Last year, New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and in particular the New York subway, which for years had been severely affected by derelict infrastructure and signalling issues that led to frustrating delays and overcrowding.

The network’s 24/7 trains serve six million customers on a daily basis across 24 lines and 665 miles of track. It stops at 472 stations, more than any other system in the world. But for years, the system has been failing its passengers.

The causes of the problem are complex. Over the past decade, growth in the city’s population and a rise in tourism have seen ridership increase by a quarter of a billion. However, investment hasn’t kept up with demand, leaving the 113-year-old infrastructure crumbling under the pressure. The average track was laid 41 years ago, while 40% of signal equipment is more than half a century old. Much of the system contains World War II-era signalling and communications equipment, wholly unsuitable for a modern city.

This led to a situation where by 2017, only 65% of weekday trains reached their destinations on time, the lowest record since the 1970s.

Last year, the city’s Independent Budget Office (IBO) was tasked with analysing how these delays are affecting commuters and the city’s economy. Its report concluded that the value of hours lost to delays on a typical workday morning is about $1.2m a day, or $307m annually.

On 23 May this year, MTA’s new president Andy Byford revealed a comprehensive plan to completely modernise every major aspect of the organisation and its services, from subways to buses, promising New Yorkers “a world-class transit”. The much-hyped plan is certainly ambitious: “We propose doing in 10 years what was previously scheduled to take more than 40, including major progress in the first five years,” Byford wrote in the report’s opening.

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Paying the price for decades of underinvestment

The IBO analysis put into context the reality commuters have grappled with for years: that the magnitudes of subway delays are actually taking a huge toll, both on the city’s economy, but above all, on passengers themselves.

It found that about one-quarter of weekday trains have gaps in service, after the average number of delays in a month increased dramatically, from about 20,000 in 2012 to more than 67,450 in May 2017. As such, passenger hours lost to delays on a typical weekday during the morning rush have increased on every line by at least 24%.

Considering the approximately 1.5 million riders stuck in the morning rush, the cost of these delays has racked up quickly, reaching the equivalent of $307m per year. Even though this is but a drop in the city’s huge economy, the report concluded that “much of the impact of subway delays falls on commuters themselves, shrinking the time they have for other responsibilities, such as taking children to school or caring for other family members.”

“56% of signal equipment was found to be more than 50 years old, causing signal issues that trigger nearly one-third of major incidents.”

The causes behind the subway’s dismal performance are varied. Overcrowding was found to be one of the main reasons for delays. However, when it came to pinpointing the technical shortcomings, the MTA lacked precise data on signal problems or rail conditions, and instead conflicts were attributed to “Right of Way Delays” and “Track Gangs”, meaning work teams doing scheduled or unscheduled repairs. In March, the Daily News published an embarrassing report which revealed that MTA officials couldn’t pinpoint the causes behind more than 10,000 delays, and “scattered” these equally among available categories in their data.

In the end, there is no denying that the ageing subway fleet plays a huge part in delays. As of last year, 56% of signal equipment was found to be more than 50 years old, causing signal issues that trigger nearly one-third of major incidents, according to MTA chairman Joe Lhota’s Subway Action Plan, a short-term solution published in 2017 that hoped to improve reliability and increase capacity. The plan also found that power-related issues have caused tens of thousands of delays, while rail joints on the ageing tracks were identified as the cause of most rail breakdowns.

The toughest job in the world

The MTA has been anything but oblivious to its mounting issues and abysmal track record. The subway action plan was one of the quick fixes hoped to address some of the most pressing problems, expediting signal repair, introducing more maintenance and repair workers, as well as longer trains, more countdown clocks and clearer service updates.

The plan was accompanied by the launch of a Genius Challenge last June, which attracted 438 submissions of possible, outside-the-box solutions. The winning proposals, revealed in March, included the Big B, a semi-automatic robotic system that would rapidly install communications and control infrastructure in track tunnels, and a $50m investment for researching the use of carbon fibre in new subway cars, which could also include modern features such as Wi-Fi, charging ports, LED lighting and screens showing real-time customer information.

But it was clear that these short-term solutions were just brushing the surface of a much deeper problem.

Hopes for a complete system overhaul began with the appointment of Andy Byford as president of New York City Transit agency, with the explicit expectation that he will manage to overturn decades of underinvestment and finally deliver the drastic modernisation the subway system sorely needs. From the get-go, his role was seen as “the toughest job in world”, as Byford himself recently put it.

His approach was certainly refreshing. In a first for any MTA head, Byford hosted an online Q&A with transit riders on Twitter, under the #AskNYCT hashtag. And, after taking on board the commuters’ biggest concerns, on 23 May he unveiled the eagerly anticipated modernisation plan.

No more cutting corners: MTA aims high in new plan

The plan, called “Fast Forward: The Plan to Modernize New York City Transit”, is the most comprehensive scheme to date, promising to completely modernise every major aspect of the organisation and its services, from subways to buses to accessibility to corporate culture.

“What must happen is sustained investment on a massive scale if we are to deliver New Yorkers the service they deserve and the transit system this city and state need,” Byford wrote in the plan’s introduction. “Now is the time to think big and transform our network so it works for all New Yorkers.”

The key takeaways are certainly ambitious.

Split between two visions – one to be delivered in five years’ time, and the second within a decade – the plan promises to install the latest computerised signal and track infrastructure on 11 additional lines, benefitting five million daily riders. It also aims to introduce a new tap-and-go fare payment system by 2020; make 130 stations fully accessible within the decade; and deliver critical structural and functional repairs, maintenance and improvements on 150 stations over the course of five years, and more than 300 stations within 10 years. A state-of-the-art fleet made up of than 3,000 new subway cars is also hoped to address capacity issues.

The infrastructure improvements are joined by changes to passenger experience, with performance tracking dashboards, train and bus arrival information, way finders and roaming station agents, as well as a new mobile-friendly website and app launching later this year.

“The plan promises to install the latest computerised signal and track infrastructure on 11 additional lines, benefitting five million daily riders.”

Byford, and the wider MTA team, do recognise that this is no small feat.

“Transforming our transit system under the accelerated timelines suggested in this plan will require both agility and accountability,” the report reads.

Progress on the plan will be tracked in a transparent manner via biannual public reporting starting in January 2019, as well as during “Meet the Manager” sessions with customers starting this year.

“I believe that New Yorkers want more than just a return to the reliability of yesteryear,” Byford said. “The world’s greatest city needs world-class transit and this plan will deliver exactly that.”

Whether or not this will turn out to be the solution New Yorkers have been waiting for remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that by publishing the most comprehensive, holistic plan in the system’s history, MTA sends the clear signal it wants to shake its reputation as a failing business and fast-track its way to a better future.