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Transportation United States

New York's Subway Is Slow Because They Slowed Down the Trains After A 1995 Accident 154

According to the Village Voice, New York City's subway trains are running slower because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) is deliberately running the trains slower. The Village Voice obtained MTA internal documents, discovering that the decision to run the trains slower was made following a fatal 1995 crash on the Williamsburg Bridge. From the report: The subway's performance has been steadily deteriorating for many years. The authority's own internal data shows that delays due to "incidents," such as broken signals and tracks or water damage, have only marginally increased since 2012. But there is one type of delay that's gotten exponentially worse during that time: a catchall category blandly titled "insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown," which captures every delay without an obvious cause. From January 2012 to December 2017, these delays increased by a whopping 1,190 percent -- from 105 per weekday to 1,355. In December, one out of every six trains run across the entire system experienced such a delay. The increase has been steady and uninterrupted over the past six years.
In 1995, a Manhattan-bound J train crossing the Williamsburg Bridge rear-ended an M train that was stopped on the bridge, killing the J train operator and injuring more than fifty passengers. The National Transportation and Safety Board investigation placed most of the blame on the J train operator, who the NTSB suspected had been asleep. But the NTSB also identified potential issues with the signal system that contributed to the accident, which it found didn't guarantee train operators enough time to apply the emergency brakes even when awake. "They slowed the trains down after the Williamsburg Bridge crash," a veteran train operator who asked not to be identified told the Village Voice. "The MTA said the train was going too fast for the signal system." As a result, the MTA, quite literally, slowed all the trains down, issuing a bulletin informing employees in April 1996 that their propulsion systems would be modified so they could achieve a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, down from the previous high of 50 to 55 miles per hour on a flat grade. But the MTA didn't stop there, internal documents show. One of the NTSB's safety recommendations was to set speed limits. As a result, the MTA began a still-ongoing process of changing the way many signals work to meet modern safety standards.
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New York's Subway Is Slow Because They Slowed Down the Trains After A 1995 Accident

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    If their trains are off by even a couple seconds there's an inquiry.

    • It would be interesting to find out the amount funding required from the Japanese governments to keep it that way and compare to the dollars that New York gets.
      • I'm going to guess New York spends rather more per rider. NYC is notorious for corruption

        • It doesn't matter how many riders use a system, you are going to have to spend a certain amount to keep that system going and if you spend it first then more people will use it. If Japan keeps theirs going on ten million a year but New York has fifty million, then you know there is a problem.
  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @11:39PM (#56256659)
    it sounds like the accident merely exposed a flaw in their signaling system. Rather than improve the signaling system (for which there was probably no money, we were 15 years into massive nonstop tax cuts) they did the only logical thing: slow the trains down.

    This is yet another symptom of Americans not wanting to spend money (e.g. higher taxes) on infrastructure. The maddening thing is nearly all of those tax cuts went to the top 1%ers. Enough already. They get the best civilization has to offer. Make them pay their bloody God damned dues.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      There would be plenty of money for infrastructure if it wasn't diverted to other pet projects. No need for higher taxes. A politician has never met a dollar he/she wanted to save for long term maintenance and infrastructure goals. It's always spend fast and furious.

      • by torkus ( 1133985 )

        Well, the MTA 'budget' is it's own problem.

        As a private company, their books are not open for public review despite getting a large portion of their funding from the city. Those books almost certainly have huge amounts of graft and wasteful spending (MTA got in trouble for 'retiring' a large portion of their outgoing employees on disability a few years back for example).

        I agree, there's more investment needed in infrastructure but the money is likely there within the MTA if you cleaned up their budgets (an

        • The MTA is a "private company" - har har hardy har har.

          Yes yes, I know, from a legal-formalist perspective they have no doubt jumped the bureaucratic hoops required to be a "private company".

          But any goddamned fool can see they're a government agency. The MTA is about as much a giant plaid avocado as it is a "private company".

    • NY and CA would be much better off if their residents didn't have to pay Federal tax (i.e. NYExit and CALExit). NY and CA pay more money to DC than they get back, to support (often) red states whose residents profess to dislike them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by _Sharp'r_ ( 649297 )

      Bullshit. Per capita inflation-adjusted government revenue [] may dip occasionally during a recession, but it's up tremendously over time. Can't blame this on a lack of revenue. The MTA has it's own sources of funds, anyway. It's not supposed to depend on the Federal government.

