New Tech Promises Less Subway Crowding, If Albany Doesn’t Beggar the MTA

Last week’s news that NYC Transit is planning to boost L train service isn’t just good for residents of Williamsburg. It points to a new era of faster and more reliable service throughout the subway system as the new signal technology known as Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) begins to take hold.

Communications-Based Train Control can relieve crowding throughout the subway system, Albany permitting. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/ianqui/1547118909/sizes/m/in/photostream/##ianqui/Flickr##

As the Times and Second Avenue Sagas reported, L train riders will start benefiting from more frequent service next summer, when the MTA adds trains on the weekends, which have seen an 84 percent jump in ridership since 2005. But the major advance in service, which promises to relieve crowding on some of the most jam-packed rush-hour trains in the system, will come at the end of 2012, when the new CBTC signaling system is slated to be completed.

Like most transit improvements here, the implementation will be slow and will come with some service disruptions. But the short-term pains will be well worth this major upgrade to NYCT’s antiquated signal technology. Whereas the century-old system now in use relies on block signals with colored lights alongside the track to tell operators if they’re too close to the train ahead, CBTC uses radio signals to locate all of the trains on the line. With this information, on-board computers can calculate the distance between trains precisely and in real time, letting operators run trains closer together without compromising safety.

With more trains per hour, wait times will diminish and trains should be less crowded — allowing for increased ridership as the experience of riding the subway becomes more convenient and pleasant. Adding just one train per hour adds space to move another 2,640 people. That translates to fewer times waiting while a packed train goes by, and fewer elbows in your ear when you board.

Unlike service changes that can be put in place virtually overnight, CBTC requires years of investment via the MTA’s capital program. The new signaling system on the L is the product of substantial investment starting in the mid-1990s and continuing today. Along with investments in new subway cars and buses, station repairs and upgrades (including elevators), and track replacements, CBTC is one of the “workhorse” projects that together require far more MTA capital expenditures than megaprojects such as East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway. And rightly so — CBTC is destined to improve the speed and comfort of rides all over the city.

The L train improvements, in fact, don’t fully convey what CBTC can accomplish. The line doesn’t have the “tail tracks” (extra space for turning trains around) at Eighth Avenue that would be needed to allow double-digit percent increases in train throughput.

The next two CBTC installations do have room, and these shouldn’t be made to wait any longer for the extra capacity CBTC will allow. Riders on the 7 train desperately need the added service, especially now that the Flushing Main Street station is the city’s tenth busiest with 18.6 million rides last year. The current five-year capital program includes funds to fully equip 7 train tracks and cars for CBTC. The MTA has also targeted the Queens Boulevard lines (E, F, M, and R trains) for CBTC installation — a process starting in 2013 and intended for completion during the next capital program, which is supposed to begin in 2015. Some stations on this line are among the system’s most crowded, with over 6 million rides per year. Jamaica Center teems with over 11 million. The MTA can complete these improvements, provided it gets financial support from the governor and the legislature and escapes the budget raids that Albany has imposed with alarming regularity lately.

Although the seeds for implementing CBTC and improved service on the L train were planted almost two decades ago, the project wouldn’t be coming to fruition without the watchdog efforts of legislators like Sen. Daniel Squadron, who has made transit provision a priority and called on the MTA in July to address weekend overcrowding on the L train. The MTA’s thoughtful response to Sen. Squadron, which highlights CBTC, could mean that the authority is turning a corner in responding to riders’ needs. Perhaps the impact of this project will help other elected officials and the public at large to grasp their interest in supporting the capital program with a sustainable funding stream — one that lets innovations like CBTC take the pressure off jammed subway lines.

  • David

    Doesn’t this all assume that the MTA has the budget to run more trains? Last I saw they were doing the opposite

  • Daphna

    In concur with what David wrote.  The MTA cut back and is running fewer trains per hour on the 1 line and the 6 line.  They have the capacity to run more but are not using it because of budget cuts.  Now if the MTA develops even more capacity for frequent trains through this technology, they still will need a sufficient operational budget that allows for that higher number of trains per hour.

  • Danny G

    Doesn’t the L train run with one person in the middle, not two (one in the front, one in the middle?) Perhaps they’re hoping to save there.

