degree.

A great and easily observable example of this is how fast trains enter a station. In a Safety First, Second, Third, And Fourth mindset, if you’re almost at the station, no need to speed up; just coast until you platform (it doesn’t help that a lot of timers got put right at the entrance to platforms to slow down trains before they entered the stations, although I’m told some of those timers are reasonable ones due to curves or inclines). But a train that comes into a station approaching the high end of the speed limit and waits a bit to brake can save upwards of 15-20 seconds per stop. So, an overly cautious operator will be several minutes behind, if not more, by the time they reach the Manhattan core on most lines simply because they’re slow in stations (but operators who glide into stations and take forever to platform tend to be overly cautious in other aspects of train operation, too, so they’re probably even later than that). This kind of lackadaisical operation is a big contributor to delays during rush hours which requires running trains quickly and tightly in challenging environments.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this is something NYCT is already implementing under the Save Safe Seconds/SPEED Unit umbrella, but changing operator mindset is an important part of getting trains running smoothly again until the signal systems can be upgraded and these small habits can be automated. Coming into stations fast is just one example.

-Fix the Board

Now we’re getting into Wave A Magic Wand (No, Not That Kind of Magic Wand) territory.

When I first worked on this question I had a whole explanation for why the board needs to be reformed. But given the events of the past week I don’t think I have to elucidate that argument anymore.

How would I fix it? I’d shrink the board down to seven members, three selected by the mayor, two by the governor, one jointly selected by the county executives (they’d have six months after a vacancy to appoint a new person or else the board will select someone for them), with the last chosen by the six appointees. Critically, the board, not the governor, would appoint the Chairman/CEO. Board members can come from any field of expertise—diversity of thought and experience is good—but all of them must regularly use the subway plus one other MTA property (commuter rail, bus, whatever). Each board member would be full-time staff, not unpaid volunteers as they are now, with a small but respectable discretionary budget for part-time research assistants so they have the time and means to fact-check what MTA officials tell them.

-Use concrete elevated structures to expand the subway cheaper and quicker in outer boroughs

As we all know, the MTA desperately needs to get its construction costs under control so it can not only maintain and improve the existing system but also meaningfully expand it, particularly in the outer boroughs. It’s much cheaper to build above ground than below. Other cities have built concrete elevated lines (as opposed to our ancient steel beam-supported structures) that are quiet, clean, efficient, and far more cost-effective than tunneling (Vancouver and London being two examples). I’d start by looking at using overhead lines for the Nostrand and Utica Ave extensions and would use a value capture system to help fund it. I would also nix the LaGuardia AirTrain and use this method to extend the N to the airport, which would have the downside of not being able to use the FAA’s Passenger Facility Charge to fund the project but the upside of being a much better and more useful project.

I’m sure someone will inform me why all of these are terrible ideas.

Favorite New York spots? (Museums, restaurants, parks, etc.) -Casey Berkovitz

One day when I’m no longer a freelancer in his 20s living in New York I’m going to look back on this time and absolutely hate myself for not going to more museums.

For me, the single greatest place in New York City is the north section of the Prospect Park Long Meadow (just south of Grand Army Plaza) around 8:30 or 9 AM on a bright, sunny non-business day when all the neighborhood dogs come out for their morning romp. It’s off leash hours then, and on a good day, you could easily get 50 dogs on that giant field. They run and play and chase each other with abandon. It’s physically impossible for me to be sad in that particular place at that particular time.

On that note…

More dogs. -Jason Rabinowitz

That’s not really a question but OK.

Photo credit: Jason Rabinowitz