Report: Only Eight Percent of Rush-Hour Subway Commutes Had No Delays in 2018


The subways are just as bad as you think — and the aging signal system is to blame, a new report shows.

An analysis released by the Riders Alliance this week found that 92 percent of rush-hour commuting periods in 2018 were marred by signal problems on at least one line that delayed passengers. The current signal system used by most of the subway dates back to the 1930s and often fails, the group said.

“The reality is we can’t fix [delays] without a significant investment in new signals and other modernization,” said Riders Alliance spokesman Danny Pearlstein. “The subway is using technology from the 1930s and until we replace it with a modern system, it’s going to continue to fail, with riders suffering the consequences.”

Most subway lines run on the existing Fixed Block signal system, which does not allow train motormen to know if the train ahead of them has completely pulled out, forcing them to wait before they can fully enter the station. Replacing all those signals with a signal system known as Communications-Based Control is a key part of New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan.

“The plan, if funded, will modernize the signal system and rest of NYC Transit for decades to come,” said MTA spokesman Shams Tarek.

The L and 7 lines already have the computerized communication-based system, which allows motormen to see the exact location and speed of the train ahead of them, allowing the waiting train to move into the station earlier. As a result, the L train has an on-time rate of above 90 percent. The MTA is currently installing the system on the E, F, M and R lines in Queens.

The MTA recently hired Pete Tomlin, a signaling expert who worked with Byford in both London and Toronto.

The Fast Forward Plan remains unfunded, pending decisions in Albany. Riders Alliance backs congestion pricing to generate the billions in revenue needed to update the signal system.

“The bad news is, the subway is deeply in crisis,” Pearlstein said at a press conference. “The good news is there is a plan on the table to fix it, and now we need the funding from Albany.”

Update: An earlier version of this story had a mistaken headline. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The subway is using technology from the 1930s and until we replace it with a modern system, it’s going to continue to fail, with riders suffering the consequences.”

    Unfortunately, stuff they installed when I worked there in the early 2000s fails too. The L train has not been without snafus, not even including those in the tunnel.

  • kevd

    Charles Komanoff already corrected this highly misleading and inaccurate headline.
    So I’ll just quote his correction. This is a rather appalling example of statistical illiteracy.

    “The RA data show that on 92% of workday mornings in 2018, one or more subway commutes experienced delays. That’s a far cry from the amNY hed and your precis (“The Riders Alliance showed just how bad the subway is, with 92 percent morning commutes delayed.”).

  • HamTech87

    And NYCT and MTA buses?

  • Ian

    Yeah. Really bad headline, and you don’t need to stretch the truth like this to show that the subway needs lots of improvement!

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Fixed. Thanks!

  • Gersh Kuntzman

    Fixed. Thanks

  • kevd

    is it though?
    Still easily misunderstood. Commutes (I think) means individual commutes, of which there are 5 point something million per day.
    “Rush hours” would eliminate any confusion – as in “Only 8% of Subway Rush Hours”

  • Joe R.

    Perhaps it’s misleading, but “delay” in this context seems to mean whatever the MTA wants it to mean. You can make things look a lot better than they really are by padding schedules, especially near the end of a run, and considering a train “on-time” if it arrives five minutes or less within schedule. Not to mention with the timers and detuned trains the subways run a lot slower than they could.

    To me a true measure of delay would be how much trains deviate from their minimum possible running time, not their scheduled running time. Minimum running time means trains run at maximum possible performance all the time, except when subject to speed reductions due to curvature. Dwell times of course are variable, but can reflect an average, depending upon when the train is running (peak periods obviously require longer dwell times which schedules should reflect). This is typically how the Japanese make train schedules. There is no grace period for deviating from the schedule. If a train comes in 1 second after its scheduled time, it’s late. Anyway, going by this metric, probably 100% of trains are late because timers and detuning make running a minimum running time schedule impossible. The only exceptions might be on the #7 and L, which allow maximum performance running under CBTC.

  • kevd

    not “perhaps”.
    It absolutely is. You’re interested in a different metric involving degree of delay.
    I’m saying the metric quoted by the study is misrepresented in the headline (it still is).

  • Joe R.

    Of course it is. My reason for suggesting use of a different metric isn’t to excuse the misleading headline, but rather to draw attention to the fact the NYC subways are unacceptably slow even when there are no mishaps.

    That said, when I went to Rockefeller Center on January 4, I was pleasantly surprised. The F train took only 12 minutes to go from Forest Hills to Queensbridge, and only 8 more to reach 47-50th Street. It looks like they got rid of most of the slower zones in Queens. I took the #7 back, and confirmed the trains were indeed running at full performance under CBTC. I got a few charts from my Garmin which might interest you:

    I missed the last express but at least the locals are finally running the way they should. They’re reaching up to 40+ mph between stops, despite the short stop spacing, and taking ~80 seconds per stop (compared to about 90 with the detuned R62s). 0 to 40 mph acceleration takes about 25 seconds. Before it took longer to reach 30 mph. Even the expresses used to barely crack 40 mph, if that.

    I can’t wait for CBTC to hit the Queens Boulevard line.


Straphangers: Ancient Train Signals a Prime Culprit of Subway Delays

Has your subway been delayed recently? Blame New York City’s aging transit infrastructure, especially its outdated signal system. Then start fighting to make sure Albany fully funds the MTA’s next capital plan. A new report from the Straphangers Campaign shows just how prevalent signals failures are on the subway system. In 2011, the MTA sent […]