Skip to Content
Streetsblog New York City home
Streetsblog New York City home
Log In
MTA

To Improve Subway Service, Get Rid of the Unnecessary Signals Slowing Trains Down

Headways ain’t what they used to be.

Last week, Uday Schultz, a junior at St. Ann's School, took the top prize at TransitCenter's annual TransitSlam with a presentation about the MTA's excessive use of signals that cap subway speeds, which he produced with his classmate, Ivan Specht. We're pleased to present a blog-ified version of their show below.

For the first time in a generation, New Yorkers are giving up on the subway as severe delays mount and reliability plummets. The trains have simply ceased to be a predictable way to get around the city.

If we are to stop this mayhem, a massive rethink of how our transit system is operated, funded, and managed is needed. But there are also basic steps we can take in the short run to improve service. One of these steps is the rationalization of subway timers.

These signals, which limit train speeds, have been installed unnecessarily, lengthening trip times and hampering subway reliability.

To understand how these devices came to be such a problem, let's start back in the 1990s. Two fatal train crashes that decade resulted from subways traveling at excessive speeds. In response, the National Transportation Safety Board urged the MTA to address the issue "by converting more automatic signals to grade time signals."

Instead of simply regulating the distance between trains, grade time signals place strict speed limits on trains. The idea was to prevent crashes by adding these signals in areas where excessive speed could be deadly -- near sharp curves, on steep hills, and at busy junctions.

A timer signal on the Williamsburg Bridge.
A timer signal on the Williamsburg Bridge.
A timer signal on the Williamsburg Bridge.

Initially, that's what the MTA did, and there was a logic to the placement of the new, speed-limiting signals. However, the agency did not stop there. The MTA kept adding timers, even to safe areas of track.

The effects are twofold. Most directly, these speed restrictions have lengthened subway trips. Take the 5 train, which serves the busiest subway corridor in the nation. In 2005, a trip from 180th Street to 149th Street took nine minutes. Today, it takes 11 minutes. Similarly, going from Grand Central to Brooklyn Bridge in 2005 took 10 minutes; today it takes 12.

It may not sound like much, but these small increases in travel time compound across the whole subway system, adding up to countless hours lost for riders.

More relevant to the current crisis, timer signals have made the system significantly less reliable. Before their proliferation, a late train could make up time by going just a bit faster. Today, all trains -- late or not -- have to constantly slow for these speed checkpoints. Trains that fall behind schedule stay behind, preserving service gaps, adding to crowding, and making commutes miserable.

In a city obsessed with time and speed, this unnecessary slowdown is unacceptable. To get subway service back to where it needs to be, something must be done about it.

If timers are needed to safeguard against a clear and present danger, whether that be a curve, switch, or hill -- keep them. If not, remove them.

Removing unneeded timers will not solve every problem with the subway system. No one policy fix can do that. But it's a clear opportunity to make the system perform significantly better. We would be foolish not to take it.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog New York City

SEE IT: How Much (Or How Little) Driving is Going on in America’s Top Metros

Check it out: The lowest-mileage region isn't the one you'd think.

April 21, 2024

Justice Dept., Citing Streetsblog Reporting, Threatens to Sue NYPD Over Cops’ Sidewalk Parking

The city is now facing a major civil rights suit from the Biden Administration if it doesn't eliminate illegal parking by cops and other city workers.

April 19, 2024

What to Say When Someone Claims ‘No One Bikes or Walks in Bad Weather’

Yes, sustainable modes are more vulnerable to bad weather. But that's why we should invest more in them — not less.

April 19, 2024

NYC Transit’s New Operations Planning Chief Wants To Fight ‘Ghost Buses’

One-time transit advocate and current MTA Paratransit VP Chris Pangilinan will oversee bus and subway operations for the whole city.

April 19, 2024

Friday’s Headlines: Gimme Bus Shelter Edition

The days of the Landmarks Preservation Commission reviewing every proposed bus shelter in landmarked districts may be no more. Plus more news.

April 19, 2024
See all posts