NYC Subway Signals and Countdown Clocks
November 13, 2015 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks. Here is an engaging yet fairly thorough and technical explanation of the signal system(s) used in the NYC Subway (SLAtlantic)

As both an MTA fan and employee, I encourage you to remember this part:
The MTA has a thankless and extremely difficult job: They have to keep the trains running. They have to do it with equipment from the 1930s, in a hostile funding environment, as administrations come and go, as public interest comes and goes, in the face of storms and accidents and pieces of aluminum foil. This they manage to do. 1.6 billion people every year take the New York subway. The system carries more than 60 percent of all people coming into Manhattan every day. It is, for the most part, safe, affordable, and there.
Try to ignore the glaring error where it says that New York’s subways were initially built by two different companies, the IRT and the BMT--the author has forgotten the quite lovable IND!
posted by millipede (60 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
But here’s the truly crazy thing: The only people who know exactly where that train is are on the train itself.

And, interestingly, they cannot be sure how fast it is going.
posted by The Bellman at 12:51 PM on November 13, 2015 [46 favorites]


via reddit: This article is pretty spot on, with one exception: "here’s no one in the Rail Control Center who could tell you, because the F isn’t hooked up to the Rail Control Center" - this is completely and totally incorrect. The B division IS hooked up to Rail Control Center, but RCC only gets the same info the individual towers get.
Also, ISIM-B (Tech for the countdown clocks) is installed on the Concourse (Bronx D/B lines), Sea Beach, Brighton, and West End lines. It's being tested on Concourse right now...
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:52 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I remember mailing the Porto Metro about this. Their answer was something like "it's doable", and a couple of months later, it was added to displays. The wonders of a modern and way too simple rail system.
posted by lmfsilva at 12:53 PM on November 13, 2015


Try to ignore the glaring error where it says that New York’s subways were initially built by two different companies, the IRT and the BMT--the author has forgotten the quite lovable IND!

Initially, they were. The IND came only later and used the standards previously set by the BMT. That's why there's no C Division.
posted by grouse at 12:54 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


The amazing thing about the New York City subway isn't that it runs 24/7, but simply that it runs at all.

Honestly, the lack of care that most politicians have for public transit astounds me. I suspect it's because they're primarily used by minorities and the poor, and so they don't see any need to give them another handout.

I'm a fairly recent transplant to NYC, but that's certainly been the case with funding SEPTA in Philadelphia. In fact, there's been a plan on the books to extend the Broad Street Subway up into Northeast Philadelphia for nearly 70 years... and has yet to happen because people in the neighborhoods it would service don't want "those people" to move in. (Not that lack of good transit has stopped them, of course.)
posted by SansPoint at 12:57 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


The amazing thing about the New York City subway isn't that it runs 24/7, but simply that it runs at all.

Saying that it runs 24/7 is a bit of a red herring, though. The percentage that my downtown 2 is even close to running without delays in the morning is very, very small.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:59 PM on November 13, 2015


Initially, they were. The IND came only later and used the standards previously set by the BMT. That's why there's no C Division.

Well it depends on what is meant by "initially", doesn't it? If it means "pre-MTA" or "pre-NYCTA" then three different companies is a correct framing.

I love getting nitpicky about the NYC subway!
posted by Automocar at 1:01 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


roomthreeseventeen I take the F Train from Queens. You'll get no/all the sympathy from me.
posted by SansPoint at 1:02 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Honestly, the lack of care that most politicians have for public transit astounds me. I suspect it's because they're primarily used by minorities and the poor, and so they don't see any need to give them another handout.

In New York it's more of an upstate/downstate issue. By and large everyone, regardless of race or class, takes the subway regularly (Bloomberg made a point of commuting by subway every day, even if he did IIRC take an SUV from his house to the stop and from the stop to city hall). The problem is that a lot of funding for the MTA needs to come form the state, and funding capital projects in NYC is a political non-starter for a lot of upstate politicians whose constituents resent "sending their tax money downstate", never mind the enormous amount of state tax revenue that comes from the city.
posted by Itaxpica at 1:02 PM on November 13, 2015 [15 favorites]


SansPoint, my condolences.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:03 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Try to imagine for a minute that you are out at night having a good time with your friends and then you get to the subway at 12:01am and the gates are down and no trains will arrive again until 6am the following morning. This is how the rest of the world lives, if they're LUCKY

now shut up about waiting half an hour
posted by poffin boffin at 1:04 PM on November 13, 2015 [65 favorites]


Saying that it runs 24/7 is a bit of a red herring, though. The percentage that my downtown 2 is even close to running without delays in the morning is very, very small.

