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NYC’s new transit chief has a plan to fix the subway—can it succeed?

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Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan is ambitious, and will need support from the city and state before it moves forward

Max Touhey |

New York City Transit’s new head, Andy Byford, recently proposed an extensive investment plan for the ailing subway system. Dubbed Fast Forward, Byford’s plan calls for spending billions of dollars not on new subway lines, but on investments that would, in theory, improve capacity and accessibility. New signal systems would substantially increase train throughput, and a large number of subway stations would be equipped with elevators for step-free access.

The projected cost of the plan is $19 billion, including items that are already in the works, such as new trains. And the main question is whether the political system will support it—specifically, whether Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature will fund it. Cuomo was initially uncertain about Fast Forward, but in the past week expressed support for it, saying the question was only how to pay for it. His proposed funding method—congestion pricing—faces political headwinds, especially in an election year, when politicians are most likely to be reticent to back such a visible tax on drivers.

An MTA planner also told Curbed that many planners are nervous because Byford is promising investments in the hope that the state will fund them.

But what is Byford even proposing, exactly? The MTA’s presentation does not go into technical details. However, it does highlight the key elements, including two that Byford is prioritizing above and beyond existing plans: signaling, and accessibility.

New signals

Unlike cars, trains don’t operate by sight. It takes longer for trains to stop than drivers can see ahead, and as a result, electric signaling is necessary to tell drivers whether they can go, slow down, or stop. The signaling system uses electric circuits to detect where each train is and tell drivers whether they are a safe distance behind the train ahead.

But there are several uncertainties in this calculation, and to prevent collisions, the signal system interprets each uncertainty as conservatively as possible. For one, the signal system only knows the location of the train to within something called a block: a short segment of track a few hundred feet in length, equal to the stopping distance of a train.

The signal system requires each pair of trains to be separated by a full block; this means that the train you are on is not permitted to occupy any part of the block behind that of the train ahead of it, even if the train ahead is at the front end of its block and your train is just about to enter. This concept is called fixed-block signaling.

Regional Plan Association, Moving Forward, 2014

A number of high-capacity urban rail networks have transitioned to a system called moving-block signaling, or communication-based train control (CBTC). CBTC uses computer control to communicate each train’s exact location, which allows trains to be separated by the exact safe stopping distance. With greater computer control, there is also less uncertainty in trains’ acceleration and deceleration performance, which removes another fudge factor.

CBTC’s greater precision means that trains can run much closer together than under fixed-block signaling. One line in New York City already has CBTC: the L, chosen to be first since it doesn’t share track with other lines, which would complicate installation. The L has unique capacity limits independent of the signaling system, and before CBTC could only run 15 trains per hour at its peak. Since CBTC was installed, maximum capacity has risen to 19 or 20 trains per hour, and MTA endurance tests showed 26 trains per hour was achievable according to a Federal Transit Administration report. The current limit of 20 trains per hour comes from electric substations and the number of trains available, and an under-construction electric upgrade increasing the maximum to 22 trains per hour is expected to open in 2020.

On less constrained lines than the L, CBTC’s effect is just as transformative. In London, where Byford worked for 20 years before moving to Toronto and now New York, the Underground has installed CBTC on a number of overcrowded lines. The Victoria line used to run 27 trains per hour at the peak and now runs 36. The Jubilee line used to run 24 trains per hour, currently runs 30, and will soon run 36. On several other lines, Transport for London expects 33% increase in capacity.

The MTA has been in the process of installing CBTC on the 7 (which, like the L, doesn’t share tracks with other trains) since 2012. But the project has been subject to numerous delays: It was originally planned to open in December 2016, but the current estimated time of completion is later this year. The cost of equipping the 7 with CBTC has been high—$550 million for 10.5 miles. In London, meanwhile, the Northern line’s CBTC installation has cost £330 million (about $460 million) for 36 miles. Paris is fully automating Metro Line 4 for about $20 million per mile; Curbed has not been able to find projections for the capacity increase, but Paris’s two automated lines, Lines 1 and 14, run 34 and 42 trains per hour respectively at the peak.

Despite the high costs, Byford is proposing to move forward with CBTC on a large fraction of the system, equipping all the most crowded lines with this system within ten years:

The MTA has not released any estimate of the maximum capacity CBTC would lead to. Today, the most crowded lines except the uniquely-constrained L run about 24 trains per hour at the peak. An increase to the levels seen in London and Paris is unlikely: after ten years of Fast Forward, every single line in the system except the 7, L, and E would still spend at least some time on tracks still using fixed blocks, and the E train would share tracks in Manhattan with the C, coming in from fixed-block territory in Uptown Manhattan.

