March 2, 2018: Taking An L

Welcome to Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway. I’m Aaron Gordon, a freelancer writing about many subjects, one of which is transit for the Village Voice. If you’re a new or prospective subscriber, head over to the Subway Knowledge Base page for an introduction to the state of the subway.

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

This Week In #CuomosMTA

Hold onto your butts, folks, because the L train shutdown is a mere 13 months away. Since I assume there will be a litany of articles about this next month —and because I wrote something about it this week after the Department of Transportation released a traffic analysis of 14th Street—I thought I’d talk a little bit about how screwed we are.

Every day, the L train transports the equivalent of the population of Orlando. Yet, it is, as you may have noticed from the line ratings, the best-performing line in the system. This is because it is currently the only line in the system to have a modern signaling system and one of only two major lines that is truly independent. It never crosses, merges, or joins with another line.

It is difficult to overstate how much simpler this makes everything. The L can basically do its own thing irrespective of what’s going on elsewhere. On top of that, the junctions in the system where lines merge tend to have the most moving parts and complicated signaling. The more components you have, the more fail points there are, and moving components like switches that direct trains to different tracks depending what line they’re on are even more prone to difficulties. The L, for the most part, doesn’t have to deal with any of that.

Which is to say, the L does a better job moving people than any other line. But during the shutdown, most of those 250,000 people every day are going to have to use a different line, one that is currently less good at moving people, and will become even worse once its daily ridership balloons by tens of thousands of people.

We don’t need to get into the exact shutdown plans right now—there will be plenty of time for that later—but suffice it to say the MTA expects 80 percent of L train riders to use other lines. This is partly because there is simply no other choice; a single L train holds about 16-20 buses’ worth of people. During rush hour, an L train comes every three minutes or so. Even DOT’s bus-only 14th Street rush hour plan calls for one bus every minute or two, which isn’t even the capacity of a single car on an L train. The buses running over the bridge will be even less frequent.

I am one of many reporters critical of DOT (which controls the city streets) for not being aggressive enough with their L shutdown mitigation plan. And while I absolutely believe they should be doing more than HOV-3 on the Williamsburg Bridge and a bus-only 14th Street during peak hours, I also think there is basically nothing anyone can do to truly make it manageable. The scale is simply too massive. 250,000 people is so many people.

From time to time, someone who takes the L will ask me what they should do for the shutdown. I tell them to move if they can. Obviously not everyone can just pick up and move if they want, but if you can, you should. And don’t just move to be near the G or JMZ, because those lines will be overrun with displaced L riders.

To me, the biggest misconception about the shutdown is that it will only affect people in North Brooklyn along the L (and to a lesser extent the G and JMZ). I think that’s naive. Displaced riders will flood the G in both directions, transferring to the 7, E, and M at Court Square or the A/C at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Riders who live on the L further east will take the L towards Canarsie and transfer, most likely to the A at Broadway Junction. And it will be downright catastrophic for many local businesses that don’t have the capital to withstand more than a year of plummeting foot traffic.

And those are just the obvious outcomes. But a population the equivalent of a mid-sized American city is being forced to take a different commute. It’s almost impossible to predict what will happen.

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

  • The MTA is putting a relatively meager amount of the Subway Action Plan towards signals, according to the Times and the Daily News. While it’s absolutely worth debating how the SAP budget is broken down and whether that addresses the system’s needs, we need to differentiate signal maintenance with signal upgrades. The SAP was never about upgrading the signals to modern signaling technology. It is certainly concerning the MTA still seems to have no long-term plan for upgrading the signals quicker, but that’s not a problem the SAP was designed to solve, nor is it something even the full $836 million could begin to address. Personally, I don’t have any reason to believe spending more than $58 million on signal maintenance would result in a significantly better subway.

  • Remember last week when I talked about the MTA Board’s make-up and how Cuomo’s appointees seem to lack a certain expertise in urban policy? Well, there is one Cuomo appointee, Scott Rechler, who actually does have some bona fides. Aside from being head a major realty firm, he is also chairman of the Regional Plan Association, one of the most influential urban policy groups in the tri-state region. Good on the Governor, right? Well…
    "At the M.T.A., Mr. Cuomo in June appointed one of his biggest donors, the real estate developer Scott Rechler; a company tied to Mr. Rechler donated $65,000 to the governor in December. Including donations before the appointment, Mr. Rechler, his family and his companies have given Mr. Cuomo more than $500,000. Mr. Rechler declined to comment.”

  • The MTA launched a program to bring station agents out from the booths to help customers. They didn’t get enough volunteers. Now they’re recruiting office workers to do it. (Remember, no matter how frustrated you are with the MTA itself, be nice to any transit workers you encounter. They are not the reason you’re late.)

  • A former MTA construction projects manager is going to federal prison for pocketing over $150,000 in bribes from contractors. In exchange for the bribes, the manager steered projects the contractors’ way and threatened to blackball them if the bribes stopped. In a normal city, this would be a massive scandal. But not in the concrete jungle where dreams are made of!

  • Some veteran train operators are getting fed up with what they see as poor training and execution from some of the newer operators. A state audit confirmed the train operators’ assumptions. “Nearly 57% of the 106 operators and conductors sampled in the audit were missing crucial quizzes in their files.

    The audit said there appears to be a link between failed or missing tests and the transit workers’ later job performance.” Given the drastically increased hiring around the MTA to deal with the crisis, I’d be surprised if the problem was limited to train operators.