  • Stephen Bauman

    The service level capacity of a subway line, as measured in trains per hour (tph) or headway (seconds), is governed by the rolling stock emergency braking rate, normal braking and acceleration rates, train length and terminal configuration. None of these parameters is related to the signal system – CBTC or conventional block. The nominal service level capacity for intermediate stations is 40 tph or one train every 90 seconds.

    The 14th Street Line’s capacity is limited by the architecture of the 8th Avenue Station. That capacity, stated by the Transit Authority in their First Annual Report, is 32 tph. This report also stated that the Transit Authority operated 24 tph during peak periods in June 1954 on what is now the L train. The Transit Authority’s predecessor, the Board of Transportation, stated that 24 tph was operated during the peak morning period in August 1949.

    The current peak service level on the L train is 17 tph, according the the 2009 Hub Bound Report. The Hub Bound Report also shows that peak hour L trains afford 4.92 square feet per passenger as opposed to a rush hour average of 6.41 square feet. Clearly, more rush hour trains are justified.

    Unfortunately, the Transit Authority did not purchase enough CBTC onboard equipment to permit more than 17 tph peak operation. CBTC’s design weakness is that service levels revert to an auxiliary block system, when a single train without CBTC equipment in on the tracks. That auxiliary wayside system was designed to permit maintenance trains on the tracks during midnight hours. Adding non-CBTC equipped trains would reduce service levels to 20 minute headways or 3 tph.

    Had the Transit Authority decided not to install CBTC they could have added peak period L trains. They would also have saved over $200 million and countless implementation delays for L train riders.

  • MFS

    I am all for investment in the system and willing to bear some inconveniences as a result, but this project has been lasting for something like over 8 years and causing all-line all-weekend shutdowns often during that period.  On top of that, the train arrival clocks don’t even work when you need them most to make a threshold transit decision– late at night or when the train is single-tracking.  This is an extremely frustrating project that makes me think a new approach is needed.  Shouldn’t this kind of project be done in a couple years rather than eight?

  • Andrew

    One point that’s often missed: CBTC isn’t being installed for the purpose of increasing capacity.  CBTC is being installed because the old signal system is no longer in a state of good repair.  The alternative to installing CBTC is installing a new wayside signal system, which comes with its own costs.

    At least in the short term, one difficulty with CBTC is that it requires special equipment on the cars, and there aren’t enough cars with CBTC to accommodate much of an increase on the L.  As CBTC expands to other lines, the pool of cars with CBTC euqipment will grow.  For instance, once Queens Boulevard gets CBTC, all of the cars assigned to the M will need to be CBTC-equipped, and the L and M will share a large pool of cars.  (The E, F, and R run longer trains than the L and M.)

    I’m not sure where your 2,640 number comes from.  The maximum guideline load of an R143 or R160 is 145, so an 8-car train can carry 1,160, less than half your number.

    MTA policy calls for service to be added once loading at the most crowded point on the line exceeds the guideline, as long as the track capacity and cars are available.  (This is nothing new – it’s been the policy since the 80’s.)  The L is definitely overcrowded, and the track capacity will soon be there, but there still aren’t many cars available.  Hopefully that will change soon.

    While all of the Queens lines carry admirable loads, only the E is overcrowded.  Unless ridership grows, the F, M, and R won’t be getting any more rush hour service.  And the E, F, M, and R won’t be using CBTC outside of Queens, so they will still be subject to the old capacity constraints elsewhere.

    By the way, station registrations are not a particularly useful way to gauge crowding, since several moderately busy stations can crowd trains more than a single very busy station.

    @88b32fb69e499718d95067da9d3d7b03:disqus No, service was reduced on the 1 and 6 during the summer, because ridership goes down during the summer.  There’s no need to run as frequent service in the summer as the rest of the year.

    @36056f95783f8cfb512e9d49d4187ce6:disqus Every train in the system has a train operator at the front.  Most trains, including on the L, also have a conductor in the middle.  OPTO (One Person Train Operation) eliminates the conductor and keeps the train operator.

    @ce04061b594359a15da01156e28a7a61:disqus The L was the testbed, and testbeds get hit with unanticipated problems.  And the L is particularly hard hit because it only has two tracks.  But even when everything goes perfectly, these projects take years, unless you’re willing to shut down the line for an extended period of time, 24/7.

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