The MTA’s (train) communications problem

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The 34 St-Hudson Yards Station. (MTAPhotos)
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Deep in the subways — in equipment rooms and closets away from train platforms — lies the main reason New York’s transit system lags far behind those of other world-class cities.

Behind locked doors, electro-mechanical relays first built in the 1930s click and clack away, signaling trains’ locations to subway managers and setting signal lights to red, yellow or green. Some send their electric signals over old-fashioned cloth-insulated wires. Subway workers must handle these carefully, lest the brittle, fire-prone insulation fall away.

This isn’t your grandparents’ technology. It’s your great-grandparents’ technology. It is prone to breakdowns that make you late for work, MTA officials admit. It is also less safe than modern, computerized, communications-based train control systems. Yet the 1930s-era equipment remains the technological backbone of a growing subway system that serves 5.6 million people each weekday.

A modern, computerized, communications-based train control system would let the MTA run more frequent train service. One subway line — the L — has run on such a system since 2008. The MTA says the modern communications-based train control system has let it run dozens more L trains per week. Ridership on the line is up 28 percent in the seven years since the new system was installed.

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In 2017, a second subway line, the No. 7, will switch to communications-based control. Over the next few years, the MTA plans to start installing the system on the tracks beneath Queens Boulevard, the Culver Line/F tracks from Church Avenue to Coney Island, and then the Eighth Avenue line from Columbus Circle to High Street in Brooklyn.

“It’s taking time to turn over the entire system” to communications-based operations, said Wynton Habersham, vice president and chief officer for service delivery in the MTA’s Department of Subways.

That’s an understatement: A study by the Regional Plan Association says at the present pace, the entire subway system won’t be modernized for another 50 years.

Communications-based train control — CBTC for short — is proven technology, and has allowed service improvements on other subway systems around the world. London has switched a majority of its subways to communications-based train control, and Paris is not far behind, the Regional Plan Association notes. London officials see communications-based train control as the backbone of their plan to boost the Underground’s passenger capacity by 30 percent. In Paris, the technology allows Metro trains under the Champs Elysees to run without drivers.

MTA officials understand the problem they face. But they simply don’t have the money to modernize New York’s subways. The RPA estimates it would cost $19.2 billion to upgrade the entire subway system to communications-based control — a sum beyond the reach of New York City and state governments.

“We should be trying to figure out how to do more of it faster, so we can realize the benefits sooner,” said Richard Barone, the RPA’s director of transportation programs. “We need it if we are to keep growing like we are growing. It’s going to be very difficult for the MTA to serve all of these people without it.”

If the MTA decided to upgrade the entire system right now, the cost would eat up 74 percent of all the $26.1 billion in capital spending it plans on subways, trains and buses over the next five years.

Because the MTA can’t afford to upgrade the 1930s-era system, it has come up with a stopgap solution: The 80-year-old relays are slowly being replaced with solid-state switch equipment, which was developed in the 1950s and 1960s with the kinds of transistors that gave transistor radios their name. The MTA began installing the solid-state switching about a decade ago.

“We had some growing pains with it, and we weren’t fully satisfied with it,” Habersham said.

But over time, the MTA and its signal and switch crews became more familiar with the equipment, and now officials are confident it works properly.

About a decade from now, the solid-state equipment will have replaced the electromechanical relays, Habersham says. It should be more reliable than the mechanical relays. But solid-state equipment won’t make trains move any faster than the creaky old system.

In the meantime, the relays will click and clack away. They are costly and difficult to maintain. The MTA can buy the parts it needs to keep them running, and it has a cadre of employees expert in fixing breakdowns in the obsolete system. “It’s reliable,” says Habersham. “We clean it up. We totally refurbish it.”

But the agency has to make sure none of the ancient equipment is ever thrown away, because no one makes it any more.

If you are curious about how some of the old-school train control technology works, look carefully at the tracks and signal lights the next time you’re waiting for a train. If you stand by a signal light, pay attention when the signal turns red, just after a train has left the station. A yellow arm or lever will pop up from the track bed nearby. The yellow levers are called trip arms. If for some reason a train came along and tried to pass by the signal while it was red, the trip arm would engage its brakes. The trip arms are supposed to prevent trains from zooming past red signals.

“It’s designed to prevent a train from running into the train in front of it,” Habersham says.

Trip arms are an important safety feature of old subway technology. The newer, computer-based technology on the L line is capable of stopping trains in emergencies without trip arms. The new systems also keep better track of where trains are located.

“It is much better, much more reliable and much more efficient,” says Habersham.

As things now stand, it’ll be decades before the rest of the subways run as efficiently as the L.

The five-year, $26.1 billion MTA capital plan – which needs approval from the Legislature — will bring many other improvements to the subways and the rest of the MTA system. It includes $535 million to start work on the northward expansion of the Second Avenue subway to 125th Street. It'll also pay for more than 900 new subway cars and 1,400 new buses, and allow for repairs and upgrades at dozens of subway stations.

Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed with Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Oct. 10 to kick in $2.5 billion of city money for the program. The federal government will contribute $6 billion to the capital plan — about 23 percent of its total. That's less than what states get for capital spending on roads and bridges — the feds typically kick in about half of those costs, says the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

Somehow, city and state government need to find money to modernize the signals, said Nick Sifuentes, deputy director of the Riders Alliance, a straphanger advocacy group.

“We are seeing record ridership working off a signal system that is generations old,” Sifuentes said. “It’s good that the MTA is focused on signals. We would love to see them do it faster.”

Installing communications-based train control would also greatly improve the value of existing subway lines. It costs about $1.5 billion to build one mile of new subway line — that's roughly what the MTA spent per mile building the new extension of the No. 7 line to Manhattan's far West Side. Based on RPA estimates, it costs about $810,000 to add communications-based train control per mile of subway route. That's about half of one percent of a line's construction costs. Doesn't it make sense to spend 0.5 percent of a line's cost in improvements that, on the L train, increased passenger capacity by 28 percent?

It won't happen anytime soon. With every click of those ancient relays, New York's transit infrastructure slips further and further out of date.