Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Black swans over Long Island

Last week Planet Money had a great "Deep Read" with economist Nassim Taleb. Taleb's major point is that when you're vulnerable to "black swans" - rare and unpredictable, but high impact events - you need to invest in reserves and redundancy to be able to survive them.

It's an argument that all transportation providers should pay attention to, but railroads in particular are dependent on linear infrastructure. The current mess with the Long Island Railroad's switches in Jamaica show that at least one railroad isn't getting it.

The vast majority of train trips on the LIRR go through Jamaica. That's great for transfers, but it sucks for redundancy. You would think they'd have a backup plan, but apparently the MTA prefers to let the riders - and the taxpayers - bear the full brunt of any black swans that affect Jamaica.

Yup, that's the kind of perverse thinking the public authority structure encourages. If we had a sane system, Helena Williams' head would already be on a pike for giving public property to Bruce Ratner for nothing. Well, if we had a sane system, Williams would probably never have been allowed anywhere near the top post, and maybe we'd have someone competent actually running the railroad.

But now it's time to pull out a game I like to play whenever there's a major, but avoidable outage that affects millions of people: what if the people in power actually gave a shit? In this case, what if they wanted to build redundancy into the Long Island Railroad? What if the government had a giant Keynsian stimulus program, and money were no object?

Ideally, the Central Railroad of Long Island, which ran from Flushing to Floral Park along the route of what's now the Brooklyn-Queens Greenway, would never have been torn up. It could potentially be reconstructed, or a southern bypass created under Rockaway and Linden Boulevards. Even a through connection in Jamaica bypassing the main station there would prevent some events from completely disrupting service.

If we give up on a rail-based solution, then a bus-based one is the next best thing. If I were the LIRR president, on Monday I would have sat down with the heads of Long Island Bus, the MTA Bus Company and New York City Transit to get every available bus running parallel routes.

I would also have gotten on the phone with Long Island Transit, Hampton Jitney, Joel Azumah and any other licensed operators interested in providing temporary service. I would have told them to take anyone who showed them an unused LIRR ticket, and paid them by the mile. If I were the Governor, I would have ordered the State DOT to set up bus-only lanes on the LIE so that those buses wouldn't all be sitting in traffic.

A real powerful response like that would have earned back some of the LIRR's customer loyalty that's been eroded over the years, and made it more likely that Long Island's representatives will support the MTA in the future. Instead - from a Governor who grew up on Long Island - we got lame excuses, finger-pointing and stranded customers.


Alon Levy said...

Berlin actually has a lot of redundancy, but that didn't prevent its S-Bahn from having a total meltdown last year. In contrast, Tokyo has none, but operates well. Meltdowns happen to agencies that skimp on maintenance, such as the LIRR and DB; they do not happen to agencies that care about reliability, such as JR East.

In some cases, redundancy can actually force cost increases, making sure there's no money left over for maintenance. ARC is a good example: a lot of the cost-blowers in the project come from attempts to avoid placing the tunnels too close to the existing tunnels and the existing Penn Station.

custom trains said...

Love the Long Island. I have ever since the days of Pennsylvania Railroad Control. Public transit needs to be efficient and affordable.

busplanner said...

Re: Rounding up the buses for a rail outage:

Put simply, there aren't enough buses and bus operators (licensed drivers) uncommitted in a weekday peak period to handle an outage of the magnitude of the LIRR outage.

It would be misleading to commuters to say "The buses are coming! The buses are coming!"

EngineerScotty said...

It's worth noting that the mythology of the black swan as metaphor for a rare event was undone when early European explorers of Australia found that such a bird was (and still is) commonplace there:

jazumah said...

The buses aren't sitting around per se, but if the LIRR would learn to cut checks on time, they would be able to get more buses more quickly. The LIRR has a reputation for paying slowly.