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NYC subway’s aging signals could be fixed in 10-15 years, says transit head

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Recent estimates peg the time it would take to resignal the system at 40 years

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The guy who was hired to fix the subway has come up with a plan to do just that, but it won’t be painless for the riders of New York.

New York City Transit Authority president Andy Byford sat down with the Wall Street Journal to outline his proposal to update the subway’s failing signal system, the number one cause of delays these days, in just ten to 15 years. To put into context just how ambitious that proposal is, recent estimates peg the time it would take to resignal the system at 40 years.

“This plan will need money, it will need time, it will need political will, and it will need the forbearance of New Yorkers,” Byford told the Journal. “It will not be without inconvenience.”

If the many obstacles towards making Byford’s plan a reality are surpassable, what does that mean for New Yorkers? Mostly, service outages on the weekends. Resignaling the system is “the most disruptive, the most difficult, but ultimately the most transformative thing that we can do,” he told the paper of record. And Byford knows this from experience running the Toronto transit system, where he said the work completed during one weekend closure equaled five weeks of work during the evenings.

Byford is proposing resignaling the system from a block-signaling system to a communications-based train control system. In the block-signaling system, the track is divided into sections and only one train is allowed in a section at a time. But under CBTC, trains can run closer together which could mean another five or six trains running on a track per hour.

Only one line in the city, the L, currently uses CBTC. The city is also nearly finished installing a CBTC system, which involves laying cables and transponders, on the 7 line. Installation is expected to wrap up this summer after 7 years—the same length of time it took to install the system on the L line. The city is also in the early phases of bringing the system to the A, C, E, F, G, M, and R trains.

But as with all things related to the subway, one of the largest hurdles in making the resignaling a reality remains the MTA’s finances. Byford expects the project will cost between $8 billion and $15 billion. The Journal notes that, even taking into account budgeted fare increases, the MTA projects a $400 million deficit by 2020.

To date, Byford’s plan is theoretical. He hopes to release a version of it in May, as he noted in today’s #AskNYCT Twitter chat.