"Hey, we promised you 24/7 service, not 24/7 on time service!"
posted by Automocar at 1:04 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


I usually find that the F is ok from Queens! It's the R that's a huge PITA.
posted by holborne at 1:05 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


This explains so much. I now know what "train traffic ahead of us" and "signal issues" mean. However, if for a good number of the trains there's a question of where they are, how can a train be delayed by the dispatcher?

The subway has gotten me home at 3am. There is no other mass transit system on earth that has managed to pull that off. Yes, it gets sparse in the late night and the schedules to shut down tracks are annoying, to say the least, but it still is one of the best systems in the world.

On preview, what Puffin Boffin said. Not that I'll actually quit kvetching.
posted by Hactar at 1:05 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well it depends on what is meant by "initially", doesn't it?

The author is explaining why there are two different subway divisions in New York.
posted by grouse at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2015


In Toronto we are in the middle of upgrading our signalling and part of the way it was sold to the public was that it would increase capacity on the system by letting more trains safely operate on the line. It is a long process though and won't be done until 2020 according to the plan, and until then they shut down segments of the line on weekends to work on it which is quite inconvenient.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


One could argue that the 24/7 service of the NYC subway is one reason why it's so decrepit.
posted by Automocar at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


Try to imagine for a minute that you are out at night having a good time with your friends and then you get to the subway at 12:01am and the gates are down and no trains will arrive again until 6am the following morning. This is how the rest of the world lives, if they're LUCKY

Well substitute bus for subway then yes, that's life around here. The bars are open until 2:00 AM but the transit system shuts down at midnight. Until Uber came around you either drove home drunk or walked.
posted by octothorpe at 1:07 PM on November 13, 2015


in the above scenario you now have to take a 90 quid ride out to elephant and castle for what would have been a fucking 8 stop train ride

90 fucking pounds my god i wish i had more of your poxy tea to throw in the fucking harbour you bastards
posted by poffin boffin at 1:11 PM on November 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


poffin boffin: Try to imagine for a minute that you are out at night having a good time with your friends and then you get to the subway at 12:01am and the gates are down and no trains will arrive again until 6am the following morning. This is how the rest of the world lives, if they're LUCKY

now shut up about waiting half an hour


In Philly, there's, at least, night owl busses in the city, running over the Broad Street and Market Street lines. We always called 'em the "Drunk Busses." Of course, if you need to take the Regional Rail... you're kinda screwed.

I definitely appreciate being able to take the subway home late at night these days, but I'm often taking cabs home anyway at late nights.
posted by SansPoint at 1:12 PM on November 13, 2015



The author is explaining why there are two different subway divisions in New York.


I know, but considering IND is responsible for two major trunk lines in Manhattan, I felt it was worth mentioning--yes, it's to the standard of the BMT system, but it's a huge component of the system and has its own special character.
posted by millipede at 1:16 PM on November 13, 2015


> The subway has gotten me home at 3am. There is no other mass transit system on earth that has managed to pull that off.

You must not have tried very many then.
posted by fragmede at 1:19 PM on November 13, 2015 [9 favorites]


I worked on a tracking application for a bus system in a small city once.

I don't remember the costs, but it was in the couple million dollars range.

We used commercial infrared sensors that give you the time that each bus crossed each sensor, and a little script that guessed some intermediate positions based on scheduling data (that we had to download and load into the system).

I don't see why a small, cheap countdown clock system that's totally disconnected from all the signalling and control hardware couldn't work.
posted by miyabo at 1:24 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


The problem is that a lot of funding for the MTA needs to come form the state, and funding capital projects in NYC is a political non-starter for a lot of upstate politicians whose constituents resent "sending their tax money downstate", never mind the enormous amount of state tax revenue that comes from the city.

I wish upstate had gone through with that secession bullshit they were talking about a little while ago so the city can finally be free of those morons.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:29 PM on November 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oooh big bad government is slow and bloated. The L train drivers just watch it go "beep" and the projects take SOOOOO LOOOONG, just ignore a hundred years of it actually working and shove all the complexity into software and it'll be CHEAPER!

Whatever. The MTA does more, for more people, in a single day, than any privitization-banger will contribute in their entire lives. Get off my train and get an Uber, James Somers.
posted by frijole at 1:39 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Try to imagine for a minute that you are out at night having a good time with your friends and then you get to the subway at 12:01am and the gates are down and no trains will arrive again until 6am the following morning. This is how the rest of the world lives, if they're LUCKY

Toronto is currently hemming and hawing about possibly starting the subway earlier on Sundays... soon it may actually start at 8:00 AM instead of 9:00 AM. As someone who used to live 6.7 km away from my workplace and saw my usual 20 minute commute by subway be replaced every Sunday morning by 80 minutes of walking or else ten minutes of walking followed by a ten-minute ride on a once-per-half-hour bus, followed by a similar ride on once-per-fifteen-minutes streetcar: fuck you, TTC
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:39 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think it's assuming people have a sense of this: How far apart (in terms of time) do NYC trains run? I think of it as a fabulous system but this makes it sound like the trains are kind of infrequent.

