New York agency details crisis of subway signal system

By Alan Whyte and A. Woodson
20 June 2017

New York City’s subway signal system is plagued by chronic underfunding, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO). This was the conclusion of a June 11 letter to Manhattan’s borough president issued by the IBO in response to popular anger over intolerable delays, particularly over the last few months.

An updated and properly maintained signal system, which directs train traffic, is key to the safe and efficient operation of the subway system, one of the largest and busiest in the world. The average daily ridership of the system was 5.7 million in 2016, the highest since 1948, with a total of 1.76 billion subway passengers last year.

In a city that is home to 83 billionaires, minus one who has now moved to the White House, 21 of the system’s 22 transit lines still use antiquated block signaling technology dating back to 1904, when the subway was first built. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) admits that this system is so old that the only way it can replace defective parts is by manufacturing them itself.

About 30 percent of the signal system has not been upgraded since before 1965, according to MTA officials who say it could take 50 years to upgrade the subway’s entire signal system. The New York Times recently noted that the system is “so outdated that it cannot identify precisely where trains are, requiring more room between them.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.”

In addition to delays, the outmoded signal system also poses dangers to passengers and transit workers by increasing the chance of derailments and collisions.

The IBO concluded that the MTA, the New York State agency that operates New York City Transit (NYCT), as well as several suburban commuter lines, has dedicated a steadily declining percentage of capital spending to maintain the signal system.

The percentage of transit funding spent on the subway signals’ repair and modernization dropped from 20 percent in the 2005-2009 capital plan to 17 percent in 2009-2014 and 14 percent in the current plan. Furthermore, the IBO found that more than half of the budgeted money is spent on repairs rather than on upgrades or replacements.

Of the 33 signal projects included in the last two five-year capital improvement plans, spanning 2005 to 2014, 23 have been completed. However, 19 were completed or are anticipated to be completed behind schedule, according to the IBO letter. These delays have ranged between two months and four years.

In the current capital improvement plan, which runs from 2015 to 2019, 14 signals projects were scheduled to begin by the end of 2017, but 8 of them have been delayed.

Currently, the modernization work on the Number 7 line, called Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC), which was expected to have been finished in November 2016 for $265.6 million, is now slated to be finished this year at a cost of $405.7 million.

The CBTC system would allow the transit agency to move trains closer together allowing more trains to run per hour, significantly easing the problem of overcrowding.

Over the last four years, subway delays have increased by more than three times, from 18,255 in November 2012 to 60,274 in November 2016.

Subway rider Seamus Douglas told the WSWS, “I get delayed almost every day, sometimes for a short and sometimes quite a long period of time. This not only throws me off mentally; it costs me money. In my job, if you’re late a certain number of times, you get a warning.

Seamus Douglas

“One time, I was going home, and I had to sit on a train that did not move for 45 minutes. I am lucky that I was not on my way to work. It is crazy that the signal system is as old as 1904 and they are both underfunding maintenance and continuously increasing the fare.

“I think that the politicians are not empathetic to the people who pay the fare and get the worst service.”

Another rider, Amik Marjoumder, said, “I experience train delays about two or three time a week going to college and to work in a fast food restaurant. They usually last about 15 to 20 minutes. This will lead to a loss of pay and if I come to class late, I will not get the point that the teacher is making for that lesson.

“It is hard on the millions of people who want to get to work. In addition, they increase the fare every two years, which is the hardest on those who do not have a job.”

A train operator for 30 years, Joe Spags, told the WSWS, “The signal trouble is a disaster. At 57th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, the signals are a problem every day. They don’t fix the signals or get new ones. They only put a Band-Aid on it, and then it breaks down again.

“The number of delays is through the roof. We lose our break time and our shift ending time, while riders can’t get where they are going on time.

“At the end of my shift every night, there are at least 10 people per train who don’t want to get off and leave. Some are drunk, drugged or sleeping, but they don’t want to get off because they are homeless and have no place to go. The operator and conductor get them off to send the train to the yard. There should at least be a program or a shelter facility near the end of the lines for people to go to. I blame Mayor [Bill] de Blasio for this because homelessness has gone off the charts with him.”

Another train operator said, “The signal system is very old. If you went to a signal room and took a picture, it would look like something that existed before World War II.”

In yet another report, issued June 15, the state comptroller’s office found that the MTA is failing to support and repair crumbling stations, jeopardizing riders’ safety.

The authority immediately rejected both reports. In response to the findings of the budget office, the MTA claimed, “The IBO report fundamentally misunderstands how signalization improvements are made by equating dollars spent into delayed work.”

At a conference on infrastructure sponsored by the Commercial Observer on June 15, Michael Horodniceanu, who until March of this year headed the MTA’s capital construction program, admitted that the transit authority needs $35 billion over the next five years to bring the subway up to a state of good repair.

The agency has already poured tens of billions of dollars into saving the transit system, which was on the verge of collapse in the 1980s. Despite the expenditures, New York State studies have concluded that the nearly $1 trillion transit infrastructure has been depreciating faster than the resources used to maintain it.

Due to lack of governmental funding, the authority now owes $36.5 billion on the bonds it sold to finance capital maintenance and improvement programs, and nearly 20 percent of the authority’s current operating spending is for debt servicing.

The riding public and transit workers have been forced to pay off this debt through repeated fare hikes and attacks on the wages, health and pension benefits and work conditions of the agency’s 38,000 subway and bus workers.

While wealthy bondholders have cashed in from the debt, passengers are paying more for poorer service and frustrating delays. The fare hikes are also pricing out increasing numbers of low-income workers who are dependent on the transit system.

The crisis in transportation will only deepen with President Trump’s proposed budget cuts in mass transit, including for the federal Amtrak passenger railroad, and his Public-Private Partnership infrastructure plan that will hand over public services to for-profit businesses.

In one of the richest and most unequal cities in the world, the center of the world financial system, the failure to provide adequate resources to maintain and upgrade the transit system is a damning indictment of the capitalist system. The conflict between the insatiable drive of a tiny financial elite to gorge itself with profit and the basic requirements of a modern society has never been so glaring.

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