However, the positive example of the growth in L train capacity suggests that a serious increase in throughput is likely. In theory, the maximum capacity of the current signal system is 30 trains per hour, or a train every two minutes, and if CBTC can help the lines reach this theoretical service level in practice, then this plan would produce equivalent capacity to an entirely new subway line extending both uptown and to Brooklyn.

Max Touhey

Improving accessibility

The subway opened in 1904, and most of the system was built from the 1910s to the 1930s. Generations before the Americans with Disabilities Act, planners and engineers did not consider the needs of wheelchair users, and built most subway stations with access exclusively by stairway. The few stations that had elevators from the start, such as 168th Street on the 1, deep beneath Washington Heights, would still require passengers to climb down a flight of stairs at the end.

Today, the ADA requires new infrastructure to be accessible to people with a variety of disabilities, including passengers who are blind or deaf or who have mobility restrictions. The required accommodations vary widely. To assist blind or visually-impaired passengers, the MTA has installed tactile paving at platform edges, a simple repaving job. By far the most difficult to retrofit is step-free elevator access from the street to the platform for people in wheelchairs or other mobility devices. As a result, few stations are accessible.

Fast Forward calls for equipping 50 stations with step-free access within five years, in addition to about 100 such stations today. The plan prioritizes stations on long segments without any accessible stations, so that no passenger would be more than two stops away from an accessible station. Today, for example, the N train in Brooklyn has no wheelchair access at any station between Atlantic Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn and Coney Island; the D train has just one accessible station, Bay Parkway.

The biggest problem, of course, is the cost. In New York, the cost of a single elevator is $10 million, and the current five-year capital plan allocates $740 million for just 19 stations, a total of $40 million per stop. In contrast, London Mayor Sadiq Khan is spending £200 million, about $280 million, on making 19 stations fully accessible.

In Madrid, where subway construction costs are some of the lowest in the world, the accessibility program puts the cost of an elevator at about €1.5 million, or $1.9 million, and the cost of making a station accessible as about $7 million. It’s not surprising that Madrid has progressed more than any large legacy subway system in making stations wheelchair-accessible.

However, the costs in Boston are almost as high as in New York. The MBTA’s chief of System-Wide Accessibility, Laura Brelsford, explained to Curbed last year that recent accessibility investments in Boston’s underground light rail stations cost between $25 and $40 million. Nonetheless, in Boston nearly every subway or underground light rail station is accessible. Moreover, in Chicago, two thirds of stations are accessible, and there are plans to achieve complete accessibility within 20 years.

Chris Pangilian, a program director at TransitCenter who uses a wheelchair, believes New York is unusually hostile to disabled people; Chicago, meanwhile, has a politically strong disability rights community, and in Boston it took a lawsuit to force the MBTA to install elevators. “Funding is merely the expression of our priorities,” he says.

Will Fast Forward succeed?

Transit advocates have largely supported Fast Forward: Riders Alliance is enthusiastic and has called on its members to support it, and the coverage on Streetsblog has been positive.

But the big question is funding. Because construction costs are higher than they are elsewhere, Byford’s plan requires billions of dollars in new funding. So far, the new NYCT chief has not proposed ways to make either CBTC or wheelchair accessibility cheaper to build. This means that the ultimate decision will be made by the state, in particular by Governor Cuomo.

Cuomo’s reaction to Byford’s announcement was initially chilly; his office said that “the MTA must bring in the top tech experts in the nation” and mentioned self-driving cars, which so far remain unproven, with recurrent safety problems.

Since then, the governor changed his tune, calling Byford an “international expert” in transit and saying the controversy is purely about how to pay for it.

With gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon and Bill de Blasio both calling for a so-called “millionaires’ tax,” or an increase in income tax on people earning more than $500,000, Cuomo is instead proposing congestion pricing. This plan, first proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007, has failed to pass in New York a number of times. Most recently, the FixNYC task force proposed congestion pricing and a surcharge on for-hire vehicles, but there was stiff political resistance and so far nothing has come of it.

While most independent organizations and activists that fight for public transit in New York support congestion pricing, the situation among politicians is different. Officials representing districts outside of Manhattan and the innermost parts of Brooklyn have mixed constituencies of drivers and transit riders; they advocate for better subway service but would find it difficult convincing drivers to pay for it.

And in the suburbs, where drivers predominate, the politics is worse: when Bloomberg tried to convince the State Assembly to pass congestion pricing, one of the leading opponents was Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester).

The Village Voice’s report on Fast Forward suggests that, as MTA planner who spoke to Curbed speculated, Byford is using Fast Forward as a gambit to attract more funding, by giving concrete examples of what he would do with the money. It appears that Byford succeeded in convincing Cuomo that the political win he’d gain from being seen as fixing the subway is worth the political cost of finding the requested $19 billion. The question now is whether the state legislature will agree.