  • The digital payment system MTA is introducing in 2019 can also bring all kinds of other improvements, from real-time data on station crowding that could be shared with customers to all-door bus boarding to fare caps. Luckily for the MTA, because they’re a solid two decades behind on this, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

  • The MTA is launching a new app ostensibly to keep riders informed about service changes, but it seems to merely re-package the information posted on MTA.info, which is the same information third-party apps use. So, in effect, they created an app that provides only a tiny fraction of the functionality Citymapper and Google Maps have been providing for years.

  • Not strictly subway-related, but I thought this NYT op-ed on how automated vehicles won’t save cities had a really cool design.

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 (Sunday-to-Saturday) 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.

If you’re having trouble viewing the graph below in the email, check it out in your browser by clicking the “view in browser” button at the top-right of this email or going to signalproblems.substack.com.

Best line: the L

Worst line: the N

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

This week's estimate: 2021

In a recent interview with NY1, Andy Byford said before he was hired, Cuomo asked if he could make improvements to the subway within one year. Byford said he believed that he could.

I believe in Andy Byford. He has worked in rail systems his entire life and knows them well. If Byford were Subway Czar, I would be confident in that one year pledge.

But Andy Byford is not Subway Czar. He is president of NYC Transit and answers to Joe Lhota, chairman of the MTA, which is a massive, 70,000+ person organization with its own bureaucratic inertia and institutional history. There are good people who want to do the right thing in the MTA, but bureaucracies have a way of governing themselves independent of the will of its people. So I’m sticking with 2021 for now. A competent captain is sometimes not enough to turn the ship around.

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

This Weekend:

4 5 - All service is local-only between 125 Street and Grand Central

7 - No service between Times Square and Queensboro Plaza

A - No service between 168 Street and 207 Street (Sat. night - Sun. morning only)

D - Uptown service runs via C line between W 4 Street and 145 Street

G - No service between Hoyt-Schermerhorn Sts and Church Av

J - No service between Broadway Junction and Jamaica Center

M - No mainline service between Broadway Junction and Essex St

Full map available here.

Weeknights:

1 - No service between 137 St-City College and 96 Street

3 - No service; 1 trains run between South Ferry and Harlem-148 Street

A - Uptown service is express-only between Canal St and 168 Street

D - Uptown service is local-only between 59 St-Columbus Circle and 145 Street

E - Manhattan-bound service is express-only between Jamaica-Van Wyck and Roosevelt Av

N - No service between Queensboro Plaza and Times Sq-42 St

Q - Coney Island service runs via R line between Canal St and DeKalb Av

Full map available here.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • The DC Metro will automatically reimburse rush-hour commuters for journeys that are more than 15 minutes delayed. (I often see people calling for the MTA to enact such a policy, but even assuming the MTA wanted to do it, I’m not sure how it could be done; riders don’t swipe out of the system so there’s no way to know what your journey was. The DC Metro, on the other hand, has a very complicated fare-scale that varies by both your departure and arrival stations, so the system knows your journey and can therefore apply reimbursements automatically.)

  • Kuala Lampur awarded a signaling contract for their new 23-mile driverless light rail.

Subway Detective Agency

Have a weird question about the subway you’ve always wanted to know? Send it to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Three questions from Christina:

1) Why does the Union Square 4/5/6 stop have the most blood-curdling sounds when the train comes and goes?

Note: this answer applies to all noisy stations.

Short answer: there are very sharp curves before and after the station causing a part of the train wheels to rub against the track.

Longer answer: Here’s a grossly oversimplified explanation for how trains stay on the tracks: the wheels are shaped like cones, pointing slightly outward. As the track moves underneath, the wheel is naturally forced to stay on the track thanks to the centrifugal force between the track and the wheel. (This video does a nice job of demonstrating how this works and I encourage everyone to check it out because science is really fucking cool.)

But, wheels still have something called a flange, which is basically a guard to stop the track from going too far up the wheel on sharp turns. So what you’re hearing is the flange of the wheel grinding against the track.

2) Will we lose our hearing from everyday exposure to subway noise?

Short answer: maybe

Longer answer: according to a 2006 study, 30 minutes of exposure to the subway either on the platform and loud subway cars has the potential to cause hearing loss.

“There's no question that this will hurt your hearing,'' Nancy Nadler, the director of the Noise Center at the League for the Hard of Hearing, told the New York Times in 2000 as she stood in Union Square with a $14,000 decibel meter. ''If you are exposed to this every morning, you will have hearing loss.''

But, according to the article, one would have to be exposed to that level of screeching wheels for about a minute, without interruption, for it to be dangerous. So I’m a little dubious about this conclusion.

(As an aside, I once reported a story that never ran on whether frequent attendance of professional sporting events could lead to hearing damage. I spoke to a top expert on hearing loss and came away wondering how, based on official guidelines for good hearing health, every person in every city isn’t deaf. But we’re not.)

3) Why won't they be more specific in their delay announcements? “Train traffic ahead” or “sick passenger” are empty phrases at this point. 

Most of the time, it’s because the train operator doesn’t even know. Radio reception is very poor in the tunnels, so if a train is stopped in there, the operator probably doesn’t know anything more than you do. So they’ve used these canned phrases, but it sounds like they’re phasing those out. Now, we’re going to get announcements like this:

MTA Mention of the Week

From @AirinBminor:

This AM on the subway platform, some lady shrieked out of nowhere "FUCK the MTA!" Then to her male companion: "No, I will NOT calm down!" Then kept cursing/hitting a pole w/her metal water bottle until the train came.

And I was like, wow. They did it. They finally broke someone.

Dog in a Bag

Photo credit: Adam Cohen

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