In a city where a headline waits around every corner, subway problems have been rich fodder for the evening news and the morning tabloids. Transporting some 5.7 to six million customers a day, the New York City subway touches the lives of most New Yorkers and a 10-minute delay during rush hour can take a sizeable chunk out of a customer’s day.
A period of declining performance combined with inadequate funding and increased ridership has stressed the system to a near breaking point. Within a period of a few weeks, two derailments and a pair of major track fires shook customer confidence, while train delays rocketed to 70,000 a month. Two of these incidents resulted in self-evacuations to subway tunnels by anxious riders, attracting even more media attention than usual to the system’s difficulties.
Those problems have become a major focus of MTA leadership and there is now a concrete plan in place to put customers first and reverse the fortunes of the troubled system. The work, for which $836 million is being invested, will first stabilize the 472 station system. The successful completion of the effort will lay a firm foundation toward modernizing the subway, major portions of which date back to 1904.
The problems currently being addressed did not come about overnight. The maintenance of the system’s physical plant and rolling stock was adversely affected during the 2008-09 fiscal meltdown, which saw MTA revenues slashed by 20%, forcing cutbacks in services and personnel while maintenance schedules were lengthened. Most services were restored, however maintenance was not. So, in effect, transit is playing catch up even as it continue to address damage caused in 2012 by Superstorm Sandy.
Directed by New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to outline a clear path to improvement, recently appointed Metropolitan Transportation Chairman Joseph J. Lhota developed a plan to reverse the system’s downward trend. The major focus of the plan is the upgrade of track and signaling equipment that is decades old, a major program to address water intrusion, a thorough cleaning of the entire subway, and a major upgrade in subway car maintenance that will importantly see car inspections and repairs carried out around the clock.
“New Yorkers are rightfully frustrated with the current state of the subways, and their demands for better service have been heard. We are committed to earning back their trust by implementing solutions that will enhance the customer experience in the short-and long-term,” said Chairman Lhota. "The NYC Subway Action Plan marks the beginning of a new chapter for the MTA and provides an opportunity to stabilize and improve the system and lay the foundation for modernization. As we work to build a better system, customers can expect to see progress in ways both big and small.”
Plans are in place to hire 2,700 new employees to help reinforce the subway fix-up. Aside from improvements to infrastructure and rolling stock, subway riders will also benefit from a fresh approach to customer communications and the strategic placement of maintenance of way and subway car repair teams to insure timely responses when issues do arise. Additionally, police and medical resources will be increased in an effort to address non-mechanical issues.
The plan of nearly three dozen individual initiatives calls for a total investment of about $836 million to $456 million in operating costs and another $380 million in capital costs. Improvements over the longer term, including signal system modernization and new subway cars, will be included in the MTA’s next five-year capital plan.
The initial phase of the New York City Subway Action Plan will attack fully 79% of the causes of major incidents responsible for system delays, particularly signals, track, subway car reliability, and electric power issues. Phase one has already begun and is expected to show results within one year. Signals, track, and power issues account for fully 54% of major incidents suffered. Water-related damage and corrosion, track fires, subway car failures, police activity, and station issues are also major contributing factors.
Critical system components with the highest incidence of failure will be targeted and addressed with additional personnel and equipment.
Subway Cars Maintenance and Renewal
The New York City subway fleet is made up of 6,418 revenue cars. The newest cars are currently being delivered and the oldest have been plying the rails since 1964. NYC Transit is served by 12 subway car classes and all require an immense level of inspection, testing, and preventative maintenance.
Major overhauls are a vital part of a subway car’s lifecycle. To help improve subway car reliability, overhaul capacity will be upped from 950 to 1,100 cars per year. Shop capacity will be maximized by the addition of a full repair and maintenance shift. For the first time, interior enhancements will be part of the regular overhaul cycle for subway cars.
Door problems account for 40% of subway car malfunctions. Fleetwide, subway car cycle on average seven million times a day. Prioritizing the inspection and repair of door systems will go a long way towards solving car maintenance issues.
Subway car Mean Distance Between Failures has been declining as the fleet ages, standing at 115,760 in June 2017. Responding to subway car failures will be faster and more efficient with the addition of pre-positioned Emergency Subway Car Response teams.
