Subway Knowledge Base

A primer for new subscribers and interested parties

Is there some quick primer on what’s wrong with the subway?

The New York Times made a 10-minute video for exactly this purpose.

I’d like to dig a little deeper. Give me about an hour’s worth of reading on exactly how the subway got this way.

There are three core issues, which the New York Times has reported through 2017:

  1. The MTA spends more on mega-construction projects (7 Ave extension, East Side Access, Second Ave Subway) than any other transit system in the world.

  2. To fund these increasingly expensive projects, the MTA borrows lots and lots of money. Thanks to a series of bad decisions by the people who ran it for the last several decades, the debt kept growing. Now, almost one out of every five dollars in the MTA’s budget goes directly to paying off debt.

  3. All of that is money that cannot be spent on the unsexy but core needs: maintenance of signals, cars, and tracks, emergency repairs, etc. When the financial crisis hit, maintenance was slashed even further. What we’ve experienced since the spring of 2017 is the end result of that neglect.

That’s the conventional wisdom, at least…

…but there is another theory, which goes like this: the trains have been getting progressively slower thanks to (unnecessary?) speed limits instituted after a fatal crash in 1995. These speed limits have reduced the system’s overall capacity, making it unable to cope with higher ridership. While the signals do need to be upgraded and deferred maintenance is an issue, the single biggest reason why the subway is performing so poorly the last few years is because of unnecessary speed limits. Read my feature on the subject and decide for yourself.

I hear a lot about the signals. What’s the deal with that and how can they be fixed?

The signals are, indeed, extremely old. You’ll sometimes hear people say they pre-date World War II, which is not true; almost all the signals have been replaced since then. However, some of the technology pre-dates World War II. You can read my detailed report on the signals here.

What’s the best app for using the subway?

Citymapper and/or Transit. They’re easy to use and incorporate service advisories into its journey recommendations much better than Google Maps.

How track design limits service, using the A/C as a case study

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. The same is true for the A when it meets the D in upper Manhattan.
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.

And, as it happens, the MTA has built in the same kind of lane-merging limitations into the Second Avenue Subway, should that ever be completed.

It’s Not Your Imagination, the Subway Really Does Break When It Rains

“The appearance of the city through much of its history has left little mark or analogue today,” wrote Luc Sante in Low Life, perhaps the single greatest work on the early history of New York City.

“Not until about a century ago did the place begin to take on some of the characteristics with which we familiarly associate it. Manhattan’s identity as a natural site is particularly irretrievable—the fact that it once contained two substantial ponds, was crisscrossed by streams, possessed marshlands and flats, hills, and valleys, was ringed by a coastline alternately rock-ribbed and swampish…Manhattan’s largest body of water was the Collect Pond…which lay approximately within the bounds of the present-day streets Franklin, Worth, Lafayette, and Baxter.”

Canal Street is so named because there was…wait for it…a canal there, which served as the city’s northern limit until the 1820’s. All that water didn’t simply disappear once humans decided to excavate, flatten, and pave over the city. It’s still there, flowing underground.

Another thing that is underground is the subway.

When announcing the Subway Action Plan, MTA chairman Joe Lhota went as far as to call water “the greatest enemy to having an efficient subway system.” On a clear sunny day, he said, the MTA pumps some 13 million gallons of water from the subway system. Of course, they pump even more water out when it rains.

But as Lhota pointed out, every subway system has this problem because it’s just a function of working underground. Due in part to the density of the subway system in Manhattan and the large number of track miles underground (420 to be precise) it arguably poses a bigger problem for New York than most other cities.

According to the MTA, 20 percent of track-related delays are due to water damage or effects from water damage. Water, if not properly drained can damage switches, washes debris onto the tracks and damages signals by shorting the circuits. I don’t have any specific reason to doubt these figures except that the MTA has been caught trying to shift blame for delays onto external factors before.

