Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Can the trains really handle weekend passenger loads?

The Daily News had a good piece on subway overcrowding yesterday, featuring some odd comments by MTA officials. Much as I appreciate the work of reporter Dan Rivoli and his colleagues, there's a few things that need some clarifying around these issues. Let's start with the last paragraph first:

Improvements necessary to meet the demand — a new signal system to run more trains, for instance — are funded through the $32 billion five-year capital plan, which has a $14 billion hole state officials have yet to address.

This is actually incorrect in the context of the article, which is non rush-hour demand. The expensive capital improvements like upgraded signaling and additional trainsets are only necessary for increasing the maximum frequency of trains. This only matters at rush hours; at all other times a much lower frequency is enough to avoid overcrowding.

Okay, now to some comments from MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz:

The MTA attributes some delays to its effort to give riders even service while they wait at stations, which holds up some trains.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said it’s all about the train arriving to the station. By the MTA's measure, wait times at stations are more key to quality of service than delays that make trains late to their last stop.

"On weekends, overall, you’re seeing trains arriving at stations when they’re supposed to be arriving," Ortiz said.

He added that trains can already handle weekend passenger loads without hiking service.

I had to re-read that several times to figure it out. What I think Ortiz is saying is that the trains are going faster than the MTA has scheduled them to, so they have to wait at the stations until they are scheduled to leave. It seems like the obvious thing to do in that situation would be to update the schedules so that they're a better estimate of the time it actually takes for the trains to run, but he doesn't seem to think this is necessary.

I kind of feel bad for Ortiz. He seems like a nice guy, but here he is being paid to defend the indefensible. The News says that there were 2,451 overcrowding delays reported on weekends in April 2015, up from 1,016 delays in April 2014. That's 306 delays per day, or depending on how you count them, one overcrowding delay per line per waking hour. To me that suggests that the current service levels are not adequate to meet demand.

When Ortiz says that the trains can handle weekend passenger loads, he's referring to the loading guidelines that the MTA uses to determine how many trains to run. It used to be that if there was anyone standing on a train on the weekend, it meant that the MTA needed to add more trains. Now the guidelines say that a train can handle the load if twenty percent of the passengers are standing (see pages 28-30 of this PDF).

It's not clear where on the line they count passengers, or which car on a given train, but here is some great info that retired MTA scheduler Capt Subway left in the comments last year, and is worth quoting in its entirety:

The whole problem with the Loading Guidelines, as anyone who actually works / worked "on the ground" with the NYCTA (and not "upstairs" in some executive suite) knows, is that they are, written in sand as they are, a total fiction, pure BS. The only purpose they really serve, from what I could ever discern, was so that those making the day-to-day operating decisions could gauge just how far off the mark they actually were, just how outrageously they were actually lying to the public.

As a good example: the "regular" or "pick" or "posted" timetables must adhere to the guidelines in effect at that particular moment, albeit insofar as that is possible given any number of other constraints (track, signal, interlocking, terminal capacity, car availability, etc). Unfortunately the "regular" timetable is rarely ever actually run. 90% of the time "supplement" timetables are being run. And the vast majority of these supplements REDUCE service, including right through the peaks. The reasons for these are many. A major cause is "skeletonized" track with a resulting slow speed order in effect, an especially serious impediment to peak service delivery. In the off peak periods it is almost always track / capital work of one type or another. I worked for years supervising the production of "pick" & "supplement" timetables for the IRT lines. The degree to which the "supplements" often totally trashed and eviscerated the "regular" timetables was truly appalling.

This bad situation was made far worse by new "adjacent track" flagging rules that went into effect around 2009.

And one more word on the guidelines. They are based upon field traffic checks. These traffic checks are done by, mostly, low paid, often part time traffic checkers who literally count the bodies in each car of passing trains at a given point. This raw data is than "analyzed" by "experts" back in the office (I worked, from time to time, as one of those "experts"). We were regularly told by our bosses to "correct" obviously wrong data. For example, a number of years ago a Director of our Dept didn't like "lumpy" loading checks. He liked to "smooth out" the load over a longer period of time, thus showing less of an actual peak. In this way he could recommend against adding a train, or trains (along with the trains' two person crews). That made him look good. Hey, he just saved the TA the cost of a train and crew.

So if, like me, you're routinely seeing more than twenty percent of the riders standing on weekend subway trains, you're probably better informed than Kevin Ortiz. I think we should go back to the guidelines where nobody has to stand, but for a start we should audit these passenger counts to make sure that the schedules are actually based on accurate information.


Jonathan said...

Maybe transit advocacy organizations can conduct crowding surveys along with the litter surveys they are renowned for.

capt subway said...

The biggest disaster right now - hands down, no contest - are the new flagging rules & regulations. They are a total disaster for service delivery - everywhere and at all times - middays, weekday peaks, late nights and weekends. And with each passing year System Safety, an essentially autonomous department with the NYCTA, continues, seemingly arbitrarily and in pursuit of some wholly chimerical ideal of perfect safety for workers on the tracks, to make the flagging rules ever more onerous and injurious to service delivery. The TA is totally ignoring the 800 lb gorilla sitting right in the middle of their own living room - probably because this is a crisis they've created, willfully, with malice afore thought if you will, entirely on their own. And so the solution they suggest is - hold your hats - is cutting a second or two off the canned announcement for each station stop - truly farcical. Instead how about revisiting those disastrous flagging rules?

capt subway said...

Of course the bottom line here, which Ortiz isn't admitting to, is that the regular schedule, on most if not all lines, is not being operated on weekends. In most cases service is reduced drastically to meet the flagging guidelines. In almost all cases an 8 minute headway is "stretched" to a 12. E.g.: on Queens Blvd, where the E, F & R are all scheduled on 8 minute headways during weekend days (8-8-8 = 7.5+7.5+7.5 trains per hour - TPH - for 22.5 TPH) becomes, on most weekends 12-12-12 (or 5+5+5 = 15 TPH). A reduction from 22.5 TPH to 15 TPH is a substantial cut in service. Ditto on the #7 a Sat 4 minute headway and a Sun 5 minute headway become a uniform 8. Do the math on that one!

And don't even talk about the running time - which is substantially blown out - in some cases nearly doubled. This is done simply to "cook" the On Time Performance stats, so the TA can then tell the public everything is 99.9% on time, or some such similarly laughable lie.

So - here's the "real" story that Ortiz isn't telling you: you have to wait longer for a train because the headway is longer. When the train arrives it will be considerably more crowded because, simply, there are fewer trains. And the train will go a whole lot slower due to flagging and added running - all in all a perfect shit storm of rotten service.