To address capacity, NYC Transit will pilot a seat removal program that will yield additional space in affected subway cars. The pilot will begin on the Times Square-Grand Central Shuttle, a run of approximately 90 seconds but an extremely busy route. The L line is also targeted. This route is limited to trains of only eight 60-foot cars, putting customer room at a premium. More importantly, due to huge population gains in Northern Brooklyn over the past ten years, the line has been transformed from a sleepy backwater to one of the most heavily traveled in the system. The program to reduce seats is expected to create a capacity gain of about 25 customers per car.
Maintaining Signals and Track
Safe subway train movement is guided by 17,000 electro-mechanical signals throughout the system. Except for the L Line, which is guided by Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), the subway system is controlled by a signal system designed more than a century ago. Many components of this system date back more than 80 years to the opening of the Eighth Avenue Subway. Signal problems can make a mess of the rush hour, delaying dozens of trains.
Our customers are all too familiar with the explanation that trains are being delayed because of signal problems. This issue is exacerbated when it occurs at major junctions, where two or more lines merge or diverge. To help alleviate this problem, a signal repair program is being developed to improve the operation of 1,300 signals determined to be the most problematic.
Of the system’s 665 miles of mainline revenue trackage, 418 are actually subway — running below ground. The underground portion of the system takes a tremendous amount of abuse from water. On a clear, sunny New York day, subway pumps are busy operating, removing upwards of 13 million gallons of water from the system. That water courses through tunnel ceilings and walls, ponds on track beds, and is often dammed up behind careless discarded trash. It plays havoc with electrical components, corrodes metal, and lends an overall untidy appearance to station tracks. Transit has already begun an emergency Water Management Initiative where teams are identifying the sources of leaks and then working to seal them with chemical grouting. Additionally, 40,000 street gratings are being thoroughly cleaned to help ensure proper diversion of water.
Tracks will receive some much-needed attention with the addition of 31 teams across the system to address locations with the highest number of track-related incidents. The teams will be tasked with speeding the repair of potential track issues.
The installation of continuously welded rail will be stepped up three-fold and track welding capacity will be increased by 30%. Rider comfort will benefit from the installation of 50,000 new friction pads, which will also help increase rail durability and reduce the probability of breaks.
Currently, a force of Combined Action Teams are placed strategically around the system to respond to track, signal and electric power issues. Staged in the field, these teams respond throughout the system. The plan calls for a tripling of these personnel, which would help cut response time from 45 to 15 minutes, a significant savings in time.
System Safety and Cleanliness
Overall system cleanliness is a major concern. Aside from the aesthetics involved, keeping the subway clear of trash also lessens the likelihood of track fires and flooding. In order to improve subway cleanliness, subway cleaning will be increased by 30% and a program is being established for priority stations. These stations will receive deep cleaning, repainting, and tile repair. There will also be an effort to speed elevator and escalator repair.
Also, customers can look forward to the creation and launch of a littering awareness campaign aimed at educating them on the consequences of dropping that empty food container or newspaper on the platform. Improperly disposed of trash contributes to 700 fire-related train delays every year.
Sick passengers are also a major factor behind slowed service, causing about 34,000 train delays in 2016. Chairman Lhota noted that dedicated EMT teams will be located at 12 stations to help ensure that fewer trains will be delayed by customers awaiting medical help. There will also be upgraded coordination with the New York City Fire Department to determine the most effective system coverage.
Coordination with the New York Police Department will also seek increased police patrols in the system in order to deter illegal activity, including harassment, sexually inappropriate behavior, loitering, aggressive panhandling, and littering.
Keeping Customers Informed in the 21st Century
In the continuing effort to improve communications, the MTA is stepping up the system-wide installation of countdown clocks. The effort will also see the elimination of pre-recorded announcements about delays and train traffic, relying instead on live communication. Another aspect of improved delivery of customer information calls on the agency to more completely outline work that is being done in the system.
“We explain that their train service is going to be changed because work is being performed, but what we also need to do is outline for our customers what that work is,” added Lhota. “They should know why it is necessary to add time to their trips and why they may have to make a transfer or change to a shuttle bus.”
To that end, the MTA is currently overhauling digital communications assets and will launch a new integrated MTA App, which will include information on all MTA services. The plan also calls for the delivery of customer information in a speedier manner during delay causing incidents. Also, MTA Customer Representatives will be stationed in high-traffic stations to provide guidance to riders and clearer station signage will be rolled out for planned service changes. Meanwhile, staff is being retrained to improve communication and interactions with customers.
Combined, these efforts are expected to renew the system and restore it to a condition upon which New York City’s subway customers can once again depend without reservation.