The plan to upgrade the subway’s Flushing Line to Communications Based Train Control, in order to facilitate more frequent train service, is running almost twenty months behind schedule and nearly 38 million over budget, with more delays likely in the future.
Communications Based Train Control, or CBTC, is critical to running more trains on New York City’s aging subway. By installing new equipment on both trains and along the track, more precise train location information can be gathered, allowing more trains to safely operate closer together.
However, progress has been exceedingly slow in rolling out this technology, despite often being described as one of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s top strategies to improve service.
So far, only the L train has been equipped, with the No. 7 line being the second contract awarded.
Thales Transport and Security, Inc., a subsidiary of the publicly traded French defense contractor Thales Group, was awarded the contract to install CBTC on the No. 7 line in June 2010. At first, the status updates on the project were very positive–the contractor was on-time and within budget.
After barely two years passed on the initially seven year contract, things began to go off the rails.
In January 2012, the program’s Independent Engineering Consultant (also known as an I.E.C. — the I.E.C. performs a watchdog function on specific capital projects and provides regular status updates) recommended “NYC Transit to establish that there is sufficient schedule contingency commensurate with remaining work”.
Just one year later, in April 2013, the I.E.C. noted that, “the current update has no schedule contingency”–all built-in extra time allotted for the project had been spent.
The main cause of the schedule setbacks has been issues with Thales’ CBTC products–in one case, Transponder Interrogation Antennas, a key piece of equipment for a CBTC-enabled train to communicate with other CBTC equipment along the tracks, needed to be replaced.
Despite the fact that, since June of last year, CBTC is now running on parts of the line during nights and other off-peak times The Big Board has found that, in total, almost an entire calendar year has been lost in the full rollout of the system due to the instability of Thales’ CBTC offerings.
Thales did not respond to emails seeking comment before publication time.
Relatedly, Thales is also causing cost overruns, which it appears the M.T.A. will pay for. Over the lifetime of the contract, the total budget has gone from $550 million to approximately $588 million, an increase of roughly $40 million, or seven percent. Exact figures are difficult to locate and often contradictory — in a July 2017 presentation, the budget was listed as $595 million. The M.T.A. did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
The Seven Minute Meeting
The Capital Program Oversight Committee, commonly referred to as “CPOC,” is the body tasked with monitoring the hundreds of projects that make up the M.T.A.’s four-year capital plans — collectively tens and tens of billions of expenses.
However, it appears the committee may be stretched too thin in keeping track of so many complex projects, sometimes not having enough time to fully consider the current condition of its initiatives. Some meetings are only thirty minutes, while some last for nearly two hours. The Flushing Line CBTC project has often been a victim of such scheduling irregularities — four out of the project’s total of eleven updates to CPOC took place at least ten months after the previous, and the program went an entire year, from July 2016 to July 2017, without reporting.
The December 2017 meeting of CPOC is a prime example of this inconsistent scheduling — it served M.T.A. Chairman Joseph J. Lhota’s sacrificial lamb as a way to make up for many other committee meetings scheduled that day running late. The gathering, slated with updates on approximately $4 billion worth of M.T.A. projects, lasted only six minutes and forty-seven seconds — almost two minutes of which was occupied by a public speaker.
Although board members receive copies of committee meeting handouts ahead of time, M.T.A. project representatives and their I.E.C. counterparts always present their findings in person. Had the entire reporting section of the agenda not been cut down to a simple “all of the materials […] have been provided in the book, […] any questions?”, members would have had a change to hear from and question M.T.A. employees, to fulfill their oversight responsibility.
The Flushing CBTC project was one of the projects to be presented at the December meeting, containing new updates about its status. One of which being the completion date being pushed back another two quarters due to “additional hardware and software issues,” and also the I.E.C. noting that it, “[…] anticipates that the project team will assess the current budget to determine if additional funds are needed to complete the project […].”