Among the many issues plaguing New York City's subway system, there is the unfortunate and inexplicable fact that our trains are just not very fast. With average speeds of about 17 miles per hour, the typical subway here crawls along at rates slower than those in San Francisco's BART system, Washington's Metro, Boston's T, and Philadelphia's SEPTA. Our whole thing is that we are always in a hurry, and yet our trains would get smoked in a race against the metro in Los Angeles. An embarrassment.
The MTA has long blamed this and other problems on overcrowding—i.e. you. But internal documents obtained last year by the Village Voice painted a different picture: The transit authority's own decision to impose strict speed limits on trains and reconfigure signal timers, following a 1995 collision on the Williamsburg Bridge, has led to a systemwide slowdown. While experts had reportedly warned that this self-imposed restriction was largely unneeded, the MTA continued apace—for a variety of reasons, all of them seeming to suggest that the lumbering bureaucracy's lack of accountability and opaque decision-making tree ultimately harms riders. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
But at last, the MTA may be making some progress on its maddeningly slow trains. As part of NYC Transit President Andy Byford's investigation into this sloth, the MTA is now bumping up speed limits throughout the system, and in some places eliminating them entirely. According to a press release sent out by the agency on Monday, the safety committee has implemented such increases at 24 locations out of a total of 68 approved spots.
That means that instead of plodding along at 10 mph when your JMZ train enters Brooklyn, you'll now zoom past Marcy at 20 mph. Average speeds for R trains could soon double from 15 mph to 30 mph along stretches in Manhattan. Certain limits—for 1 trains north of Penn Station, or Manhattan-bound 4/5 trains south of Franklin Avenue—will be eliminated entirely. (A full list of speed changes can be found here).
"I have directed my team to identify and resolve every root cause of delay; in doing so, we can then implement the right fix, often for little or no cost,” NYC Transit President Andy Byford said in a statement. “The SPEED Unit continues to examine hundreds of miles of track to find areas where we can safely increase speeds. Their work is absolutely essential and demonstrates that New York City Transit employees are fully committed to making tangible changes that will improve service for our customers."
Closely connected to the issue of speed limits is the nagging problem of signal timers—regulatatory devices that are supposed to trigger an emergency stop when trains are traveling too fast. But many of those timers are broken, which means that they're activated even when a train is moving at the correct speed, which in turn leads train operators to drive slower than they otherwise could. By all indications, these preemptive slowdowns are a major part of the agency's culture, passed down from supervisors to new recruits.
"You take your cues from the work culture, from the training, and they tell you to operate at five to seven miles per hour under the posted speed," Zach Arcidiacono, the union representative for train operators, who was an operator himself for 11 years, told Gothamist last year. There’s a five-day unpaid suspension for setting off a signal timer the first time, 10-15 days for a second offense and possible dismissal for a third offense—and no system in place to determine when a faulty signal timer set off a train's emergency brakes.
Since Byford called for a review of the system's 2,000 timers this past summer, the agency has identified over 320 faulty signal timers. Fifty-nine of those timers have been recalibrated, the MTA said on Monday, "in what amounts to very labor-intensive work to inspect, diagnose and repair or replace numerous possible pieces of equipment." If this is the part where we're supposed to express gratitude that the MTA has conducted its first-ever review of a critical piece of equipment, through which it discovered that one-sixth of those devices are busted, then fine: Thank you, MTA.
Though not mentioned in the press release, the agency is also apparently installing a new countdown function on existing grade signal timers, with the intention of giving train operators more confidence that they can pass the signals without tripping a stop. Check it out below: