Red Light: Why new subway signals might still be years away

New signals for the aging subway system, despite a new push from the M.T.A.’s top leadership, may be still be lingering distantly in the future.

The subways, with the exception of the L train, and soon the 7 train, run on a block signaling system. The system works by dividing long sections of track into smaller chunks, known as blocks, and are then guarded by signals and devices that can trigger a train’s emergency brake to prevent collisions between trains.

However, since a train is only known to be in a “block,” an imprecise measure of location, this limits the amount of trains that can run, since subway personnel do not know exactly where within the block a train is. Due to increasing levels of ridership in recent years, the M.T.A. has been pushed to increase service, but many lines are already topping out at the number of trains that can be run with the block system.

A new signaling system, communications-based train control (better known as CBTC), solves the capacity issue by creating “moving blocks,” which allow trains to safely run much closer together. The system utilizes transponders located along the track communicating with ones installed on trains to track them with better accuracy. Estimates suggest that it will take between 30 and 40 years, at the current pace of installation, to fully rollout CBTC systemwide.

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Photo Credit: MTA / Patrick Cashin

In the 1990s, the M.T.A. started to move towards installing a modern signaling system. It was decided to resignal lines that do not share trackage with others first, namely the L and 7 trains, as a testbed for the new technology, before rolling it out systemwide.

According to a Federal Transit Administration report, the agency was faced with installing different variations of CBTC. The agency ultimately decided to install an “overlay” CBTC system, the proposal which also had the highest cost. The system, while providing CBTC functionality for equipped trains, would still keep around the existing, maintenance-intensive signal system for trains that were not equipped with the new technology, a large portion of the fleet.

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Photo Credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin

The unique nature of the M.T.A.’s CBTC system is also compounded by a complicated acquisition and rollout process; at its core, a monopoly, with a duopoly layered on top, is tasked with upgrading the ancient signal system.

The M.T.A. procures equipment from several CBTC suppliers, and then contracts with another firm for the trackside installation of the equipment, while installing carborne equipment itself.

There are only two companies that have been “pre-qualified” by the M.T.A. to compete to supply CBTC equipment: Siemens Transportation Systems, Inc. and Thales Transport & Security, Inc. The pre-qualification process has created an effective duopoly for the two equipment suppliers.

A third contractor, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products, Inc. is currently in the pre-qualification process, however the company is running over a year behind schedule.

For trackside installation of the equipment, only one firm has been used for all CBTC contracts so far: L.K. Comstock & Company, Inc.

An internal L. K. Comstock document boasted that the company, “is the only MTA contractor to install CBTC technology on NYCT projects, including the current Flushing Line and the completed Canarsie Line projects.”

However, in 2009, during the lead up of the CBTC procurement for the 7 train, there was a legal skirmish between Thales and L. K. Comstock over the details of their “teaming agreement” between the two companies. Thales argued that L. K. Comstock could not form a joint venture partnership with its only other competitor, Siemens, despite that the agreement explicitly allowed for one. The case was voluntarily dismissed by both companies in April 2010.

Thales, with L. K. Comstock as its subcontractor, was awarded the 7 train contract.

The companies did not respond to requests for comment.

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Photo Credit: MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann

Andy Byford, the newly-installed president of New York City Transit, has pledged to increase the pace of CBTC installation, and finish the project within the next 10-15 years. The Wall Street Journal reported that Byford is considering weekend shutdowns to increase available work hours, and significantly speed up the installation of the new system.

At an event run by the Association for a Better New York last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo and M.T.A. Chairman Joe Lhota hawked a new work-in-progress plan to make use of an even newer signaling technology, albeit that was still in the proof-of-concept phase.

The M.T.A. did not respond to requests for comment.

The agency set aside $10 million in its budget this year for a pilot of the ultra wideband CBTC system, which has two benefits: providing more precise location information than regular CBTC, and reducing the number of cables to be installed by utilizing radio instead.

“I want to be held accountable. We will get this job done,” Lhota said at the event.

One thought on “Red Light: Why new subway signals might still be years away

  1. Pingback: M.T.A. report shines light on signal woes at Bergen Street – The Big Board

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