      Even The New York Times [] acknowledges that this is a political issue, one which Democrat Cuomo is mostly to blame for.

      The real scandal is that NY's Subway costs more to build an operate than just about anywhere else []. Their labor cost is

      • Oh yeah, privatization will fix it! Let's see, what would a private operator do... invest as little as necessary to keep people from switching to an alternative while charging as much as possible ...

        In other words, it would be like it is now. Maybe with higher ticket prices if they can get away with it.

        • Except the current system doesn't have those same incentives. Instead, no matter how slow the trains are, no matter how many accidents there are, or how bad the service and security is, the MTA still gets funded and the union workers still get paid.

          In fact, it's even worse, pride keeps many of the workers actually doing their job, but in terms of financial incentives, the worse job the MTA does, the more people and politicians will politic for giving them a larger budget, more union workers and more money,

          • I don't know these systems. But I know some systems in Europe and can only say that the ones that are affordable and reasonably well staffed and on time are not exactly the privatized ones.

            • Well, feel free to educate yourself, then. You have access to the Internet, after all. :)

              • You can ride the subway in New York via the internet now?

                Did I miss an important development in telepresence technology?

      • The union is soaking the MTA entirely here. I'm all for safety, but they've got do-nothing crew requirements for everything. Look at the massive over-allocations for the 2nd Avenue project to see just how horrible the union is.

        And this is why the knee-jerk reaction to "Right to work" takes place, because unions get greedy. I'm a fan of unions, not a fan of greed.


      • NY's Subway costs more to build an operate than just about anywhere else.

        . . . what about scenic New Jersey . . . ?

        Their labor cost is $140K/year/worker on _average_.

        Tony Soprano's crew need to eat, too!

        When New York City is capable of cleaning up the Fish Market . . . "transport" . . . get back back to me.

        I guess the folks in NYC could vote in candidates who vow to fight corruption in the city . . . but too many profit from the corruption!

        • by torkus ( 1133985 )

          I guess the folks in NYC could vote in candidates who vow to fight corruption in the city . . . but too many profit from the corruption!

          Are you kidding? They couldn't even prevent a mayor from basically buying himself an extra term beyond the legal term limits. That's how bad NYC is for greed and corruption among the billionaires.

      • by torkus ( 1133985 )

        Remove the union!? How DARE you? That's blasphemy!

        Unions ensure workers get their 'fair' pay (WAY over any vaguely comparable job), excessive benefits, and then allow employees to boycott together when they don't get their way on raises or something else. Oh, and who remembers what a pension is? Maybe your parents or grandparents do...and MTA employees.

        Unions were needed at one point in history. They've long since outgrown their usefulness and have become another blight on society.

        • Hell yeah! Down with weekends! You're gonna work 60 hours a week, and you're f going to kiss the boss's boots when he kicks you. You don't DESERVE a raise, peon! What kind of pussies demand fucking health insurance? Die in the street like a dog, you deplorable.

          Fuck unions! Fuck working people! All power to the landlords and money lenders!

        • Sit down and reread what you wrote.

          First, you said that unions give their members a massive boost in quality of life. Then you said that unions have outgrown their usefulness. You seem to think that fair pay is what non-union jobs pay, not what union jobs pay, when the union pay rates have to be low enough to keep the company profitable. You talk about "excessive" benefits in the same way. Pensions. Why don't you have one? Presumably because you're not unionized.

          What you really need to do is to s

    • New Yorkers pay the highest taxes in the country, but you can't plow much back into infrastructure when your trash collectors retire on $285,000 a year. []

      • by Anonymous Coward

        That guy was not a sanitation worker. He was management. He likely managed more people than the mayor's of most towns. He did real work. Plus his retirement was high becuse he invested his own money into his pension.

    • The MTA has run the subway system long enough to have diverted some of their infrastructure spending on PTC, which in a wholly-owned line should have been an automatic project. Why wasn't it?

