How the MTA Is Like an Alcoholic

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

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 people from 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.”

Senior Writer.