DC Metro subway shutdown brings America’s aging subway systems into focus

By Steve Brachmann
May 2, 2016

"NYC Subway R160A 9237 on the E" by AEMoreira042281. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

“NYC Subway R160A 9237 on the E” by AEMoreira042281. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This March, a series of electrical fires around Washington D.C.’s Metro subway system, the second-busiest subway transit system in America, caused an emergency shutdown of the entire system for safety inspections of third rails. The emergency shutdown stranded hundreds of thousands of commuters on Wednesday, March 16th, so that inspection teams could make sure that 100 miles of underground track would be safe for commuters the following morning. Problems with the Metro system span back decades as reporters from The Washington Post have written on safety reports issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over four decades which include warnings for neglectful safety practices.

Our nation’s capital is not the only major city where public transit systems, especially subway rail lines, are threatened because of aging infrastructure. Damage wrought as a consequence of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy has forced a decision on behalf of New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to shut down extensive portions of the L train, including a full shutdown of the Canarsie Tube for 18 months, beginning late 2018. Repairs to MTA rail lines continue despite the MTA board’s approval of a massive $32 billion infrastructure upgrade project in September 2014. Over in Boston, a rail line reliability tracker developed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) shows significant issues in passenger wait times for trains on the MBTA’s Green Line.

Statistics have shown that Americans are growing increasingly favorable to the use of public transportation options with ridership totals which haven’t been seen since the middle of the 20th century. In 2014, Americans took 10.8 billion rides on public transportation according to statistics collected by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The APTA also reports that this total was the highest level of public transportation ridership seen in America in 58 years. American public transportation ridership dipped by 1.3 percent in 2015 down to 10.6 billion trips, but double digit increases in light rail ridership that year for cities like Minneapolis, Houston and Buffalo show that even Americans in smaller cities are becoming more reliant on subways.

Across the board, America’s rail infrastructure has plenty which could be improved. A 2013 infrastructure report card on American rail issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives American rail a grade of C+, although this is better than America’s overall infrastructure GPA of D+, as judged by the ASCE. The ASCE’s report did remark that capital investments in rail projects had grown in recent years, especially those for freight rail, but that passenger rail could be improved in urban areas and dense urban corridors. Here at IPWatchdog, we’ve been looking into the current discussion surrounding the state of American public infrastructure, including how smart grid technologies could help improve the reliability of the nation’s electrical grid. We’ve also taken a look at how technological innovation can keep rail passengers safer, especially in light of last May’s deadly Amtrak derailment north of Philadelphia. Today, we’re taking a look at the needs of America’s urban rail systems, especially subways, to see what public transportation issues exist and how they might be overcome.


The reasons behind subway system degradation are manifold and are much more complex than simple age-related degeneration. Poor management is cited in some cases, including the recent DC Metro shutdown, for an inability to respond to safety concerns. Low levels of funding from governmental agencies also hurt light rail systems; recent remarks from DC Metro’s board chairman Jack Evans indicates that the subway system needs $25 billion over ten years to ensure that it remains operational and safe.

Even when operational, issues of delayed train arrivals can increase the frustrations felt by those using public transportation options to commute. An audit of New York City’s MTA subway system issued in August 2015 by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli identified multiple causes for the 25 percent of MTA rail cars running behind schedule, including a lack of repair parts for older trains and organizational inexperience caused by a large number of new recent hires. Analysis of MTA text alerts about delays reported on by New York radio station WNYC found that more than one-third of all subway delays of eight minutes or longer were caused by signal problems, the busy borough of Manhattan being the home of the most such delays.

Passengers for most major subway systems in America do have tools available online which will at least keep them informed of any likely delays in arriving subway cars. Along with signing up for text or e-mail alerts with the MTA, New York subway riders can check in with the MTA Service Advisory Website to stay on top of planned subway line work times. The DC Metro also offers a Metro Alerts site which allows residents to subscribe to an RSS feed to receive alerts as soon as the Metro issues them. Chicago’s ‘L’ subway system, the third largest urban subway system by annual ridership, also maintains an ‘L’ Train Service Alerts page for both current and upcoming disruptions to regular service.