      Signaling and interlocking control being solved with PTC, what's left is operator issues like falling asleep. Taking care of engineers and watching them better is another automatic spend, but why aren't they doing it?

      Start looking at how the MTA spends money on external vendors. There's your big question.


    • Americans not wanting to spend money (e.g. higher taxes) on infrastructure

      Certainly not. We are talking about NYC — the singular city in the most corrupt State in the nation [].

      The recent painting of the Brooklyn Bridge costed well more [] than the original building of the structure did in 1883 (inflation-adjusted, of course).

      You expect us, the taxpayers, to willingly give even more money to these people?

      MTA should have replaced the sleepy fleshware, whose reactions and ability to communicate with each othe

      • by torkus ( 1133985 )

        It also took a third of the whole construction time just to repaint it (14 vs 5 years). Mind you, at the time it was built the bridge was hugely innovative and half again longer than any other suspension bridge.

        But...this also should take into account the massive difference in safety regulations in 2018 vs 1869. Back then people were getting decompression sickness (the bends) when coming up from digging the foundation...and it was so long ago they didn't even know what that was. That partly contributes t

    • The idea of governance and public servants has been replaced with politics.
      We elect too many people based on beliefs on areas that the position has little if any control of, and there are so many political rivals ready to pounce on any bad judgement calls, even if it one they themselves would had made, but they didn't have to make it at the time so they blame you for that mistake.

      As tax paying voters we see a good portion of our paychecks being cut into taxes. This money if we were allowed to keep would pr

  • On the vast majority of the system, trains won't even hit 40mph. I can only think of a couple spots where a couple trains hit that speed, and even then only for a couple minutes. I can't imagine those spots having trains run 10-15mph slower has any discernible impact.
    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      Lowered speed has more impact than you might imagine. It means that rails are occupied longer, that following trains have to wait longer, that they might miss time slots, which in turn means less trains and thus the ones running being more crowed, which in turn causes them to have longer waiting times at the stations. Time schedules on a highly occupied rail system are very finely tuned, and even a small lagging behind schedule ripples through the system and causes more lagging elsewhere.
      • Exactly this. NYC as it is today is not sustainable without both investment in transit infrastructure, and also getting the cost structure under control (more difficult in NYC than many other places due to entrenched union rules/benefits and the much higher cost of living compared to most of the U.S.).
      • The spots where the trains could go 50 instead of 40 are on the outskirts of the system, or a couple parts of express tracks, where the headways are already controlled by shared track elsewhere on the line. In general your comment is accurate, for the NYC subway in regards to setting a limit at 40 instead of 50, I don't believe it is.
  • The obvious answer is that the demand has gone up, and the capacity hasn't met the demand. The headline is bullshit, and the slowness has nothing to do with an accident in 1995.

    It's well documented why the trains are slow in NYC, it's because they haven't put enough money back into the system. It's a failure of not maintaining the system that's at fault here, not one incident 23 years ago.

    • Put enough money back into the system? You mean, like, they are siphoning off revenue from the fares???

      I bet we could pull up a balance sheet and it would easily show there is zero positive revenue from actual paying riders to siphon off. So what is this money to 'put back into the system'??

      • by PrimaryConsult ( 1546585 ) on Wednesday March 14, 2018 @12:07AM (#56256751)

        The subway runs an operating profit, I think it came out to something like 20 cents a passenger. However that money is "shared" with the New York City Transit side of the bus system, which runs at a loss.

        If they were to eliminate the bus-subway transfers and separate the revenue pools, the subway would probably be shown to operate at even more of a profit (since a lot of people take an unofficial round trip discount by taking the subway one way and the bus back).

  • Strange Tone (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @11:54PM (#56256717)

    This reads like a shocking expose'. But if you have trouble with signalling systems, it makes absolutely perfect sense to slow the trains down until the problem is corrected.

          OK, yes, they could be fixing it faster, but this seems like a perfectly responsible choice.

