Mr. Cuomo, these fumes are making me dizzy

Being a student is hard. Being a student in one of the most expensive cities in the world with a public transportation system that all too often doesn’t get you to class on time is even harder. Which is why I’m excited that Pigeon, a crowdsourced public transit app on iOS coming from Google’s Area 120 group, has donated 20 paid subscriptions to Signal Problems for students who want to keep up with subway/MTA news.

I don’t have an iPhone so I can’t use Pigeon myself, but I’ve seen demos and it’s a slick, useful app for crowdsourcing delays, train locations, and other disruptions so you know what’s happening first. My favorite feature is that closed stations or other service disruptions are visible on the map, helping you easily eyeball your journey at a glance.

If you’re a student who would like to get one of those 20 subscriptions, which will be good for a year, courtesy of Pigeon, send an email to signalproblems@substack.com from your .edu email address or otherwise include some kind of evidence you’re a student (do they give out student ID cards in high school these days? I have no idea!). First come, first served.


On Thursday, Governor Cuomo gave a speech that ridiculed the MTA in truly bizarre fashion, belittling its employees and managers while distancing himself from the failures of the authority he has controlled for more than eight years. His diatribe was light on perspective or historical accuracy for the sake of a flattering narrative centered around giving him legislative control of the authority so he could institute reforms, which he promises will be more meaningful than the attempts made by his predecessors.

Rather than focusing on those criticisms from the guy who controls the MTA, I’m going to dive super deep into the root of Monday evening’s messy rush hour. I’m going to focus on this instead because I think it’s more illustrative of the types of problems the MTA has to fix in order to run the trains better.

Monday was a real throwback to the meltdowns of 2017. There were problems on many lines, but the big issues were on the 1,2,3,4,5 and 6 lines, particularly the 2, 4, and 5 up in the Bronx. And let me tell you, riders were *not* happy. According to an incident report obtained by Signal Problems, one train operator reported “customers were getting agitated” on a 5 train north of the Baychester Ave station to the point where they were “attempting to exit the train in between stations.” So the operator was instructed to reverse back to the edge of Baychester Ave and nose up against another train partially platformed so passengers could exit. An MTA spokesman said no passengers actually exited the train between stations.

The problems started at about 1 AM Monday morning when the local control tower lost signal with a computerized interlocking—combination of switches and signals at merges that make sure trains go on the proper line—near E 180th St on the 2/5 line in the Bronx. The problems lasted for more than 28 hours, all the way until almost 5 AM the following day. 190 trains were cancelled, 37 terminated en route, and 219 trains were late because of this problem.

So, what the hell happened?

The initial failure didn’t cause much of a delay at all. The Rail Control Center (RCC), the central brain for the subway, took control of the interlocking temporarily until the problem could be fixed, minimizing delays in service. Probably because it was 1 AM and they switched control quickly, they didn’t even bother to issue an official service advisory. @NYCTSubway tweeted at 1:10 AM there was “a signal malfunction,” but announced that service had resumed three minutes later.

But this was just the beginning. The local tower resumed control around 3 AM, but the problem remained “on and off,” according to the incident report, through the morning, causing brief intermittent delays. Only in the early afternoon, at 12:30 PM, does the incident report note for the first time that a maintenance group called New Tech Signals, who work on computerized signals and switches such as the one near E 180th St, were troubleshooting the problem. Between 1:20 and 2:40 PM, the interlocking failed three more times.

Curiously, RCC kept giving control of the interlocking back to the local tower every time it came back online, however briefly, even though they hadn’t identified why the local tower kept losing control of the interlocking over the course of the previous 12-18 hours in the first place. This became a real problem starting around 4 PM when the evening rush began. The intermittent problems became more severe, disrupted more trains, and forced dispatchers to cancel, short-turn, or divert 2/5 trains to other lines to avoid the trouble area entirely. Hence the crowding and “agitated” passengers.

Even more curiously, according to the incident report, the New Tech Signals team didn’t go out to the tower itself to investigate the problem until 8 PM, almost 18 hours after the problems began and once the calamitous evening rush hour had already concluded. (An MTA spokesman says this is wrong and that new tech signals were at the tower throughout the day, and that the root cause of the incident is still under investigation.)

What’s the upshot here? Unlike the Governor, I unfortunately don’t have a clean narrative for you. The MTA says Monday’s rush was so bad because RCC also lost control of the interlocking at that particular time, so there was no backup option. But two sources with knowledge of the incident tell me that personnel at RCC made a decision to kick back control to the local tower when they shouldn’t have.

The upshot, then, is that this shit is complicated, even (especially!) once you upgrade the infrastructure to computerized, modern technology. “Just run the damn trains better” is a commandment laden with thousands upon thousands of smaller decisions every day, one of which could completely tank rush hour service. Sometimes equipment fails. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes they make bad judgment calls. Technology eliminates some of those decisions but not all of them, and even introduces some new ones. And often it’s hard to sort out which is which.

