Surging ridership signals urgency in updating New York's ageing subway

Signalling equipment at the West Fourth Street Supervisory Tower in New York City is old and outdated. The city's subway is struggling with old infrastructure and overcrowding, but the roll-out of a new signal network is unfolding at a glacial pace, and a
Signalling equipment at the West Fourth Street Supervisory Tower in New York City is old and outdated. The city's subway is struggling with old infrastructure and overcrowding, but the roll-out of a new signal network is unfolding at a glacial pace, and a complete restoration of all the lines could take half a century and cost $28 billion. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • At a subway station deep under Manhattan, a dingy room is filled with rows of antique equipment built before World War II. The weathered glass boxes and cloth-covered cables are not part of a museum exhibit, however - they are crucial pieces of the signal system that directs traffic in one of the busiest subways in the world.

Much of the signal equipment at that station in West Fourth Street, is decades beyond its life span, and it is one of the main culprits plaguing the overburdened subway.

As New York City's sprawling subway faces a deepening crisis over delays, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says that modernising the signals is a top priority.

But the roll-out of a new signal network is unfolding at a glacial pace even as the subway system is straining under the demands of a booming ridership. Two decades after the transport agency began its push to upgrade signals, work has been completed on just one line.

At the current pace, transforming every subway line could take half a century and cost US$20 billion (S$28 billion).

  • NYC subway efforts put Singapore's upgrading works 'into perspective'

  • Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a Facebook post yesterday that New York City was upgrading the signalling system of its ageing subway network, just like Singapore.

    "The NYC system is far bigger and older than ours - some parts are 80 years old! Their problems put in perspective our own efforts to upgrade the MRT system. By next year, the North-South and East-West Lines trains will be able to run at shorter intervals and come more frequently," he said.

    "The hardworking staff at the Land Transport Authority, SMRT and SBS Transit Ltd are doing their best to deliver smoother rides for everyone. It will be worth the effort!" added the Prime Minister.

    Mr Lee made the comments after reading a New York Times article on New York City's subway network.

The signal system is the hidden, unglamorous backbone of the subway, controlling when trains can move down the tracks. But it is so outdated that it cannot identify precisely where trains are, requiring more room between them. And when it fails, trains stop, delays pile up and riders fume.

New York could find inspiration overseas. Another major city with an even older - although smaller - subway system is also confronting soaring ridership: London.

The British capital is further along in its ambitious effort to modernise its signals and has emerged as a global leader in how to upgrade an ageing subway, offering lessons to New York and other cities. London has installed a computerised signal network on four of its 10 main subway lines, and work is underway on four more.

Funding in London is generally less challenging because the system relies on higher fares than New York and on a capital grant from the national government.

But scheduling work is also easier because the subway has not traditionally run round-the-clock, as New York's system has.

Of New York's 22 lines, only the L train has the advanced signal system. A second line, the No. 7, may have it later this year, after a delay.

In New York, the plans have been hobbled by an anaemic schedule for upgrading tracks, a struggle to secure necessary funding and logistical challenges on a system that never stops running. Officials have also been reluctant to anger riders by closing stations to do the work.

It took about a decade to complete the signal network on the L line, and work on the No. 7 line has already taken nearly seven years.

Transit advocates say the agency must pour more money into signal work and accelerate the schedule.

"Fifty years is way too far out there," Mr Thomas Prendergast, former chairman of the authority, said in his final interview before leaving the job in January. "We have to find a way to shorten that."

Signal problems account for about 13 per cent of all subway delays and are the second most common reason for weekday delays, after overcrowding, according to statistics from the agency.

Most of New York's subway system still relies on antiquated technology, known as block signalling, to coordinate train movement.

A modern system, known as communications-based train control, or CBTC, is more dependable and exact, making it possible to reduce the amount of space between trains.

A computerised signal system like CBTC is also safer because trains can be stopped automatically.

Upgrading the signals is expensive, but an even bigger challenge is scheduling work on such a vast system where ridership is always high, even on weekends, Mr Prendergast said. "The money issue, as difficult as it is, is an easier issue to sort than how much work can the system sustain at one given period of time," he pointed out.

Mr Wynton Habersham, head of the subway department at the transportation authority, said he would prefer longer closings too, but the agency has to weigh the impact on commuters.

"The reality is, if we had our druthers, we'd probably shut an entire line down to do a signal project," he said. "But to do that brings a lot of inconvenience and brings a lot of pain to our customers."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'Surging ridership signals urgency in updating New York's ageing subway'. Print Edition | Subscribe