Step One Toward Fixing the Subway: Be Honest

Governor Cuomo won't get far if the MTA isn't candid about the subway's problems and what it will take to fix them.

Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

The New York City subway is not in good shape. High-profile breakdowns and a tangible increase in severe delays have brought widespread attention to years of decline in service levels. Train breakdowns are on the rise, and service is slowing down. After a long period of growth, subway ridership recently stalled and appears to be declining in 2017 despite the opening of the Second Avenue Subway.

The MTA has for the most part been running on autopilot. Senior management tries to avoid taking responsibility, and planners are afraid of doing or saying anything that would invite scrutiny from the media or their superiors.

This paralysis is accompanied and enabled by a lack of candor about what is going on. Some of the subway slowdowns involve slow orders on the tracks for maintenance, while others involve poor train maintenance. The MTA blames most delays on overcrowding, a claim that was uncritically parroted in the New York Times. But while crowding may be a problem, it has become a fallback excuse, cited whenever the MTA cannot identify another reason for a delay.

There are steps the agency could take to improve service relatively soon, but to make them happen, Governor Andrew Cuomo and his MTA CEO, Joe Lhota, will have to step in and put their authority at the MTA to good use. So far, however, they have done no such thing.

Cuomo wants to be perceived as taking action, so he recently declared a state of emergency, which according to one inside source at the agency has gotten MTA managers scrambling, but without any real purpose. That was preceded by his announcement of “genius” grants, judged by tech people who are mostly not in the transit field.

Lhota, for his part, was just appointed to the CEO position and has to catch up with the changes in New York’s transit situation since he left his first stint as MTA chief in 2013 to run for mayor. He’ll be getting up to speed while retaining his full-time job as an executive at NYU Langone.

What would it look like if Cuomo stopped making empty gestures and started exercising real leadership at the MTA? Here are three steps that, in the medium run, could make a difference for subway service.

First, Cuomo and Lhota should bring in outside experts for real, substantive transfers of knowledge, not the superficial stagecraft of last week’s event with the CEO of RATP, which runs the Paris Metro. Instead of one-time meetings and photo-ops, Cuomo and Lhota should hire people with experience running trains in large, complex subway systems, such as Tokyo or London, and give them space to study New York City Transit’s operations and make specific recommendations. This is likely to involve multiple people working together for a period of months before they can offer concrete suggestions for more efficient operations.

Second, they should declare speed a priority. The MTA has been too hasty to sacrifice service quality for dubious safety rationales. After two fatal crashes in the 1990s, the MTA installed signal timers to reduce train speed. But one crash had nothing to do with speed, and the other involved a train exceeding the speed limit. The MTA also has large and growing safety margins near work zones — stretches of track with slower speed limits. Some safety margins are necessary, but the MTA has gone too far, to the detriment of good service.

Third, instead of his flashy, tech-focused “genius” grants, Cuomo should have the MTA reevaluate routing and scheduling. The solution to a problem may involve a software fix, but it may just as well involve a change in where and when trains run. One option is pruning branches. New York is unique in how complex its subway branching is, and it should look into disentangling lines, even at the cost of removing some one-seat rides. Alternatively, the MTA could change the frequency guidelines to ensure trains that share tracks have the same frequency, even if one route ends up more crowded than the others, to maintain even headways. Having one line that comes every five minutes and another that comes every six minutes share tracks is a recipe for baking “ladies and gentlemen, we are being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us” into the timetable.

The thread tying these three solutions is honesty — honesty about the state of the system, about tradeoffs, and about the scale of effort required.

There is no silver bullet. But neither is the solution some grand undertaking requiring billions of dollars and a monument named after Cuomo. Everything on the above list should take months, not years.

Real tradeoffs will be necessary. It’s possible, for instance, that improving maintenance will require more extensive nighttime shutdowns than under today’s Fastrack initiative, which itself was controversial when it began in 2013. Lhota has indicated openness to this idea.

The changes may also lead to some pushback from the unions. Before he can make millions of New Yorkers less angry about the subway, Cuomo will probably have to make some people angrier. He’ll have to finally invest political capital in improving transit in New York.

