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NY: Higher subway speeds worry NYC train operators -- and new report explains why

Posted by TransitChuckG on Thu Nov 14 16:44:39 2019

The report, by consulting firm STV, highlights the complicated challenges that transit officials face in their effort to speed the subway commutes of 5.5 million New Yorkers a day.

Clayton Guse
October 16, 2019
New York Daily News
Oct. 14--A new MTA consultant report underscores why efforts to speed up subway trains worry the people who drive them.

Operators of 400-ton trains that might carry 1,000 people often can't see the speed limit signs posted along the tracks, can't trust the vintage technology that runs track signals, and can't even be sure if the brakes will work properly.

And faulty speedometers make unclear how fast the train is moving. "One minute it'll say I'm going 10, the next it'll say I'm going 60, and all while I know I'm going 20," said an operator who works on the No. 3 line.

Those are among the problems cited in the report distributed last week to Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials. The report, by consulting firm STV, highlights the complicated challenges that transit officials face in their effort to speed the subway commutes of 5.5 million New Yorkers a day.

Among the issues highlighted in the study:

* The subway is full of faulty signal timers, which trip a train's emergency brakes when they move too fast or too close to the train ahead. The STV report shows that the technology that supports the timers requires trains to move slowly.

* The subways' ancient signal system -- much of which dates to the 1930s -- as well as the age of subway cars and problems with speedometers require operators to brake more slowly, hindering the MTA's efforts to speed up service.

* The MTA mechanically limited speeds on some subway cars after the 1995 Williamsburg Bridge crash, which killed a train operator and injured dozens of passengers. The mechanical speed limits have been applied to new subway cars, which without the limits would move faster than the signal system allows.

Train operators say they have good reason to fear running at higher speeds. "Sometimes I don't trust the brakes at all," said Yann Hicks, a veteran subway train operator who works on the N and Q lines.

Speedometers are especially a problem on older cars, the report says. It notes that "distrust of the speed indication" in subway car cabs "leads operators to take a very conservative approach to speed management."

MTA officials sent a memo to subway supervisors in June telling them to ease up on train operators whose slightly higher speeds make the faulty signals trip their trains' brakes.

But Hicks said he and his colleagues still face "plantation style discipline."

"What we were taught when I came up -- probably everyone is taught this unofficially -- you take the speed limit when you're coming into a time-controlled area and you divide it in half," said Hicks. "This way you stay out of trouble."

NYC Transit President Andy Byford last year launched a program called "Save Safe Seconds" aimed at fixing some of the subway's worst signal timers. Gov. Cuomo doubled down on that effort this summer by forming a "Train Speed and Safety Task Force," which produced the STV report.

MTA spokeswoman Abbey Collins asserted that the STV study was merely a "draft report," but conceded that it raises "a series of questions and issues to be further researched and developed" by Cuomo's task force.

STV spokeswoman Linda Rosenberg added that the firm "100% believes speeds can be increased in certain segments [of the subway]."

Speeding up service would require trains to operate farther apart, according to to the report.

To run trains closer together at faster speeds, the subway will need "communications-based train control," or CBTC. Currently the No. 7 and L lines are the only two in the system with the technology, and the MTA plans to add it to several busy lines over the next five years.

Subway speed limits would vary with a CBTC signaling system -- its computers would direct trains at whatever speed they determine to be safe given track conditions and spacing between trains.

But a CBTC system still has to account for worst possible scenarios, including tracks that are wet or covered in grease. Rails covered with leaves or grease sometimes force trains to stop 50% slower than they would on dry rails, the report says.

Even if the subways are fully automated, train operators insist they know better than any computer how fast trains can safely roll.

"They need humans running the trains," said a train operator with 20 years of experience. "The governor, the [MTA] chairman should ride the trains with us so they can see it from our point of view."


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