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GojiMet86

How the MTA Is Like an Alcoholic

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https://splinternews.com/how-the-mta-is-like-an-alcoholic-1796134449

 

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How the MTA Is Like an Alcoholic 

Hamilton Nolan

6/15/17 3:30pm

 

The summer is hot and the trains are stopped. As you sit on a stalled subway train somewhere deep underground, enjoy our newest installment of peoplefrom inside the MTA telling you exactly what is wrong with the MTA.

Previously, we hear about the MTA’s budget problems, train problems, and maintenance problems. Today, we hear from a senior-level supervisory employee working for the New York City subway system, who explains what he believes the MTA’s structural problems are. With vigor!

There is a chronic lack of vision at the top levels of management in the agency. Something that many people have overlooked, especially observers in the media, is that the level of service degradation we see today is in fact due to procedural and policy changes, in addition to the physical deterioration of the system. There has been much focus on the physical decay of the system, but not much focus on the policy changes that have occurred over the last few decades. No amount of physical plant rebuilding and repair will solve the institutional dysfunction that is inherent to the MTA.

There is an oft-repeating trope that I have heard inside the agency for years. It is that the MTA has the same problem that an alcoholic has - it has trouble admitting that there is a problem, and the problem inside the agency. Complaining about ridership causing delays to service is akin to a drunk complaining that there are too many liquor stores. We have met the enemy, and it is us. Through engineering and procedure policy changes, we have significantly reduced the capacity of the system.

Choices made in one department are done solely for its own interests, despite affecting everyone else in the agency adversely. No one thinks of the system holistically. It is only through the excellent design and construction of the system a century ago that we are able to continue running service at somewhat reasonable levels. Capital work, is always sexier than maintenance work; why would anyone be surprised that Governor Cuomo is fixated on cosmetic rebuilds for stations?

Decisions made here are made too often for political reasons. Our internal policies and procedures are convoluted, while our internal and external politics are downright deceitful. Cover-ups of mistakes abound, ranging from the deletion/editing of incident reports to “promoting” well-connected employees to rubber room positions instead of firing them. Mess-ups occur frequently and those responsible are rarely held accountable... These issues have been going on for a long time. Besides the general institutional dysfunction, one of the major problems affecting service is the fact that the trains have been slowed down over the years. For example, the A used to take 6 minutes to get from 125th St to 59th St. Now it almost takes 8 minutes. Extrapolate this decrease in speed to the whole system and you can see the level of impact it has.

Several incidents in the past few decades have resulted in knee-jerk procedural and engineering changes that have reduced the running speed of subway trains. This makes it harder to recover quickly from delays, and causes increasing amounts of train congestion in areas where there used to be little congestion. Slower trains also means more trains are needed to provide the same frequency of service we used to provide, increasing the amount of cars we have to maintain, and increasing the amount of trains running on the system that can contribute to congestion. Believe it or not, instances of “signal problems”, “broken rails”, and “mechanical problems” etc. occur less frequently today when compared to decades ago. However, each delay today now affects more trains, and as a result, more people, because our modern-day procedural and engineering policies make it harder for service to recover quickly.

Note that in the early 1990s, we reduced the emergency braking rate of the subway cars to obtain some operational and budgetary efficiencies, which created a dangerous possibility in which a train could rear end another train in certain situations. Such a crash did occur in 1995, resulting in several casualties. A sane person would decide to return the braking system to its original specifications, but since this is the MTA, a decision was made instead to reduce the top speed of the trains and implement forced speed restrictions through modification to the signal system. The MTA often neglects to act on issues until they become crises, and knee-jerk reactions once these issues become crises often do more harm than good.

You will hear a lot of bellyaching in the media and from the MTA spokespersons about the “aging 1930s signal system,” but the main factor that causes general train congestion, when there isn’t an equipment failure, is actually the aforementioned modifications done to the signal system in the 1990s-2010s that restrict the running speed of the trains. In many locations, these speed restrictions are far more strict than needed and fly in the face of standard industry practice. This is another instance in which the actions of one department negatively impact the entire system; the office of system safety forces through these changes without much understanding of their operational impact. Meanwhile, the Division of Operations Planning, which ostensibly is responsible for evaluating the impact of these modifications, seems to roll over and capitulate on this issue frequently. An extra few seconds of running time here, and a little less speed there, adds up to a big problem when you do multiple modifications to the signal system.