    • Re:Strange Tone (Score:5, Interesting)

      by PrimaryConsult ( 1546585 ) on Wednesday March 14, 2018 @12:37AM (#56256859)

      The problem is the hack for enforcing speed limits - timer signals. Basically, train passes spot "a", a hidden timer starts counting, signal at spot "b" turns green if the timer runs out before the train gets there, otherwise it stays red. If you ride up front (on one of the few trains where you can see the same as the operator), you can see how the timer signals work and see the speed the train is going (either with a GPS app on your phone, or by peeking through the gap in the door to the cab). Here's a typical interaction:

      A sign says "GT 35" meaning 35 MPH enforced speed limit. Great. Except, even in a perfect world, if they actually go 35, they will not see the signal clear - the timer would hit zero the second the train reaches it. So they have to go 34. But, the speedometers aren't perfectly calibrated and may be off by up to 3MPH, so now down to 31. But wait, the signals aren't calibrated right either; some of them say 35 but are actually counting down too fast (not like there's a quartz crystal in there), it could be off by as much as 5MPH. The end result is, in an enforced 35, the operator can only "safely" (as in his keeping his/her job safe) go 26. Experienced operators will instinctively know the fastest they can get away with, but anyone new will follow the rule of 9MPH under the limit. Since throughput during rush hours is only as fast as the slowest train, one overly cautious operator can tank the schedule for all the trains behind him.

      Now one solution to this justified over-caution was "two shot" timers - there are two signals. The first one is yellow with an S under it, the second red. If the first one clears to green before the train passes it, the second one also turns green. If the first one does not clear to green, the operator has to slow down so that his average speed since the start of the first timer is slower than the enforced limit, or the second one remains red. So if he enters a 25 going 35, in order to make that second shot he has to drop down to somewhere around 15 (but likely that won't be enough, so they will instead come to a complete stop). In the case of two shot timers, to deal with a 25MPH enforced speed limit, trains operators who make a mistake on the first shot are reducing their speed to 0 for several seconds. All this has to do is happen once to cause a ripple effect on all trains behind.

      At a lot of the locations these timer signals do not make any sense. Some of them are on uphill grades. Some are on banked curves designed for 60MPH running - if it were simply a signal system limitation that had them slow down the trains, there would be no reason to treat curves any differently from straightaways. The speed restrictions designed for human limitations on reaction time were also copied over to the modern signal system the L train uses without being re-evaluated (in other words, they fixed the original problem from 1995 but left in the hack). Thus why it is an expose - reducing speeds is now a kneejerk reaction to any perceived danger, bordering on superstition.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        To be fair, reducing train speed is in fact effective for every perceived danger, excluding oddballs like an armed train robbery/hijacking. Banked curve with poor visibility? Reduce speed. Hilltop the operator can't see past? Reduce speed.

        Sure, the system might have been 'designed' for 60 mph, but they already know, thanks to an investigation after people dying, that the design is inadequate and needs to be revisited.

      • Boy, you'd think an industry with 180 years of engineering expertise would've figured out what you just did in a Slashdot reply.


  • by b0s0z0ku ( 752509 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @11:59PM (#56256737)

    Cars purchased 20 years later -- in 2016 -- have a max speed of 55 mph... []

    Doubt that ALL cars are limited to 40 mph, maybe some older cars were for a while. Signaling system is another issue/can of worms.

    This thread says that cars were capped at 55 mph after the 1995 crash, not 40 mph:
    https://www.nyctransitforums.c... []

    • Express sections of the A train in Brooklyn seem much faster than 40MPH to me. Probably closer to 60MPH. (Disclaimer: I visit NYC occasionally but do not live there.)
  • So, what's the impact of the slowdown and delays? I lived in Brooklyn in 2013 and things were pretty smooth and reliable. The only train with any real issues was the G train, aka the Ghost train, because no one ever saw it show up
  • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday March 14, 2018 @12:14AM (#56256775) Journal
    The option to buy better trains is not going to be supported.
    The ability to rework the signal system is not something that could happen.
    The trains stay safe and staying slow is the only method that supports that is not a story.
    Want a good train? Invest in a great transport system.
    The UK, Japan, South Korea, parts of the EU can offer great turn key rail networks for export.
    Tunnel design, working air-conditioning, new systems to move a lot of people around faster.
    • Signaling is being upgraded and a lot of subway cars in NYC are new/better. There are even plans for open-gangway cars, where the connection between cars is almost as wide as the car itself, and passengers can more freely between segments.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        dude the doors between cars are biological containment seals. you have never been on a train with a mysteriously empty car have you? where the reason is that some hobo took a monster dookie right in the middle of the car? or dropped trou and drained the lizard? if the cars are open it means the whole damn train will stink.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Signaling is being upgraded and a lot of subway cars in NYC are new/better. There are even plans for open-gangway cars, where the connection between cars is almost as wide as the car itself, and passengers can more freely between segments.

