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MTA considers raising subway speed limit to reduce delays

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Andy Byford is working to get the speed limit safely increased

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There are many reasons why the city’s subway system is constantly plagued with delays, but this week, the Village Voice brought one of the less discussed ones to light, which is summed up by a quote from the piece: “The trains are slower because they slowed the trains down.”

An investigation by the Voice’s Aaron Gordon uncovered a 2014 report that outlined how safety fixes implemented after 1995 train crash on the Williamsburg Bridge have contributed to the agency’s current woes. Following the crash, the agency lowered speed limits from a maximum of 55 m.p.h to its current 40 m.p.h limit. But it also implemented a program known as signal modifications, which affects how and when trains are stopped for safety purposes. Per the Voice, “the brakes would be tripped based not only on whether the track ahead was vacant, but also on the train’s speed.”

As a result—and as detailed in the 2014 report—there have been thousands of delays due to signal modifications, which some argue are overly cautious. “It feels like the MTA doesn’t care about speed anymore,” a veteran train operator told the Voice. “They always act like speed is unsafe, but you can run trains quickly without sacrificing safety if you have competent management.”

(There’s also the issue of blame—the MTA has repeatedly said overcrowding is one of the biggest factors in subway delays, but this investigation shows that’s not necessarily the case.)

Andy Byford, the new New York City Transit president, acknowledges that the signal modifications “undoubtedly had an impact.” He told the Voice, “We are studying the impact and what was done to see if adjustments can be made while still maintaining the safety benefit.”

That team (including engineers and planners) will study the current rules that have caused slower service.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the source of the information regarding subway speed limits; it has been amended. Curbed regrets the error.