What’s Behind All The Train Delays?

The delays are growing- the funding isn't

With all the hype surrounding the upcoming 2nd Avenue subway line, are we paying enough attention to our current infrastructure? The power outage at the Dekalb Avenue station that caused delays in nearly a dozen subway lines and shut down the B line altogether last Tuesday, May 9th, was the second such incident this week alone. The recent Dekalb Avenue outages, several massive delays in late April, and the first falling annual subway ridership since 2009 make one wonder if more of the transit authority’s budget shouldn’t be spent improving the network that already exists.

One domain that needs immediate attention is the subway’s signaling system: the mechanism that gives trains the go-ahead to move down the track. All but one subway line’s signaling mechanisms are incredibly outdated; as a matter of fact, most do not even run on computers. The outdated signaling mechanisms cannot tell exactly where trains are, therefore, they tend to give the go-ahead signal for each train to move forward long after it was already safe to do so. The lag time between signals accumulates train after train, decreasing the number of trains that can pass through a station over a given timeframe.

Installing a computerized signaling system, like London’s Underground, for example, would decrease the lag time between when it’s safe for a train to move forward, and when the train actually gets told to move. The transit authority knows this: it began an initiative to install a new signaling system in 1991. To date, only the L train has an advanced system.

The difficulty of installing new signaling systems lies in a lack of funding. In its latest 5-year capital proposal, the MTA’s requested sum of $3.2 billion for signaling and communications improvements reflected its growing need for them, considering the request was up $800 million from its last two requests. Last year, however, state leaders cut $400 million from the signaling improvement budget.

According to the MTA’s own data, the number of delays per month has been rising dramatically over the last five years.