Category Archives: Subway

Engineering against all odds, or how NYC’s subway will get wireless in the tunnels

Never ask a wireless engineer working on the NYC subway system “What can go wrong?” Flooding, ice, brake dust, and power outages relentlessly attack the network components. Rats — many, many rats — can eat power and fiber optic cables and bring down the whole system. Humans are no different, as their curiosity or malice strikes a blow against wireless hardware (literally and metaphorically).

Serverless software deployment to the cloud, this is not.

New York City officially got wireless service in every underground subway station a little more than a year ago, and I was curious what work went into the buildout of this system as well as how it will expand in the future.

That curiosity is part of a series of articles I’ve written on an observed pattern known as cost disease, the massively inflating costs of basic human services like health care, housing, infrastructure, and education. The United States spends trillions of dollars on each of these fields, massively outspending similar nations for little and often even negative gain.

Despite the importance of reining in costs, experts are befuddled at the underlying causes of cost disease amid a laundry list of potential factors, including complicated procurement processes, labor rules, underinvestment in software, productivity gains in affiliated fields, environmental regulations, and the list goes on.

I explored a bit about health care, and the skyrocketing costs in that field, despite the fact that few people in the industry understand those costs at all. Activity-based costing appears to be one potential solution there that startups are pursuing. I also looked at California High Speed Rail and the massively spiraling costs of that boondoggle, as well as some of the startups trying to improve efficiency in that category.

This past week, I explored the challenges of what appears at first glance to be a relatively simple problem: how do you get wireless service in New York City subway tunnels? Cellular technology is hardly novel, and transit systems throughout the world have been able to modernize in some cases more than a decade ago.

While riders may desperately want their YouTube videos underground, the real value of such a system is for the business operations of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (the MTA, which operates the NYC subway among other commuter rail and bus systems). Ticketing systems, arrival time indicators, emergency services, and other critical services are all run through this wireless system.

There is in fact a startup working on the problem, Transit Wireless. The company was formed in 2005 to respond to a request for proposals from the MTA and filled with veteran telecom executives. The authority rewarded the contract to Transit Wireless, which now holds a 27-year license to operate cellular service in the subway system.

William Bayne, the CEO of the company, explained that an important component of the contract was that the company couldn’t rely on taxpayer funding. “Our license requires us to design, build, own, operate, and finance the network,” he said. Transit Wireless raised its own equity capital to cover the costs of deploying the system, and generates revenues as the service provider over the life of the license. In fact, MTA receives a stream of revenue from Transit Wireless as well.

The company faced a number of challenges in building out the system. The first challenge was that the installation could not disrupt transit customers. Bayne said, “We had to figure out how to deploy network and equipment while minimizing disruption of the transit system itself.” That meant working overnight when labor costs are higher, and also placed the company at the mercy of the MTA’s maintenance windows to install network equipment.

Even more challenging was securing the right equipment. The NYC subway “is a 110-year-old system with low ceilings and lots of water, and it wasn’t designed to embrace a lot of electronics,” Bayne said. Wireless equipment “had to withstand all of these changes in environmental conditions: cold, heat, water, brake dust. Everything had to be passively cooled and fully-enclosed so it didn’t ingest any of the environment into the equipment.” That specialized, “mil-spec” equipment doesn’t come cheap.

As with the story of any infrastructure, particularly in New York, rolling out wireless connectivity to 282 active underground stations was anything but cheap. The final cost of the rollout was north of $300 million for Transit Wireless, a dramatic increase from early estimates which said that the project would cost “up to $200 million.” As a private entity spending private dollars, the company obviously had enormous incentives to hold down costs.

Perhaps more importantly for riders and the MTA itself, the timeline of the project ended up dragging. The first six stations in the system began offering wireless services in September 2011, about six years after the original contract signing. In the MTA’s announcement, the remainder of the rollout was expected to happen “within four years,” but another six years would actually pass before all remaining underground stations got service around New Year’s Day 2017. In all, it took about twelve years from contract signing to project completion.

While the costs and time required to build out the network were significant, Transit Wireless believes that the infrastructure it has built will stand the test of time. It designed the system to be “future-proof” by installing a fiber optic backbone with significantly more capacity than needed to handle whatever new technology might come, such as 5G wireless services. It also built a series of five data centers that act as data infrastructure hubs for the subway system, potentially lowering the cost of offering new services in the future.

The company, whose network spans much of New York City, hopes to be a core provider of smart city services in the future. Bayne envisions a world where real-time information about transit systems could be fused together, giving consumers access to smart transportation solutions — think connecting Uber and Lyft to smart bikes, parking meters, and the subway system to create a seamless, adaptive transportation system.