It’s no exaggeration to say that most of the nation’s subways are operating on century-old technology. Much of the current framework making up New York’s MTA system goes back to the 1930s and dispatchers still manually operate electromechanical relays which switch tracks and turn light signals on or off. This system could change drastically, however, with the advent of communication based train control (CBTC), a next-generation rail signaling technology that sends train location information wirelessly to land-based control equipment. Currently, the MTA relies upon fixed-block signaling separating sections of track into fixed blocks, each block being about 1,000 feet in length. Fixed-block signaling creates buffer zones between cars so that they maintain a safe distance. Although updating to CBTC requires retrofitting rail cars and the lines themselves with new sensor equipment, CBTC requires less maintenance than fixed-block signaling and it does a better job of providing the exact location of vehicles, allowing the MTA to safely operate cars more closely together.

The sensor architecture supporting CBTC communications for train control includes transponders located along sections of rail track to identify the exact location of a car. That location information is fed to an onboard controller which sends radio signals to a wayside controller at a central control facility including the location, speed and other status updates for a car. Last July, NYC’s MTA gave preliminary approval for a $205.8 million to install CBTC equipment on the Queens Boulevard line.

News reports seem to indicate that New York City’s MTA is perhaps the most forward-thinking subway system in terms of incorporating innovation for rider safety and convenience. In February, the MTA announced plans to replace strip maps on the 2 and 5 lines which would provide riders with more accurate information on subway car location as they wait for cars to arrive. The MTA is also hoping to test open gangway subway car prototypes by 2020; these open gangway cars have no interior doors and could increase passenger space by up to 10 percent. Anyone who has suffered the indignity of waiting underground for the subway without the convenience of an Internet connection won’t have that same problem in MTA stations by the end of 2016, when the entire subway system is expected to be outfitted with Wi-Fi access.

Considering the reliability issues inherent with much of America’s subway infrastructure, the experience afforded to South Koreans in Seoul, home of the world’s third-largest subway transit system in terms of ridership as recently as 2010, seems luxurious by comparison. Subway apps for that city’s transit system allow riders to pay their fare via smartphone similar to how digital wallet payments are accepted. Seoul subway stations also have sliding screen doors preventing station occupants from walking onto the track and automated subway cars like those which could be supported by CBTC technologies.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 10 Comments comments.

  1. Matthew Geier May 2, 2016 11:23 pm

    Some of those systems might be running electro-mechanical signalling systems that are nearing 100 years old, but their modern replacements will be lucky to last 30. There is something to be said for a technology that can continue to largely do what it was designed to do all those years ago.
    The CBTC system currently being rolled out will be lucky to last 30 years before total replacement. It might be cheaper to maintain, but it will have to be replaced more often that the 1930’s era equipment.

  2. John Willkie May 3, 2016 2:56 pm

    Light rail = subway? (Minneapolis, Houston, Buffalo) Subways (by definition) are Heavy Rail, which is not Light Rail.

    The offending phrasing

    “but double digit increases in light rail ridership that year for cities like Minneapolis, Houston and Buffalo show that even Americans in smaller cities are becoming more reliant on subways.” Is even worse than equating light rail with heavy rail. The APTA survey was for all forms of public transportation. Perhaps this formulation “better served” the stated premise than … “becoming more reliant on public transportation.”

    Nor is the premise that the Metro shutdown “stranded” passengers borne out by the facts and news reports. The shutdown was announced the day before the shutdown, and most commuters either stayed home or took the “bus.” Those stranded might be people who were at work when the shutdown was announced. They could take the bus home, or commuter rail (Maryland), or a cab, or walk, or Uber/Lyft. No stranding.

  3. Steve Brachmann May 6, 2016 9:56 am

    @John – I’m sure that there were many people in DC who felt stranded after finding out that the public transportation option they rely on to get to work wouldn’t be available the next day. If they were given a week, maybe that gives people better time to plan, but I’m comfortable with the use of the word “stranded” given the short notice and how many people were affected. Also, that offending phrase you point out about light rail/heavy rail conflation, that’s not my invention; the APTA report that I link in that paragraph says that “light rail” (their words) in those three cities increased by double digits. The reporting here is factual. Also, intriguing to learn of the characterization of Buffalo’s subway system as “heavy rail.” I live in Buffalo, pretty close to downtown in fact. We have one subway line. It has a whopping 13 stops. 14 when there’s an event at First Niagara Center downtown. But the idea that Buffalo’s system could be construed as “heavy rail” when it covers a single line running a little longer than six miles seems a little misleading. The cars might be capable of carrying a large number of people, but the system isn’t conducive to that in the way that it’s currently laid out.