“There are so many people, myself included, who could go work in the private sector for way more money,” a source texted me after reading about Cuomo’s speech. “But we don’t because we care about the public good that is the subway.” I worry all Cuomo’s brash talk is going to accomplish is chasing away the competent people remaining. We’ll end up with more mistakes and bad judgment calls, ones the Governor doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand.

“The subway only manages to function,” my source said, “because of people who care about the system more than the paycheck it provides.”


If you’re not a paid subscriber, you missed my interview with W.K. Akers about the big subway controversies of 1921: whether to raise fares, how to pay for necessary infrastructure upgrades, and whether the state or the city should have control of the subway. Yes, you read that correctly. 1921. Why? Sound familiar?

And no, Akers is not a time traveler (I don’t think), he just writes a newsletter about the 1921 New York Times.

But don’t worry! If you become a paid subscriber, you’ll be able to read that interview and all the other subscriber-only posts in the archives. Plus, you’ll get all future paid editions (duh) and will help support the free Friday editions. I initially promised about 25 paid editions per year, but I’ve been averaging one per week and expect to, at minimum, keep that level if not increase it. One subscriber said signing up was “one of the easiest decisions I’ve made this year.”

Subscribe now


On Monday night/Tuesday morning, L riders were greeted with strong fumes from an unknown source. At first, the MTA thought they were diesel fumes from overnight work trains, but around 11 AM they started investigating when the smell didn’t dissipate. Around 12:45 they found some kind of fuel gushing up through a hole near the Graham Ave station and promptly suspended service. In a statement, MTA spokesman Max Young said the FDNY and the Department of Environmental Protection determined the fuel leaking up was a “non-flammable heating oil from an external source” and was “completely unrelated to the L train project or any other MTA construction.” The L resumed service by the evening rush, but riders and train operators continued to complain about the fumes Wednesday and Thursday.


Two sources told Dan Rivoli of the Daily News that Fast Forward is being cut from $40 billion over 10 years to $30 billion. Considering we’ve never gotten a preliminary budget or analysis on where that $40 billion number comes from, it’s hard to know what to make of this. There are many ways projects could be moved around or numbers changed to keep the program meaningful while lowering the sticker price. In any event, $30 billion over 10 years is still an awful lot of money.


One of the bus fixes I mentioned last week is all-door boarding. Implementing this system-wide is contingent on the New Fare Payment System (NFPS), which will introduce contactless payments or tap-to-pay (TTP). This is not a new technology. It’s used around the world in transit systems big and small. Once completed, you will be able to use your phone, a TTP-enabled credit or debit card, or a new fare card with TTP technology that will be sold at new station vending machines in stations or in retail stores around the city. The vending machines and retail option will provide an option for people who still use cash.

How will all-door boarding work? You wave your card near a little box installed inside the bus at each door, the box beeps or otherwise indicates you paid your fare, and…that’s it!

Some people will worry this will only encourage fare evasion. Those people are wrong, because TTP will only make fare enforcement easier. Agents can board any bus (or train for that matter) and ask riders to present their fare card, which can be scanned with a reader—the ones I’ve seen look like handheld credit card terminals—to instantly determine if they paid the fare. This makes fare evasion harder to get away with. Right now, evaders only need to worry about hopping the turnstile or boarding the bus without being confronted. Under TTP, they have to avoid fare agents for the entire journey. And if fare evasion is as bad as the MTA says it is, they will be well-served to employ a small army of fare agents who will easily pay for themselves.

The MTA expects to begin accepting TTP along the 4/5 from Atlantic/Barclays to Grand Central starting in May. The roll-out to the entire system—subways and buses—will be completed by October 2020.

Unfortunately, all-door boarding will need to wait a bit longer. An MTA official told me all-door boarding can’t be implemented until there is a way to load a next-gen fare card with cash. According to the latest timeline, that won’t happen until February 2021 with the rollout of the “contactless MTA Transit card” (see below) that can be purchased at bodegas, pharmacies, etc. I, for one, would love to see the MTA incentivize its contractors to speed up that timeline by four months so we don’t have to wait for all-door boarding any longer than absolutely necessary.

Slide from the November Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting.

Hey, look, it’s the BQX!

The city’s economic development corporation is signing a contract for up to $7.2 million with a consultant to oversee the environmental review process for this $2.7 billion streetcar, as reported by the WSJ. I spend a lot of time badmouthing NYCEDC’s projects like the ferries and the BQX, so I’m going to take this bit of quasi-news to highlight something good about the BQX: it’ll require eliminating 2,000 on-street parking spaces!

Of course, I think that’s good because on-street parking is a senseless giveaway of public space to people who use the most inefficient form of transportation, but to the people who use it, this will be regarded as a very, very bad thing indeed. Considering the degree to which some people flip out when a protected bike lane eliminates a few dozen parking spaces, I *cannot* wait for those community meetings.


