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.