Furthermore, the new speed control features of the signal system have not been maintained well; a signal that is signed as a 25 MPH speed restriction may in practice only allow train operators to pass it at 15 MPH or below. As a result, many train operators have adopted a very cautious operating style to ensure they do not violate the signal system, and get a write up. This further slows down the system and causes additional congestion. The people who make these decisions seem to do them solely based on theory, which often shows insignificant impacts. However, in practice, their effects are much more severe.

Beyond what occurs in the field, there are also major organizational breakdowns in management too. A very good example of this is the MTA’s RCC (Rail Control Center), which is essentially the Air Traffic Control for the subway system. The RCC is a bastion of office drama, mismanagement, and incompetence. The RCC, unlike many contemporary railroad control centers, is a very stressful environment. It is incredibly loud, with bright lighting that overstimulates those who work there. Employees have to deal with a massive amount of (non-computerized, mind you) paperwork, when they should be free to focus fully on running the system and managing service. Due to the high stress levels, arguments occur frequently, including physical altercations...

In spite of all of this, the official MTA line will always remain, in essence, “Our system is over 100 years old, and we are doing our best. Give us a break”. Upper management is loathe to recognize, let alone admit, that the last three decades of engineering and procedural policy has eviscerated the system of a significant amount of capacity. This problem has been festering for so long that we have very little staff remaining that has the institutional knowledge to fix some of the procedural issues that plague the system.

Nobody wants to admit that the problem is within, so they will continue to blame whatever external factors they can find. Sick passengers, overcrowding, and infrastructure failures are scapegoats used to ignore the real issue - the fact that the railroad itself is not operated competently. While it has decayed considerably, our current physical infrastructure would perform much better if our operations were better managed and we made proper engineering decisions. This issue propagates from the top down - the fish rots from the head. Until senior leadership is willing to recognize that the many of our issues are human in nature, we will not see the true change we need to put the “rapid” back in “rapid transit.”

 

 

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Already posted/discussed -- albeit from different website 

That said, the issues that this piece touches on (i.e. operating culture and practices) need to be addressed. While signals etc get all the attention, it's these little delays that are killing us. Just look at the overcrowding delay numbers here -- all of which are chargeable to agency policy, if we are to follow this article's line of reasoning. 

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34 minutes ago, GojiMet86 said:

https://splinternews.com/how-the-mta-is-like-an-alcoholic-1796134449

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An extra few seconds of running time here, and a little less speed there, adds up to a big problem

 

Vindicates my perception. The system really has been slowing down even compared to a mere 10 years ago.

Edited by CenSin

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1 hour ago, RR503 said:

Already posted/discussed -- albeit from different website 

That said, the issues that this piece touches on (i.e. operating culture and practices) need to be addressed. While signals etc get all the attention, it's these little delays that are killing us. Just look at the overcrowding delay numbers here -- all of which are chargeable to agency policy, if we are to follow this article's line of reasoning. 

Kinja/splinter = parts of Gizmodo 

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Maybe if the (MTA) was properly funded, it could stop wasting money on paying interest to Wall Street and funnel that money into needed things such as more elevators or expedited maintenance of failing infrastructure.

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Some of us inside and outside the system have known about the problems in the subways for years.  We have tried to discuss the situation in various posts over the years.  Go back and look at the most commented on threads and you're going to find that the popular ones focus on the cosmetics.  New cars,  countdown clocks, routing proposals.  I guess the real nuts and bolts aren't sexy enough for some posters and some in management. I can excuse the posters but there's no excuse for upper management to be so inept.  People fawning over what the (MTA) press releases or the governor's office publicist said while ignoring the underlying problems.  I don't pretend to know about Surface but it wouldn't be a surprise to me that the same problems exist over there too. Just my thoughts.  Carry on. 