        Nobody cares about this crap. We care about 95th percentile journey time from station A to station B, given random time of arrival at station A. Maybe we also care about 99th percentile, but less. And that is all. We do not care about anything else. We don't care about signs that incorrectly estimate when trains will arrive. We don't care about ADA improvements. We don't care about silly payment methods. We don't care about car shape color or new-ness. We don't care about "busses." None of it. 95

      • There are even plans for open-gangway cars, where the connection between cars is almost as wide as the car itself, and passengers can more freely between segments.

        As can bumstink, so one bum can smell up an entire train instead of one car. I don't know what they were thinking. (If you ever see an empty subway car at a busy time, DO NOT GET ON)

    • Seriously. Larry Page is apparently launching an autonomous helicopter/airplane hybrid, yet no one has figured out how to get automation on what is essentially a one-dimensional problem space? Every time I hear about a train operator going too fast around a curve and jumping the tracks, I cringe and cannot understand why the speed isn't just set by computer and adjusted per the trains location on the track condition.
    • In NYC? I have no idea. In major airports and in Miami? Years ago.

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Wednesday March 14, 2018 @02:08AM (#56257145)

    ... in the 1800s.

    Naturally I wouldn't employ that solution in exactly the same way because we have better technology to facilitate the concept, but I would still enact the same concept.

    The British system simply made it physically impossible for trains to enter a stretch of track unless the train in front of it or going the other way or whatever had turned in a key. The key was slotted into a signalling box which permitted other trains to enter that track. If the key was NOT turned in then further trains could not physically access that track. The switching station would literally not actuate.

    Now, if you did it today, you'd use computers and sensors and encryption... etc... but the concept would be the same. If a train currently holds the "key" for a bit of track then you can't have that key and you can't access that track. You could have the trains automatically brake if they entered track that hadn't been vacated yet... you could turn off the third rail to make it extra fool proof... and you could have the brakes default to an ON state in the event that the third rail was disabled.

    Yes yes... engineering problems with what I said. Engineering solutions always have problems... even good engineering solutions.

    There are problems with a hydro electric dam and an automobile and a jet aeroplane. The trick is solving those without losing the utility of what you're attempting to do. Point is that this isn't actually that complicated.

    The system I conceptualized is damn near foolproof if executed competently. You could have drunk, high, sleeping train operators, going down the track at whatever speed the track/trains can handle, without any crashes into other trains.

    Its possible. We can do it.

    • It's more than a concept : such railway signalling systems have already been designed and have been in use for a long time ! See for instance KVB [], which was introduced in the 90's, or the many other equivalent systems. They prevent trains from exceeding the speed limit or from entering blocks of the tracks already used by other trains.
      Newer systems such as ETCS [] are more advanced and flexible, but the basic functionality you are describing has been here for a long time.
      • Doubtless funding will be cited as the reason this isn't implemented. But I tend to find retrograde systems cost more over time.

    • The problem is social, not technical and is called "short term profit".

    • I think there are systems today with automatic "physical" electric safeguards.
      Like if two trains occupy the same segment of the tracks it will cause a short circuit and cut the engines of the train behind.

  • But there is one type of delay that's gotten exponentially worse during that time

    I somehow doubt that. Care to state the equation?

  • So, a mystery partly solved. The local press is all over how bad the system’s gotten the last couple of years -- and as a daily rider, it seems no worse and maybe a little better. So why the crisis talk? It’s apparently (from what I can tell down there) without basis. So the explanation seems to be that it’s documented bullshit.
  • Treat some New York City subway engineers and officials to a week in Tokyo, to see how a real subway system is done.

  • But only for 23 DAYS not YEARS.

You will never amount to much. -- Munich Schoolmaster, to Albert Einstein, age 10