In addition to the smart city initiatives, Transit Wireless obviously is eyeing the tunnels as one of the most important infrastructure challenges going forward. Given the age of the tunnel construction, they are much narrower than the engineering standards used today for modern transit systems. In some cases, installed equipment has to fit within just a handful of inches of space lest a moving train rip the equipment right off the wall. “We have to be extremely precise on how we deploy equipment in there to be very precise to stay within those clearance envelopes,” Bayne said.

Currently, the company is offering a pilot demonstration of tunnel service on the shuttle between Times Square and Grand Central Station, which launched in December.

The lessons of the rollout are ultimately a question of desires from transit customers (who also happen to be voters) — how badly do we want new infrastructure, and how much are we willing to be inconvenienced to get it? We can’t have nice things today and also want no schedule changes in a system that operates 24/7 every day of the year. Unless we as transit riders say loudly and clearly “inconvenience me today for a better tomorrow,” keep expecting the same compromises to happen.


The Second Avenue Subway Is Already Screwed

Village Voice

Cutting the 72nd Street station from three tracks to two means that future New Yorkers will have to live with crappier service for all time


See that third center track that will allow Q trains to stay out of the way of through service once it begins on the Second Avenue line? That’s right, you don’t.

The Second Avenue Subway may not be finished in our lifetime, but even if it is, it will be stuck with reduced capacity. Thanks to a crucial decision made by the MTA back in the project’s first phase of construction, according to a newly published Regional Plan Association report, the new line will never carry as many passengers as it might have unless the MTA spends billions of dollars to fix a key problem.

The report, which concludes a two-year investigation into the MTA’s capital project overruns, notes that the MTA decided to reduce the number of tracks at the 72nd Street station, where the Q train arrives on the Second Avenue line, from three to two, while the number of platforms was reduced from two to one. This, the RPA says, will have a cascading effect on service, reducing the number of trains that can be run on the Second Avenue line and the Q once future phases of the project are complete.

The original plan for the station at 72nd Street and Second Avenue called for two “island” platforms with a track on either side and one down the middle. Once the T — the yet-to-be-launched portion of the SAS on Second Avenue south of 72nd — entered service, the center track would act as a terminus for Q trains, while T trains would use the side tracks. Passengers would have a cross-platform transfer between the Q and T in both directions, and each train would run on its own tracks with almost no overlap.

But all that changed when the MTA decided to scale back the 72nd Street station to two tracks and one platform, the way it is today. As a result, once the southern section of the Second Avenue Subway opens, the Q will likely have to run all the way up to the future terminus of the SAS at 125th Street, running an alternating schedule with the T, even though the lines will only share six stops.

The only other option would be for the Q to switch to the downtown track as it approached 72nd Street, wait in the station until it offloaded all passengers, and then go back the way it came. But in order to do that, all downtown T trains would have to be held up until the Q can get going again. Rich Barone, one of the authors of the RPA report, doesn’t see this as a real solution, because the Q would be “literally in the way” of normal T service.

The consequences of this decision will only be felt once the T begins service after phase three of the Second Avenue Subway project is done, which is likely decades down the road. But once (if?) that happens, Barone says the T will only be able to operate every six or seven minutes at peak hours, hardly the frequency expected from a showcase capital project. For comparison, the 4/5 currently has a maximum capacity of a train approximately every two and a half minutes, and subway lines in systems with modern signaling system can operate with a train every ninety seconds.

As Barone points out, reduced capacity thanks to subway lines sharing track is the problem with “our subway system in a nutshell.” For example, since the A is restricted at multiple points along its line where it shares tracks with the C and D, even during rush hour the line can only run every six to fifteen minutes with good service. The T will be restricted to similar headways.

Why did the MTA do this? The transit authority did not respond to a request for comment before publication. But according to Barone — who spoke to the MTA several times during the two years he researched the report — the authority claims it had to reduce the width of the station so it remained under the Second Avenue roadbed without spreading underneath adjacent buildings, which would have caused “geotechnical” concerns, as Barone puts it. He says the MTA was also worried about getting the necessary easements on those properties as well as community pushback to the increased construction, all problems that the report notescould have been eased by “greater city involvement” during the design phase.

The MTA originally denied to Barone that the scaled-back station would have any impact on service. But when Barone gave a detailed analysis of his findings and asked the MTA to essentially tell him why he was wrong, he says, the authority’s response “was more like a punt” than an explanation; it neither confirmed nor denied whether Barone’s assumptions were correct. He characterized the MTA’s non-answer as a “red flag.”

If Barone is correct, this means the four-phased project has already left lots of future capacity on the table, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it. There is no feasible way to expand the station now that construction is done, or to provide the third track necessary for Q trains to dwell without being in the T’s way.