  4. John Willkie May 6, 2016 2:44 pm

    I stand by the traditional definition of “stranded” but I cannot concede the point about Buffalo. At best, you are engaging in “incomplete reporting” in your post. The Buffalo system uses the same cars as the Philadelphia SEPTA system, which is the “poster boy” of a light rail system. I note that you quote the APTA on what is a light rail system. Did you realize that APTA classifies Buffalo as a light rail system?

    I will concede that some classify SEPTA as a “medium” rail system due to the rail bed. I will note that you did not explain the dichotomy between “light and heavy” cars and “light, medium and heavy” rail beds. Being a subway line is orthogonal to this analysis, except there are “very few” cases where heavy rail cars run in streets. I note that Buffalo has? had? a transit mall.

  5. Steven Brachmann May 9, 2016 11:52 am

    @John – Sorry, pardon my confusion, but you seem to have flip-flopped on the topic of whether Buffalo’s subway system is defined as light rail or heavy rail. It’s particularly troubling to me because you use that flip-flop to allege that I’ve engaged in “incomplete reporting.” The first sentence of your comment at 2 says, “Light rail = subway? (Minneapolis, Houston, Buffalo) Subways (by definition) are Heavy Rail, which is not Light Rail.” Am I correct in assuming that you’ve essentially said, “The Buffalo subway is defined as heavy rail, not light rail”? But in comment 4 you’ve come out with this comparison between Buffalo and the Philadelphia system to make the argument that Buffalo is a light rail system. That’s a complete change in your point of view. In fact, you even support the point I make in comment 3, the fact that APTA characterizes the Buffalo, Houston and Minneapolis systems as light rail. If you want to have an intelligent discussion critiquing my work, that’s fine. But you seem to be pulling at threads that have very little substance.

    Buffalo does have a downtown mall situated along the city’s subway line. It’s pretty much a shell of what it ever was or could have been. It does house a busy pizza joint that sells some of the best slices in this city. But beyond that, it gets very little traffic.

  6. Fraser Pollock May 11, 2016 9:43 am

    Buffalo has a LRT system but it has a lot of below grade or “subway” right of way and since the article is about maintaining below grade, rail transit right of way and its high costs, I forgive him for including it in this article. That most people are connecting with the strict definition of heavy rail system or Metros or Subways (use the name which is appropriate for you) is understandable.

    However, that leads me to my main point, I have noticed a lot of LRT systems which, are supposed to be cheaper, easier as well as faster to implement than heavy rail systems becoming more like a Light Metro or Light Subway system in terms of capacity and implementation scale and costs. Seattle’s LRT system comes to mind! Where 80% of the original right of way is on expensive to build above grade and below grade tunnels. I understand that there were political issues which drove these decisions but wow, do they have some big bills coming in the future.

    Vancouver BC’s, Light Metro System the “Skytrain” although originally marketed as a form LRT but legally categorized as a Light Metro is another system that due to very expensive existing above grade rights of way has now come to a literal fork in the track, so to speak. There is desire and a perceived need to expand the system however, there is also the need to start improving the original Expo Line from 1986 because it is now at its functional capacity limit and its infrastructure needs to upgraded soon. The Expo line has 20km of above grade right of way and due to the quickly deteriorating condition of its 30+ year old concrete structure needs attention soon. This cost has not even been budgeted yet! Upgraded stations and power systems yes, but not the right of way. The cost will be in the Billions of dollars. The choice they face in Vancouver is expand or maintain the existing system. They do not currently have the money for both and it is unlikely they ever will have enough to do both effectively!

  7. John Willkie May 12, 2016 1:37 am

    One learns a bit when challenging the assertions of another person. Having once been a reporter covering urban transit, the difference between light and heavy rail was long obvious. Putting a LRT line underground doesn’t make it heavy rail, even if the LRT system uses a third rail and not a catenary for power transmission.

    You raise good points, Fraser, but the lines you refer to, by the most part, aren’t transit systems — they were created for one-off events without any real idea of how they would work with existing transit after the one-off event. I’d call them “stunt” lines.

