Josh Barro is not alone in being stuck in the mindset that transit always needs more riders. It seems to be a hard thing to grasp, but sometimes you have enough riders to fill your buses and you have to create more capacity so that you can take more people out of their cars. These people must have a hard time going on weekend trips with tiny purses and briefcases, or buying large sodas when they're really thirsty.
You might think that Barro would be familiar with crowded transit since he lives in Sunnyside, where the 7 train has been crowded and unreliable for the past few years. At least some of our neighbors have figured out that we need more capacity, and organizing a Facebook campaign that has attracted over 800 members in just a few weeks. Some of their anecdotes and photos, on top of my own experience, have convinced me that the NYMTC's capacity estimates are inaccurate, out of date, or otherwise unrepresentative.
So what can we do to increase capacity on the 7 train? Some people say that once the MTA finishes installing the new Communications-Based Train Control signaling in 2017, we will have more trains. At the very least, CBTC will help things run more smoothly. But there are reasons to be skeptical.
As Capt. Subway and Alon Levy have taught us, a train line requires both trunk capacity and terminal capacity to function properly. CBTC may help increase our trunk capacity (but keep reading), but how much use is that if we're still constrained by our terminal capacity?
Well, the MTA actually tested that almost exactly thirteen years ago: they spent the morning of Saturday, April 13, 2002 trying to run thirty trains an hour on the 7 line. I remember when they did it, but didn't hear much about the results. If you're wondering why, here's a report by an independent observer named Stephen Bauman (still posting today) who watched the test from the 111th Street station and compared it with his observations of the normal rush hour on the previous day.
Bauman calculated that the MTA was able to increase the number of trains per hour from 25 to 28. Since they were running ten cars per train instead of the normal eleven, that represented a decrease in capacity. With more train cars and newer ones, they might be able to run 28 eleven-car trains today.
A bigger concern that Bauman conveyed was that the MTA was simply not up to the task, organizationally. As he observed, the dispatcher's clock in Main Street didn't even show seconds, the published timetable is vague and the internal timetable may not be any better, the trains were likely not timed right leaving 111th Street, the conductors did not wait for a signal before closing the doors, and "they ran out of trains around 8:30."
There was one train that sat in the station for six minutes. Bauman writes, "I would definitely catagorize the delay of nearly 6 minutes in getting operating personnel to operate a departing train to be part of the TA's lack of operational ability. There were about 5 supervisors on the Flushing bound platform. There weren't any on the platform where the trains were supposed to leave for Manhattan."
Some of these shortcomings are self-correcting: if the MTA tried this on a weekday the passengers would prevent the trains from leaving early. Others may just be kinks that could be ironed out over time. But overall the outcome is discouraging. We should expect and demand more, but we may not be able to get more any time soon. That means we'll have to look into other improvements, like bus lanes on the bridge and the tunnel, and increased frequency on the Long Island Rail Road.