Are the Subways Getting Worse? Depends on How You Measure It

Yesterday the Straphangers Campaign released a report that shows the number of subway incidents that result in a significant delay in 2013 rose 35 percent from 2011. “The increase in alerts is a troubling sign that subway service is deteriorating,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

Photo: Daniel Schwen/Wikimedia

The MTA responded that despite the report’s findings, the reliability of service has remained steady over recent years. “Since 2011, the amount of time customers have had to wait for a train throughout the system has remained flat,” the authority said in a statement.

Why the discrepancy, and who is right? They both are, but they each used a different metric to reach their conclusions.

The Straphangers report used a novel metric to come to its conclusions: It tracked the number of alerts the MTA sent out via text message and email warning customers of delays.

According to the MTA, “Email alerts are issued for any incidents reported… that will result in a significant service impact expected to last 8 to 10 minutes or more.”

The Straphangers Campaign documented each actual incident of delay over eight minutes that was caused by events such as signal or mechanical problems. The report distinguished between “uncontrollable” delays, those involving a sick passenger or police activity, and “controllable” delays.

The MTA, on the other hand, uses “wait assessments” to track the level of service. Wait assessments measure headways, or the time between trains, and track whether the next train arrives within a certain time period after the previous train departed — in this case the delay cannot be more than 25 percent longer than the scheduled headway. In other words, a train with an expected headway of eight minutes is considered on time if it arrives within ten minutes.

According to wait assessments, MTA subways have improved on-time performance slightly since 2011.

It is also worth noting that the MTA’s wait assessments are based on a sample. On most subway lines observations are made by humans rather than computers, meaning it is impractical to monitor on-time performance for every train. The numbered lines use data from their signaling systems, which can track when a train passes a certain point.

There are other drawbacks to wait assessment as a metric. It does not account for train “bunching” that affects an entire line, and it also does not reflect the severity of a delay.

The takeaway is that train service overall seems to be holding steady. However, the number of unscheduled delays is increasing, perhaps as a result of deferred repairs and an underfunded capital program.

  • Bolwerk

    That they have to count trains manually to assess their throughput shows how we really are still in the Dark Ages of mass transportation. Useful old knowledge from the Antiquity of public transit has been lost, while new knowledge (best practice from the rest of the world) is regarded as heretical.

  • A Train rider

    In fairness, it’s hard to take that step forward when Albany keeps finding new and creative ways to strip the transit authority’s funding.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t think it’s only a funding issue here. There are a lot of MTA practices which unnecessarily cause delays and/or just make service slower. Removing field shunting on trains systemwide after the Williamsburg Bridge accident, instead of just installing timers in the few locations where signals where spaced too closely, is one example. That severely impacted schedules by reducing the top speeds and acceleration rates of trains. Another example is delaying a train in a station for a sick passenger until police arrive. The MTA could have replaced the now obsolete token clerks at stations with police so a sick passenger could immediately by taken away by police. It makes more sense to pay someone at a station who can actually administer help, rather than someone who can just call for help.

    The hard fact is train schedules used to be quite a bit faster and more reliable than today up until deferred maintenance took its toll in the late 1960s. This was with equipment which was both slower and harder to maintain than today’s trains. Sure, more funding for the subway is absolutely needed, particularly for system expansion in the outer boroughs, but the MTA deserves a fair share of the blame here due to questionable and/or antiquated operating practices.

  • Bolwerk

    Oh, I agree. I didn’t direct that barb at any particular party for a reason. There is blame to go around.

    But I concur with Joe too. We have funding problems, yes, but we also have terrible resource allocation issues. The operating budget should be smaller and the capital budget bigger.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If you only knew how much money and how many years have been spent on ATS-A and ATS-B. They tried to take the leap out of the dark ages, but contractors left them spiraling down into the chasm.

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