Outmoded Technology Hobbles NYC Subway

Whether you’re riding a bus, a car, plane or train, traveling can be pleasant or the contrary, a boon or a burden. While the New York City subway has improved tremendously in the last 30 years, it still lags behind those of its sister metropolises in speed, efficiency, reliability and comfort.

In a new report, Regional Plan Association delves into why the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should accelerate the implementation of a modernization program for the subway called Communication-Based Train Control, or CBTC, which would dramatically improve system performance. Using radio signals, fiber optic lines and advanced computer software, CBTC allows a central operator to know more precisely where trains are on the tracks and thus run them more closely together. Overall, CBTC will lower maintenance costs, improve efficiency, and at time when hurricanes and rising sea levels threaten more frequent flooding, provide more resiliency, because CBTC equipment is either waterproof or relatively easily removed.

RPA estimates that it would cost about $20 billion to fully implement CBTC on the subway. It's a very significant investment, and the expense is the main reason the technology isn't being implemented more rapidly. At the current pace, the MTA would take more than 50 years to complete the changeover. RPA proposes accelerating the process, as well as prioritizing major lines so that New Yorkers and others can receive the benefits of CBTC sooner.

Modernizing our subway technology isn’t just about shaving a minute or two from of the average commute. The reliability and resiliency of the transit network is one of the most crucial drivers of the region’s success and prosperity. Indeed, New York’s economy rebounded from its death throes in the 1980s only when the subway was once again seen as a safe and dependable way to get around. Today, people move here and set up businesses because of our vast subway system, not in spite of it.

A thriving region that attracts new residents and generates new jobs is one that can extend economic opportunity to more people. That’s why much of RPA’s work on the Fourth Regional Plan involves assessing which infrastructure improvements will connect more people to jobs and schools, offer backup when one part of the system is put out of service during repairs or storms, and make more parts of the city and region attractive places to live as our population grows. 

Presently, New York City transit uses a technology whose origins are more than 100 years old called fixed-block signals, which relays information about where trains are more primitively. Using electrical currents, trains are run in 1,000-foot sections, on average, and no two trains are allowed in any one block. Because it is less precise, trains have to run further apart, as well as run more slowly and be delayed more often, to prevent collisions. CBTC technology allow trains to run faster and closer together, effectively expanding the capacity of the system at a time when ridership is growing every year and crowds on platforms and in trains are common.

Implementing CBTC will require thinking beyond the technology. New York City Transit has a workforce of more than 35,000 employees, and the experience of New York’s peer cities such as Paris and London show these workers need to be made a partner in the process for it to work. With the help of the Transport Workers Union, the MTA could move to driverless trains, which are both safer and more efficient, while moving employees into other roles.

The MTA has installed CBTC technology over the last 15 years relatively completely only on the L line. It is also gradually installing it on the #7 line, including the new extension to West Midtown in Manhattan. If the program were accelerated, CBTC could be installed much sooner on the overcrowded Queens Boulevard (E,F,M, R) lines, the Lexington (4,5, 6) Avenue lines and the Broadway (1,2,3) lines, all of which RPA has rated as a high priority under an analysis that assesses lines according to use, age and capacity for growth. 

If CBTC technology were implemented more fully and more quickly, it would also make it easier to modernize the subway in complementary ways that are now commonplace in many world cities. These include platform screen doors, which separate passengers on the platform from the open tracks, reducing the risk of fatalities and making for a more comfortable and energy-efficient environment.

Communication-Based Train Control is a technology whose time has come. The question is not whether to implement it, but whether it should be later, or sooner. 
--Alex Marshall

Watch a video explaning how CBTC works.

Read the executive summary and the full report.

Read the news release.