Cuomo and Lhota have a choice: They can promise sexy quick fixes and cross their fingers that things will somehow work out (they won’t), or they can be honest with transit riders and get started on useful medium- and long-term solutions.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Being honest also requires being honest about the burden of the past. Yes Cuomo continues to harp on it to try to get people to believe things aren’t his fault, but how many riders are reading the articles? It has to be in their face.

    At the expense of being a broken record, fares (and tolls and taxes) should be cut to the level that is going exclusively to existing service and existing workers. All the additional money going to debts, the unfunded portion of retirement benefits, and catch up from deferred maintenance should be funded by a separate “Generation Greed surcharge” everyone can see. As in you put $50 in the Metrocard machine, and you get a $30 Metrocard and a receipt for a $20 Generation Greed surcharge.

    This isn’t just an MTA suggestion. Mayors and Governors all around the country are coming to be despised as they are forced to impose massive service cuts and tax increases to make up for what was done in the past. Christie in New Jersey. Malloy in Connecticut. Rauer in Illinois. Emmanuel in Chicago. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    In some cases this is well deserved, as they did little to improve upon the situation they inherited. But every politician is going to face the same thing for decades, including DeBlasio when the latest stock market bubble no longer allows they to hide and defer the damage. The result will be the widespread discrediting of public services in general.

    Politicians and unions won’t want to fess up to what their kind have done to people’s future. But for the unions, the alternative is for blame to attach itself to more recently hired workers who had nothing to do with it. Fessing up is the one and only way to perhaps, maybe, avoid an institutional collapse.

  • Maggie

    At the risk of going on a tangient here (to a cogent, excellent article), what do you mean by “every politician is going to face the same thing … when the latest stock market bubble no longer allows them to hide and defer the damage”?

    Are you saying that a stock market correction will imply lower revenues to service debts? Can you give more detail?

    Or do you mean if a stock market correction compels pension funds to walk down the expected returns on equity portfolios, the present value of unfunded future liabilities gets less affordable?

    Even if metrocards were priced with a 67% surcharge for paying down debt (to 0? I mean, that wouldn’t be politically feasible. The political will and corporate finance would permit some nonzero level of debt). Even if there was a 67% surcharge for retiree benefits, are you suggesting the public would insist on clawing those benefits back from retirees and workers?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Or do you mean if a stock market correction compels pension funds to walk down the expected returns on equity portfolios, the present value of unfunded future liabilities gets less affordable?”

    Actually, if the value of stocks were to fall by half that it might actually be possible to achieve the projected rate of return — from those lower levels. But the lie of average or above average returns from a base of inflated asset prices would be exposed, and pension contributions would then soar even further. Explained here.

    Financial bubbles also temporarily inflate tax revenues for NYC and NY State. Including real estate-related tax revenues for the MTA. Setting off a massive grab among those on the inside, leaving those on the outside with the bill when things return to normal.

  • Alon Levy

    Okay, but the situation today is specifically not deferred maintenance on fixed plants. There’s deferred maintenance on rolling stock, but that’s a different discussion. The problem comes from ongoing mismanagement.

  • “One option is pruning branches. New York is unique in how complex its subway branching is, and it should look into disentangling lines, even at the cost of removing some one-seat rides. Alternatively, the MTA could change the frequency guidelines
    to ensure trains that share tracks have the same frequency, even if one
    route ends up more crowded than the others, to maintain even headways.
    Having one line that comes every five minutes and another that comes
    every six minutes share tracks is a recipe for baking “ladies and
    gentlemen, we are being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us”
    into the timetable.”

    I’ve recently posted a proposal applying both these principles here. Without capital works at Rogers junction and 138th/Grand Concourse, it doesn’t do much more the ‘A’ division, but a pretty good solution is acheivable for the ‘B’ division.

  • Maggie

    Sure, good governance always means smoothing out anticipated cyclicality in revenues.

    Are you saying the city is underfunding the MTA by overpaying teachers? I thought the MTA’s funding uncertainties were more state-driven.

    And apologies for not knowing, what’s a 20/50 pension?

  • qrt145

    I’m not Larry but I believe 20/50 means eligibility after 20 years of service and 50 years of age. See for example

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right, for those who did not follow in, following a transit strike in the 1960s TWU members forced the city to agree to a pension at age 50 after just 20 years of work, far richer than had been promised or funded. Knowledgeable workers all headed for Florida, costs soared, and the subway system collapsed.