There are ways to mitigate water damage like having efficient, well-maintained drainage systems. In theory, the Subway Action Plan takes steps to seal leaks with chemical grouting and clean 40,000 street grates. Until and unless the MTA consistently maintains the system from everyday water leakage, the subway really does break when it rains (and snows). You can count on it.

Who actually runs the giant MTA bureaucracy

The MTA is the agency in charge of everything Greater New York City transit-related, including the bridges, tunnels, commuter rails, etc. It is governed by the Office of the Chairman, which consists of:

  • Chairman and CEO Joe Lhota who oversees:

    • President Pat Foye who oversees things like fare payment strategies, technology, and wireless strategies

    • Chief Development Officer Janno Lieber

    • Managing Director Veronique Hakim

    • A bunch of other people

There are five sub-departments/agencies, each with their own president, and all under Hakim’s supervision:

  • New York City Transit, Andy Byford

    • Department of Buses, Darryl Irick (this is a department within Transit, and Irick reports to Byford)

  • Bridges and Tunnels, Cedrick Fulton

  • Metro North, Catherine Rinaldi

  • LIRR, Phil Eng

And then there’s the MTA Board, which meets once a month. The Chairman and CEO of the MTA (Lhota) presides over the 20-member board. He/she is appointed by the Governor, but so is the entire rest of the board. Again, it is important to remember that all board members are appointed by the governor, although some are “at the recommendation” of city and county officials in the MTA service region. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 5 Governor appointees

  • 4 NYC Mayoral recommendations

  • 1 recommendation from each of the 4 County Executives in the MTA service area excluding Connecticut. These board members, representing Dutchess, Putnam, Orange, and Rockland Counties, each have a quarter of one vote.

  • 3 nonvoting members representing riders of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council, the Metro-North Railroad Commuter Council, and the New York City Transit Riders Council

  • 3 nonvoting members representing the unions of the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, and New York City Transit

What can I do to help fix the subway?

One of the most common requests I’ve gotten so far is a weekly list of actionable items to improve the state of the subway. The reason I haven’t done this already is because, well, there isn’t much you can do at all.

This is very much by design. Without going into the subway’s entire history, one of the key elements of the New York City Transit Authority when it was formed in 1953 was that it was not directly answerable to the public. This allowed them to raise fares, cut service, and take other measures considered necessary that politicians had been fearful of doing. As such, your inability to vote on MTA issues or executives is very much a feature, not a bug, of the city’s transit system.

Still, there are a few things you can do. Here’s a quick list:

  • VOTE! Very few New Yorkers vote. You don’t have to obsessively track every political race, but when election season rolls around, take a few minutes to read up on your local candidates and then VOTE. Signal Problems will help when the time comes, but in the meantime make sure you’re registered to vote and keep in mind that you have to be a member of the Democratic (or Republican) party to vote in the primaries. And when you do ultimately vote, remember that the governor controls the MTA and your state senators have far more oversight regarding the MTA than city councilpersons.

  • Write to your elected officials. I am deeply skeptical of the impact tweeting angrily at Cuomo, the MTA, or other elected officials can have. Instead, do something that takes only a tiny bit more effort and write to them through more formal channels.

    • The State Senate website makes it very easy to find out who your senator is and to write them.

    • You can also use Resistbot—which makes writing to your elected officials stupid easy—to write to the governor’s office, too.

    • For surface-level transit issues like bike and bus infrastructure, write to your city council member. The city council home page has a handy searchable map for finding out who yours is and how to contact them. This is particularly important if you’re into bus-only or bike lanes.

  • Get involved with the transit advocacy community.

How can I get involved in advocating for NYC transit issues?

Thankfully, NYC has a vibrant transit activism community. Here are a few organizations to consider:

  • TransitCenter: “We’re united in the belief that the greatest challenges facing transit and better, more sustainable cities are not technological but rather human.”

  • Riders Alliance, a grassroots movement on public transit

  • Transportation Alternatives: “Transportation Alternatives’ mission is to reclaim New York City's streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking, and public transit for all New Yorkers.”

  • Straphangers Campaign

I want to learn everything there is to know about the Subway.

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More to come…