    I’m amused by Mr. Brachmann’s appeals — even being a resident of Buffalo — that omitted the simple fact that he can’t or won’t tell the difference between light and heavy rail in the city where he lives. I can’t recall a time when the Buffalo system wasn’t labeled as light rail.

    What I thought was odd to omit from the original piece any mention of Zachary Schrag’s “The Great Society Subway” on the making of the Washington Metro. I’m almost through the book. One of the key aspects of the Metro — from the beginning — was it’s intent to create a complete system that would work with cars and buses to form a system.

    As for cost-effective rail transit systems, I would offer up the San Diego Trolley. They got a deal on railroad right of way, so the cost of the initial line was relatively low, and up until the last decade or so, most operating revenues came out of the fair box. Did I mention it was built under budget and on-time? (One extension, however, cost 7x more than the initial line, without compensating revenues and while increasing operating costs.)

  8. Steven Brachmann May 12, 2016 10:54 am

    @John – At the same time that you claim to know more than me about what is defined as heavy or light rail, you have blurred the lines between what constitutes heavy or light rail. I can recall a time when you, in fact, you, considered Buffalo’s system to be heavy rail, and that is clearly seen in the first sentence of comment 2 (and my confusion over the fact is clearly laid out in comment 3). So if you are “amused by [my] appeals,” I am absolutely flabbergasted at your willingness to twist facts to shift the grounds of a debate as it’s happening. If you can’t make a better explanation as to what you meant in comment 2, I’m forced to brand you as a bit of a charlatan, because it reads like you’re saying that Buffalo’s system is heavy rail. Those were your words. You obviously have some useful knowledge on the subject of transit systems, and I’m glad to hear your thoughts on the San Diego Trolley or the book that you’re currently reading. And maybe someday we run an article that discusses the difference between heavy rail and light rail. But this isn’t that article. And no number of backhanded comments from yourself about how “amused” you are and what you’ve learned from “challenging the assertions of another person” is going to change that.

    Out of curiosity, where did you serve as a reporter covering urban transit?

  9. John Willkie May 12, 2016 12:31 pm

    @steve;

    Let’s keep it simple. 1)Is Buffalo’s system light, heavy or medium rail? 2)Did you say that Buffalo was heavy rail?

    I stand corrected on equating subways with heavy rail, but then — tada — Buffalo’s system is a subway for only part of the line. On the other hand, never having visited Buffalo, I’ve never had the opportunity to ride the line.

    If you board a car, you quickly become aware of whether the car is light or heavy rail; the differences in mass and track bed directly affect how the cars (and passengers) sway, and how much track noise is transferred to the car and passengers.

    For a clear example of the differences, travel on LA’s systems and transfer at the Metro Center station. One set of tracks are light rail, and another is heavy rail. In San Francisco, transfer from a Muni line to a BART line.

    As for twisting facts, I will leave that for you. You have yet to even acknowledge that you CLEARLY mischaracterized Buffalo’s system in your under reported and ineptly edited piece.

  10. Steven Brachmann May 12, 2016 12:57 pm

    @John – Can’t help but notice that you didn’t answer my question regarding your experience in covering urban transit. What publications published your work? Where can I see it?

    I’ll also stand corrected on one point: Buffalo’s rail system does go above-ground for a few stops, I think it’s about four or five. So on the definition of the word “subway,” yes, the rail is not technically underground. But here’s my problem: This debate didn’t start with the definition of subway, it started with the definition of heavy rail vs. light rail, which you’ve already backed off from, i.e.: “I stand corrected on equating subways with heavy rail.” I think the only thing that you’ve made clear is that there are a lot of ways to define urban rail systems and you’re using those definitions not to have a substantive conversation on the issue here (which, if I have to spell it out, is narrowly focused on improvements that can be made to urban rail systems for better reliability), but rather to impugn my work. If anyone “clearly mischaracterized Buffalo’s system,” it was the APTA, not me, as I’ve already pointed out. Take it up with them.

    Also, in comment 9, you didn’t answer your question number 2 clearly. Probably because I never actually said that Buffalo was heavy rail, I was trying to understand the issue from your point of view in comment 3. Ever since, you’ve been using that to question my journalistic integrity all because I was trying to understand your perspective. Perhaps I was wrong to spend my time trying to do that.