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Fixing New York’s Broken Subways

By: Sophia Ahmed

The New York Subway system is one of the most extensive subway systems in the world. With nearly 1.8 billion riders every year, the subway system is an integral part of what makes New York City tick. However, ever since the 1970’s, because of perpetually deferred maintenance, riders have faced a growing number of delays and derailments during their journeys beneath the city. As pressure to fix these issues rises, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) seemingly causes more problems than it fixes when it closes lines for repairs. The inconveniences of the repairs are often blamed on the increased ridership of the subway system and its unique 24/7 service. However, these issues, primarily signaling issues, stem from the subway’s technological faults. By investing in smarter repair strategies, better signaling systems, newer train carts, and an updated payment system, the MTA can return the New York Subway system to its glory. Furthermore,the MTA does not need to come up with novel ways to best act on investments; it can build on ideas from subways systems around the world.

The aged signaling system in New York’s subways epitomizes the MTA’s failure to modernize the system. The signaling system is the backbone of the subway system: it tells operators the location of every one of the 6,418 subway trains so they know when and where to move. Much of the system, however, was built before World War 2 and relies on outdated electromechanical switches that flip every time a train passes over them. Because these switches are largely mechanical, there is a delay in the time that it takes a signal to reach an operator, making location information inaccurate and causing trains to have a larger, unnecessary gap between each other. Additionally, because the switch-signal infrastructure is so old, the switches are deteriorating, and when they break, the trains will stop, regardless of other train positions. The signal system’s combination of delayed information and the deterioration of infrastructure causes 13% of all subway delays. Moreover, the aged signaling system gives riders inaccurate information about when to expect their train, increasing the inconvenience of the already difficult subway system.

The MTA can learn from London Tube operators on modernizing its signaling system. With London’s new signals, more trains can operate per line (on some lines, the number of trains has increased by 10) and each station has a train pulling in  every one to two minutes. Altogether, these changes decrease the burden of increased ridership and leads to a more efficient system. But the overhaul of the signaling system was not an easy feat for London officials: closures and 7 billion dollars were poured into the renovations. When speaking to the New York Times, Mark Wild, the managing director of the Tube, said that updating the first lines was a learning process, yet  as officials and workers learned more about the updates, modernization became easier. After just three years, the Tube had completely revamped its signal system, compared to the MTA’s estimation of New York’s signal system update being completed in 2045. The London signaling system is now computerized with electronic transponders instead of switches, meaning that train-location information is no longer delayed. The system is also centralized, allowing for easier identification of issues, especially if a problem involves more than one train line. By seeing how signaling has improved the Tube, as well as the difficulties that London officials encountered, the MTA can devise a strategy that would maximize installation productivity. No matter the strategy, one thing is clear: improving signaling systems is crucial for increasing the efficiency of New York’s subway.  

Modernizing the signal system also would require upgrading  train cars, which are also a key contributor to the subway’s inefficiencies. Train cars can be improved primarily in two ways: automation and space maximization. Current New York subway trains are each operated by a two-person team. By cutting down this number to one or even zero, the MTA can save millions of dollars in wages per year. Automation will also allow trains to have shorter stopping times at stations, thus decreasing ride and wait times. Automating subway cars is not limited to the driver either. In Beijing’s subway system, the train doors open automatically in case of a fire, which can speed up evacuation times. Additionally, these  cars also have sensors on their doors that alert station attendants when too many people are trying to board the train as the doors are closing. Preventing people from wasting time trying to pack onto crowded trains further reduces travel time.

Besides modernizing the rails through both the signaling systems and the cars, the MTA has yet another option to increase travel efficiency: improving the fare-collection stations. Current stations often require riders to swipe in multiple times and entry is limited to those with a MetroCard. On the other hand, stations in London and Beijing allow riders to tap their debit cards, credit cards,  Metrocards, and even smartphones to pay the riding fare. This will shorten both lines to get Metrocards and to the platform, allowing for a more efficient commuting experience. Additionally, if MTA could integrate live data-collecting systems into updated turnstiles, riders would get updated data on how crowded stations are and make better-informed travel decisions. Live data could also allow the MTA to integrate demand-based fares into its system where fares at busy times would rise slightly, thus giving many riders an incentive to ride at a slightly less busy time. This could also help MTA collect additional revenue.

Clearly, the core issues of overcrowding and delays in the New York Subway system can be solved with the appropriate application of technology. Cities around the world have been improving their subway systems and the MTA can use these cities as a blueprints for its plans. Although high costs remain an obstacle in implementing these improvements, passing the plans through political hoops can be much easier with the presentation of success stories from other countries. Most importantly, technological upgrades improve the subway riding experience to make New York a more connected, prosperous city.

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