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10 hours ago, GojiMet86 said:

Thank you @GojiMet86 for posting this article; its always a humbling experience for me to gain insight from the perspective of a seasoned veteran. From procedural adjustments to operating practices, it is clear that the entity responsible for the state of our subway system is management. A section of this article touched base on signals and the unreliability thereof. When a Train Operator (T/O) hits a timed homeball set to danger going 5 MPH, but is posted to clear at 15 MPH, there is an ISSUE. When he/she has to face demotion because of failing infrastructure, there is an ISSUE. When you have to operate with such fear at the sight of a distant signal at caution situated just before a blind curve, there is an ISSUE. Management's perspective is programmed to a default—you didn't have your train under proper control, it doesn't matter if the fixed signal read "GT 15," you should've known better than thinking that homeball would clear at 5 MPH, regardless of it being posted to clear at 15 MPH. Not only does this constant pressure make it more likely for T/O's to slip up, but it effectively reduces the overall speed and distance the train travels over a period of time. However, there are some locations in the system where being reprimanded for hitting timers are justified, such as on tight curves on elevated track and on downgrades—where trains can accelerate to unsafe speeds; the final halves of the Williamsburg Bridge on the (J)/(Z) and (M) lines for example. These are instances where violating a predetermined speed limit can lead to possible fatality of everyone onboard a train. These few objections put aside, management has to seriously examine their supervision and realize how irrational their mentality can be, as it contributes to the "beast" they claim is all but theirs. Yet another buzzkill that torments the efficiency of the system is the MTA's procedural policies involving track flagging near the vicinity of active work zones. There has to be a safer and more productive way for them to provide adequate safety for Track Workers (T/W's). Case in point, flashing red beacons placed 600 FT < z FT < 750 FT before the site of an active work zone on an arbitrary subway line in the system are set at time x (PM). The first T/O arrives at time x + y, just after they're set and illuminated, sees them, and reduces speed, blowing the horn at procedural intervals. Five, maybe six T/W's signal to the T/O that they've cleared up and acknowledge him. First T/O resumes his normal operation when he reaches the stable green lantern around time 2y. All T/W's are safe and accounted for and they return to tending the trackbed. In all, the T/O and T/W's lost twice the amount of time it took the T/O to clear the work zone than it otherwise would in their line of respective duties. Now, multiply this length of time by at least 20 and conclude how much time has been lost in scheduled runs and productive track work. Does everyone see the problem now? This has NOTHING to do with the T/O's or T/W's. This is another example of the procedural protocol that management and other high-ranking officials in the business have implemented, turning their backs on scheduled service and level of productivity. The author of "How the MTA is like an Alcoholic" is right on the money; a regressed capacity to successfully balance insight with execution, coupled with those who do not possess an adequate knowledge of the probabilistic nature of daily transit operations is the "beast" that composes the ranks of our decision-making managerial organization—the MTA.

Edited by AlgorithmOfTruth
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27 minutes ago, AlgorithmOfTruth said:

Thank you @GojiMet86 for posting this article; its always a humbling experience for me to gain insight from the perspective of a seasoned veteran. From procedural adjustments to operating practices, it is clear that the entity responsible for the state of our subway system is management. A section of this article touched base on signals and the unreliability thereof. When a Train Operator (T/O) hits a timed homeball set to danger going 5 MPH, but is posted to clear at 15 MPH, there is an ISSUE. When he/she has to face demotion because of failing infrastructure, there is an ISSUE. When you have to operate with such fear at the sight of a distant signal at caution situated just before a blind curve, there is an ISSUE. Management's perspective is programmed to a default—you didn't have your train under proper control, it doesn't matter if the fixed signal read "GT 15," you should've known better than thinking that homeball would clear at 5 MPH, regardless of it being posted to clear at 15 MPH. Not only does this constant pressure make it more likely for T/O's to slip up, but it effectively reduces the overall speed and distance the train travels over a period of time. However, there are some locations in the system where being reprimanded for hitting timers are justified, such as on tight curves on elevated track and on downgrades—where trains can accelerate to unsafe speeds; the final halves of the Williamsburg Bridge on the (J)/(Z) and (M) lines for example. These are instances where violating a predetermined speed limit can lead to possible fatality of everyone onboard a train. These few objections put aside, management has to seriously examine their supervision and realize how irrational their mentality can be, as it contributes to the "beast" they claim is all but theirs. Yet another buzzkill that torments the efficiency of the system is the MTA's procedural policies involving track flagging near the vicinity of active work zones. There has to be a safer and more productive way for them to provide adequate safety for Track Workers (T/W's). Case in point, flashing red beacons placed 600 FT < z FT < 750 FT before the site of an active work zone on an arbitrary subway line in the system are set at time x = 0 (measured in minutes). The first T/O arrives at time x + y, just after they're set and illuminated, sees them, and reduces speed, blowing the horn at procedural intervals. Five, maybe six T/W's signal to the T/O that they've cleared up and acknowledge him. First T/O resumes his normal operation when he reaches the stable green lantern around time 2(x + y). All T/W's are safe and accounted for and they return to tending the trackbed. In all, the T/O and T/W's lost twice the amount of time it took the T/O to clear the work zone than it otherwise would in their line of respective duties. Now, multiply this length of time by at least 20 and conclude how much time has been lost in scheduled runs and productive track work. Does everyone see the problem now? This has NOTHING to do with the T/O's or T/W's. This is another example of the procedural protocol that management and other high-ranking officials in the business have implemented, turning their backs on scheduled service and level of productivity. The author of "How the MTA is like an Alcoholic" is right on the money; a regressed capacity to successfully balance insight with execution, coupled with those who do not possess an adequate knowledge of the probabilistic nature of daily transit operations is the "beast" that composes the ranks of our decision-making managerial organization—the MTA.

 

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Disregard my first post in this thread, I made an appropriate correction: "First T/O resumes his normal operation when he reaches the stable green lantern around time 2(x + y)."

 

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9 hours ago, Trainmaster5 said:

Some of us inside and outside the system have known about the problems in the subways for years.  We have tried to discuss the situation in various posts over the years.  Go back and look at the most commented on threads and you're going to find that the popular ones focus on the cosmetics.  New cars,  countdown clocks, routing proposals.  I guess the real nuts and bolts aren't sexy enough for some posters and some in management. I can excuse the posters but there's no excuse for upper management to be so inept.  People fawning over what the (MTA) press releases or the governor's office publicist said while ignoring the underlying problems.  I don't pretend to know about Surface but it wouldn't be a surprise to me that the same problems exist over there too. Just my thoughts.  Carry on. 

Couldn't have said it better myself. People obsess over the superficial, the simple, the 'solvable.' Yet those are rarely the real problems. Everyone has their own set of priorities, and will curate what they read and consider to fit them. It's one thing if those people are posters here arduously seeking information on R179s, the Canarsie Shutdown, or when the (E)(R) transfer will open, but it's a whole different ball game if the officials who we trust to administer our system are trying to fulfill personal goals rather than metropolitan ones. Look at what they did with ConEd. They deflected the blame for something like 25,000 incidents onto a body which -- while disgusting in its own right -- had nothing to do with them. That's not how governance should work.

In terms of this thread, while I disagree with the author and think that signal/car/power upgrades are an integral part of resuscitating, I'm with him or her insofar as they're only part of the issue. He or she touches on timers and RCC, but it's more than that. It's a well documented truth that train operators are encouraged -- really scared into -- going as slow as possible regardless of track profile or signal indications. And god forbid they don't, they'll be strung up for "not having their train under control." Train crews need to be trusted to make decisions based on their judgment of their territory and the conditions they're in. Not based on fear. That part of the culture needs to change too, as if crews are too scared to go faster than 30, all the timer removal in the world won't speed things up. 

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9 hours ago, AlgorithmOfTruth said:

First T/O resumes his normal operation when he reaches the stable green lantern around time 2y. All T/W's are safe and accounted for and they return to tending the trackbed.

The T/W returns to playing on the iPhone if that doesn’t also get addressed by the higher ups who have allowed lax work ethics.

Edited by CenSin
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