Now the challenge will be to find a way to provide more frequent downtown service on the Second Avenue line for future New Yorkers. Barone offers the idea of swinging the 63rd Street line — which currently serves the F — southbound at Second Avenue, but because the F also shares lots of Queens track with the E, one of the most crowded lines in the system, it has no capacity to spare. Other potential solutions would require billions of dollars’ worth of construction, far more than it likely would have cost to find a way to complete the 72nd Street station as originally planned.

“The reality is, it’s done,” Barone concludes. “We can’t change it. We have to figure out how to work with it as it is.” Barely a year after it opened, the Second Avenue Subway is already just another subway problem to be solved.

Is Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Utica Avenue Brooklyn subway extension dead?


Too many transportation studies championed by numerous elected officials are nothing more than placebos designed to placate demagogues.

Here is why The Regional Plan Association release of their fourth annual master plan which included calling for construction of the Utica Avenue subway will never leave the station. At the request of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the MTA allocated $5 million in funding under the $32 billion Metropolitan Transportation Authority 2015 – 2019 Five Year Capital Program to initiate a $5 million feasibility study for this proposal to build a Utica Avenue subway extension. The Utica Avenue subway was originally proposed by NYC Mayor Hyland in 1922! The concept would construct extensions for both the #3 & #4 original IRT subway lines in East Flatbush Brooklyn. It would be built along Utica Avenue from Eastern Parkway to Avenue U. Costs for both the first phase of Second Avenue & #7 subway line extension averaged $2 billion plus per mile. One can only imagine how many billions would be required to do the same along Utica Avenue.

Two years later, the MTA had yet to issue a Request for Proposals to hire any engineering consulting firm to perform this study. This contradicts the RPA report which states that “an assessment should be forthcoming.” It is a clear sign that the MTA is really not interested in pursuing this project. This proposal may represent a waste of taxpayers’ dollars for yet another transportation feasibility study.

Too Bad! Great idea. Look at the riders! All YOUNGS!

Man Struck, Killed By A Train At 14th Street

A man was struck and killed by an A Train at 14th Street Friday evening.

Authorities said the man was standing between trains smoking near the station, at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue on the cusp of Chelsea and the West Village, when he fell and was hit by the train.

He was pronounced dead shortly afterward at the hospital, officials said.

One man reported on Twitter that he was on a train that was held for two hours following the incident.

53rd Street Tunnel Closed For Repairs; E And M Subway Service Disrupted


The MTA has closed down the 53rd Street Tunnel connecting Queens and Manhattan for repairs.

Starting Tuesday, more than 500 workers will be toiling around the clock replacing the third rail, clearing track drains and installing cables for signal improvements along the E and M lines.

We’ll be doing critical Subway Action Plan maintenance &
repair work to the 53rd St tunnel on the E/M lines Dec. 26-31. More than 500
workers working on signal, track & drain systems to accomplish in 5 days
what would typically take a full month. 

During the five-day closure of the tunnel, the M train will not be running except for M shuttle trains between Metropolitan and Myrtle Wyckoff avenues.

The E train will be rerouted along the F line between Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights and West 4th Street and then continue on its normal course from there to the World Trade Center, except overnight.

The shut down caused some confusion among commuters the day after Christmas.

It was perhaps the last thing commuters wanted for Christmas.

Signage and MTA agents on site will help guide commuters.

Despite the confusion, the MTA says this is actually the best option, with the agency taking advantage of low ridership at this time of year. Instead of the usual weekend work, a complete shutdown will allow workers to get more done in less time, according to the MTA.

“This is an opportunity to get in that four-five day period, five or six, seven weekends. Just make it happen,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said earlier this month.

Service is expected to be back to normal by 8 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. If the shutdown is a success, the MTA may try it out on other lines.

Los Angeles Subway Sounds Like NY City 2nd Avenue Subway


LOS ANGELES (AP) — Officials say a planned subway project that will connect three rail lines in downtown Los Angeles will be delayed by a year, despite efforts to make up for time lost during construction.

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority says the new opening date for the Regional Connector is December 2021 — six months after the deadline established by federal officials and a year after the agency’s target date of December 2020.

The Los Angeles Times reports Thursday that the schedule change will not jeopardize $830 million in federal funding for the project.

The newspaper says aging water pipes and old, fragile utility lines required reinforcement before crews could safely dig beneath them. Cost overruns for utility work, consultants, land acquisition and legal fees have twice prompted Metro to approve budget increases.

New York City MTA Changes Announcements!

The New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority is doing away with the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” in its announcements on New York City subways and buses.

In lieu of “ladies and gentlemen,” the agency will be moving to gender-neutral phrasing like “passengers,” “riders” and “everyone.”