But why can’t we have nice transit things, they asked.


“We do not have an estimated time when the goose will be removed.”

For those wondering: there is no technical or operational reason why the train could not run over the goose. The worst case scenario is the activation of emergency brakes, but more likely the only effect would be lots of blood and guts on the train. Subway cars hit buckets and other random stuff all the time. That’s not to say they SHOULD have run over the goose, a living creature just like you and me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am morally obligated as a transportation reporter to link to the time Joe Lhota said he would have run over two kittens on the tracks rather than disrupt service.


Curbed NY listified “10 of the most fascinating” secret subway tunnels.

In Which I (Will No Longer) Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better; Or Why I’m Killing Off This Section

Last week, I explained I haven’t updated this section since May because “I’m simultaneously becoming more optimistic about the short term and pessimistic about the long term. I can’t figure out how to balance those two outlooks into one prediction.” So you know what? I’m going to stop trying to predict the future, because there’s plenty to keep me occupied in the present.

Farewell, In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better, because if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that things can always get worse.

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.

Weekend:

  • C – All service is express-only in Manhattan

  • D – No service between Broadway-Lafayette St and Coney Island

  • E R – Jamaica-bound service is express-only in Queens

  • J – No service between Crescent St and Jamaica Center

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

  • Q – No service between Atlantic Av and Kings Highway

Late Nights:

  • 3 – No late night service

  • F – No service between Jay St and Coney Island (use G trains)

  • L – No service between Broadway Junction and 8 Avenue

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

  • The Uber app now shows transit options in Denver, so I guess the narrative pendulum on e-hail has swung back to “friends with transit” again.

  • Speaking of Uber, Streetsblog put together a list of all the bad things about Uber and Lyft, and there’s a lot of transit-related stuff in there. You know, now that they mention it, allowing ten times the number of taxis to operate in the city than allowed under the medallion system may have had some consequences.

  • From Portland: “[Lyft’s] current efforts to avoid local consumer protections and skirt policies that ensure that TNC rides are safe for all passengers and accessible to people with disabilities run completely contrary to your stated positions and the positions of the company you represent.”

  • Free transit sounds great, but as TransitCenter notes, better transit sounds even better.

  • A “pretty lengthy section” of Chicago’s L line’s third rail “just fell over,” causing major delays to service.

  • “It would be a bitter irony indeed if America’s first major private express railway in 100 years were sunk by the very vehicle emissions it should help curtail.”

  • Bombardier, which is years behind on the years-behind schedule to delivering the R179 subway cars, is also years behind on the years-behind schedule delivering light-rail cars in Toronto.

  • Toronto’s transit agency is trying to figure out how to curb a rising trend in suicide in the system, but what I’ve gathered from that article is nobody wants to pay for platform doors and otherwise don’t have any great ideas.

  • Addis Ababa descended into rioting and chaos during the third of the city’s monthly car-free days. Oh, wait, actually, kids played in the streets and everyone had a great time.

  • Yet another edition of Reporter Returns From International Trip: “The money other nations spend on urban infrastructure (don’t even get me started on intercity trains) is instead siphoned off to somewhere else. It makes the USA — still by far the wealthiest country in the world! — seem like an dying empire, one beginning to visibly crack and crumble as it is slowly hollowed out from within.”

David Roth’s Esteemed Rider of the Week

I was in Los Angeles last week, where I found the subways to be clean, convenient, on-time, and kind of disconcertingly empty. (They also stop at red lights, for reasons that a friend getting a master's in urban planning explained, but which still struck me as weird.) But they were also an excellent way to get to places in the city that would otherwise be unpleasant or difficult to reach AND yielded a rider of distinction.

This would be the man waiting for the Purple Line at the Wilshire/Normandie station who was listening to David Bowie's 1997 album "Earthling" on a hard-to-spot but fairly powerful speaker. At first I thought he was just listening to "I'm Afraid Of Americans," the single off that record, but then it just went into the next song from the record. He was wearing a lot of layers—enough to conceal the speaker effectively—so I can't say for sure that he didn't have a discman whirring in there somewhere. As with the many subway eaters I've singled out for praise here, he was doing something that is strictly speaking a subway no-no, but doing it well enough that I was willing to look past it. If you're going to listen to music without headphones on the train...well, you shouldn't do that, it's never okay to do that, but IF you are going to do that, definitely stick with whole albums from the back end of a legendary artist's discography.

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: Joe Ferris

Quick correction from last week’s edition: when I cited bus ridership figures city-wide, I was just looking at NYCT buses. That does not include the MTA Bus Company, which runs 74 local and express bus routes the MTA acquired in 2004 from seven private bus companies operating under a franchise agreement. MTA Bus had 396,227 average weekday riders in 2017, so the total number of bus riders last year were 2.3 million. These numbers don’t change the overall trends discussed in last week’s edition.


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.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

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.