MTA chief Lee Sander has a nifty little gimmick he employs whenever he speaks in public these days. It's a crusty, cylindrical device that he hefts up in the air whenever he needs to impress upon people just how decrepit our subway system is. Sander spoke at an event organized by the Greater New York Construction User Council.
SANDER: Because of my concern about the lack of advocacy for the capital program--again the political process tends to focus on the draconian fare increases and the service cuts--I've been bringing along this friend with me to these speaking engagements... (hoists device) This is Mike. And this is a signal relay. It looks really modern, right? Cutting edge? Right, right? We just pulled this out of our Queens Boulevard-Hillside Avenue line. And I had been talking about our signal system being from the 1930s. When we pulled this out, we saw that it was patented in 1912.
That signal - using technology that's nearly a century old - is used across the five boroughs. Only the L line uses more modern signals, which is also how stations on the L line have those customer information screens that tell you when the next train is coming.
But the main benefit of a better signaling system - the one the MTA has in mind is called Communications Based Train Control, or CBTC - is that it would allow for more trains to run on any given line in a given hour. Currently, a line can handle 27 trains within an hour, during rush hour. According to MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan, that would go up to 30 trains per hour under CBTC: that's 4500 more riders.
The difference is this: under the current system, the switches activate lights--much like regular traffic lights--which tell drivers to stop or go. That eyeballing method would give way to a more automated system under CBTC, and would allow more trains to be squeezed in, without requiring the construction of additional lines.
In the MTA's next capital plan, still not released, the 7 line would also get new signals, followed eventually by the lines along Queens Boulevard. But this brings us back to Lee Sander's plea for more funds: the capital plan would cost $30 billion, and so far the state hasn't identified any funding.
For more background... check out my colleague Beth Fertig's 2007 foray into the deep dark world of subway signals:
Arun Venugopal is a reporter and the creator of Micropolis, WNYC’s multi-platform series examining race, sexuality, religion, street life and other issues that define New York City. He has been with the station since 2005, and has covered a wide range of stories, including the death of Sean Bell, the controversy over the Park 51 mosque and community center and Occupy Wall Street .
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