    Some years later, newly hired workers were forced to accept a measly one year in retirement for each year worked, half pay retirement at age 55 after 25 years of work. And that was, once again, all that was paid for.

    So in the early 2000s, when the first workers were faced with having to work five more years, the TWU went on strike demanding a retroactive restoration of the 20/50 pension. The “New Directions” wing of the union had taken power promising this, and had to get it or prove it couldn’t be got. But it didn’t work. So was the transit system saved?

    It’s better off than it would have been, but instead of being destroyed by pensions it is being destroyed by debts. And neither the city of the state is putting up real $ because of the cost of other pensions. When NYC teachers, who had been promised retirement at age 62 after 30 years of work (with prior teachers getting 25/55), they actually got a retroactive, unfunded deal for 25/55 again. Causing city pension payments to soar. As a result.

    But don’t rush to be a teacher, because they subsequently screwed new hires again.

  • Larry Littlefield

    When did NYCT forget what it learned over the decades?

    After years of management wage freezes and downsizings, did the managers stop managing. And then despite wage increases did the workers stop working?

    I’m not sure of this.

    As for the grade timers, part of this may be imposed by the FTA.

  • Alon Levy

    I don’t think any of this was imposed by the FTA.

    As for NYCT forgetting what it learned: on the contrary. The lessons it learned from 1970s debacles like the R44 and R46 was “don’t try to innovate.” Hence, positive things like Fix It First and negative ones like indifference to speed.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I was at a meeting in the early 2000s (mid-2001?) when then NYCT President Larry Reuter said that the success of the Metrocard proved the agency could successfully implement a high-tech project.

    And on that basis ATS, CBTC, PA-CIS, the Rail Control Center, and a new fiber-optic communication system were launched. $billions were spent — with those German and French experts (Siemens and Alstom) getting a lot of the $.

    So what happened, and why? Perhaps they should have different “geniuses” look into it.

  • Alon Levy

    CBTC was specifically a reaction to the accidents in the 1990s. It’s also legitimately an investment in speed and reliability (the L has the least delays even though it’s in a near-tie for most overcrowded line). Train drivers go slower than they can because they don’t fully trust the signals, and CBTC lets them go as fast as they are allowed.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The problem is the price went to the moon, and the schedule was set way back. The assumption was that after the first few projects they could go to CBTC very quickly and much cheaper.

    Meanwhile, the auto industry seems to be rapidly moving toward driverless cars?

    So what happened?

  • sbauman

    As for the grade timers,

    The grade timers are necessary because the MTA’s emergency brakes don’t work very well. If they worked as per spec, 3.2 mph/sec, they would not be needed. If the dynamic brakes were applied in an emergency, they would not be needed. There would have been no derailment at Union Sq nor a collisions on the Williamsburg Bridge or at Roosevelt Ave.

    The MTA went from absolute system that would provide safety, despite what the operator did, to one that would provide safety, only if the operator followed the rules. This allowed them to cut corners in rolling stock design.

  • Joe R.

    The part about reducing speed is even worse than this article makes it out to be. Not only were timers installed in many places where they weren’t necessary, such as long stretches of straight track, but the trains themselves were neutered. The DC equipment had field shunting removed and the AC equipment had its traction computers reprogrammed to approximate the performance of the neutered DC equipment. This reduced balancing speed from about 55 to 57 mph down to 42 to 44 mph. It also severely retarded acceleration rates above speeds of about 18 mph. This means even in the absence of timers or other speed restrictions trains will run slower. Locals take about 10 seconds longer per stop. Expresses can have even worse delays in terms of percentage. With the reduced performance, there is also little chance delayed trains can recover schedules.

    The first thing the MTA should do is to return the trains to their unfettered state. If there are places where signal spacing might cause a problem if trains accelerate too fast, then you can post speed restrictions only in these areas. On every other system the train operators are responsible for controlling train speed. I’ve never heard of any other transit agency intentionally detuning equipment because of signal spacing issues.


He's the boss. Photo: Flickr/NYS Governor's Office

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