Is the MTA Doing Enough to Keep Its Subway Cars in Working Order?

A dangerously crowded 7 train platform earlier this month. Photo: Luke Ohlson
A dangerously crowded 7 train platform earlier this month. Photo: Luke Ohlson

If you’ve been on the subway recently (say, this morning), you probably get the feeling that service is on the decline.

The MTA released performance metrics today that support that conclusion, but the underlying causes of increased delays — and how the agency plans to address them — remain unclear [PDF].

One metric trending in the wrong direction is the mean distance between failures, or MDBF, a key benchmark of the subway’s reliability. MDBF measures the frequency of delays attributed to train-related mechanical failures, and the 12-month average dropped 16 percent from November 2015 to November 2016.

Service failures are becoming more common the MTA subway cars, but why? Image: MTA
Train failures are becoming more common on the subway, but is it because of maintenance lapses or a consequence of more benign factors? Image: MTA

Is the MTA scaling back on crucial maintenance, or are we seeing fluctuations that should be expected as different classes of subway cars go through their lifecycles?

Unfortunately, the information provided by the MTA about train failures doesn’t say very much. We can see how long different classes of train cars go between failures, but not the reasons for those failures — or what the agency is doing to address them.

“The MDBF decline is unsurprising — the car breakdown rate systemwide has been on a steady decline for years,” Jaqi Cohen of the Straphangers’ Campaign told Streetsblog. “But ultimately we need more information from [the MTA] to be able to definitively understand why these failures are happening.”

When riders abandoned the subway a generation ago, train breakdowns were much more frequent. The specter of even a partial return to the bad old days of subway maintenance is very alarming.

But there’s a lot of uncertainty and room for interpretation in the information that’s publicly available from the MTA. While the system’s oldest cars are declining rapidly, the impact on service reliability could actually be very small, since those cars are a tiny share of the total fleet.

When cars are new, failures are rare, then there’s a period where they come much more frequently before leveling out, which may explain why the 10-year-old R160 cars saw the third-largest change of any car type in the system.

The MTA attributes 2.8 percent of November’s subway delays to car equipment failures, but the magnitude of those delays is itself uncertain.

The big concern, as stats show train failures becoming more frequent, is whether the agency is taking appropriate steps to maintain its fleet. In the absence of a more detailed public progress report from the MTA, transit riders are left to assume the worst.

  • NYCyclist

    Apart from subway car failures, I seem to see more “switch” problems, which I assume is unrelated to car problems. Is there any attempt to track switch problems over time?

  • Russell.FL

    Hopefully when they bring the new R179s online, then they’ll finally be able to retire the old R32s and R42s, the former of which are over 50 years old!

  • Andrew

    At least some R32’s are being retained to help cover the extra service on alternative lines during the Canarsie Tube shutdown. (I don’t know about the R42’s.)

  • Joe R.

    I would be very curious as to the nature of the failures. Are the newer trains being taken out of service now for things like a bad PA system or malfunctioning destination signs, vandalism, or are parts of their running gear starting to break down? The former two don’t concern me much. In fact, it would be a good sign that the MTA is trying to keep their new trains 100% functional and free of signs of vandalism. The latter would obviously concern me as the AC motor drive train is supposed to be somewhat more reliable than DC.

    Back in the bad old days being referenced in this article trains were only taken out of service if they couldn’t physically complete their runs. Plenty of trains were in service with half the doors malfunctioning. Malfunctioning lights were so common I often used to ride in “dark” cars just because they were more relaxing in the early mornings while you were still waking up. Obviously they were also crime havens, but only when the trains were empty.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Actually, the question is whether or not the TWU will take credit. Offering declining service as proof to its members that they are getting better off at the expense of the serfs getting worse off, in a place with the highest tax burden and debt load in the country.

  • Joe R.

    That’s good news for us train buffs. 53 years old and still going strong! It would be nice to see a handful make it to their 60th birthday, even if only in intermittent service.

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