In Toronto the trains run every 2-3 minutes during peak time and 5-6 minutes during off-peak times. The idea that you would need to know when a train is coming to plan your commute is odd...it's coming "any minute now." If you're coming in and you're still upstairs and hear a train leaving downstairs during rush hour, there will usually be a new train there by the time you get downstairs and reach your preferred platform spot. Of course as richochet bisquit notes, it's not 24/7 (24/7 requires track redundancy which TO doesn't have, so it's not a policy issue, the infrastructure just isn't there).

So is NYC fabulous in it's extensive system and 24 hour service but not so great in frequency? Also, why do the people wait outside? Why not just go in?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:43 PM on November 13, 2015


Oooh big bad government is slow and bloated. The L train drivers just watch it go "beep" and the projects take SOOOOO LOOOONG, just ignore a hundred years of it actually working and shove all the complexity into software and it'll be CHEAPER!

Whatever. The MTA does more, for more people, in a single day, than any privitization-banger will contribute in their entire lives. Get off my train and get an Uber, James Somers.


Okay, I'm a socialist, but there are a lot of problems with the MTA. Yeah, they have to maintain and run a 110 year old subway system in a hostile funding environment, but MTA capital projects also cost much, much more than comparable projects in other Western countries. Service has been shitting the bed for at least a couple of years as the ridership has just grown and grown and grown and they don't seem to be doing much about it.

We can be a champion of the public sector without burying our head in the sand about it. The way that the MTA has handled signal upgrades is just inexcusable.
posted by Automocar at 1:46 PM on November 13, 2015 [13 favorites]


Unless it was 3am on the L train on a wednesday night I have never waited more than 20 minutes for a subway. I don't take it at rush hour ever, though.

in the summertime if you wait down on the platform you will die from heat exhaustion and be devoured by rats like a discarded slice of pizza
posted by poffin boffin at 1:47 PM on November 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


So is NYC fabulous in it's extensive system and 24 hour service but not so great in frequency? Also, why do the people wait outside? Why not just go in?

Headways are much worse than in comparable subway systems. Waits of 10 minutes are not uncommon, even at rush hour. Sometimes there is both a local and an express train you could take, and if you knew that the express wasn't coming for another 12 minutes, you'd jump on the local, but right now it's a total guessing game on the B Division.

Plus, as ridership has reached historic levels, the system is groaning at the seams and causing further delays. Since most New Yorkers now live outside Manhattan but commute into the city, delays in Canarsie or Flushing or Pelham Bay now cause a horrible ripple effect all the way down the line of more and more people trying to cram into overcrowded trains, causing further delays, rinse and repeat for 2 miles.
posted by Automocar at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


Those countries invest in their mass transit systems

Well, it's not quite that simple. American capital costs for rail are usually way, way higher than most other developed nations. Also a lot of investment in Japanese rail is done by private railways, it's not Japan the country that's doing the investment.

Maybe the US should invest more (I'm not sure what various countries spend per capita), but getting costs down to European or Japanese levels - so more transit can be built at any level of funding - should definitely be a priority.
posted by ripley_ at 2:28 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Countdown clocks are a huge deal. I waited 25 minutes for a train yesterday (and the platform was full when I got there, so I imagine some people were waiting ~40 minutes-- this was 5:30 AM and I never see the platform even close to full at that time). When you're waiting a long time, you're constantly asking yourself 'should I just go to the alternate train that is 15 minutes away?' because if you spend 15 minutes walking to the alternate, and then you just miss the alternate, and then it takes 15 minutes for another to come, and it's the slower alternative so it takes you 15 minutes extra to get to work, then you almost definitely should have stayed for the 1st train... but you never know when that first train is actually going to show up.

If there were a clock (even if it was just the DELAYS message that runs on the trains that have the countdown clocks), then you can make a decision. Without the clocks... It might come in a minute, or, in 25 minutes, an announcement might come over the PA telling you that you'd better choose a different train.

Ah, New York.
posted by matcha action at 2:30 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to note that the numbered lines have much newer signaling technology than the lettered lines. I live more or less equidistant to the 1 and B/C lines, and either one would work for my morning commute. Experience has taught me that the B train is far more reliable than the 1. You'd think it would be the other way around.
posted by slkinsey at 2:39 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Note: "Hostile funding environment" does not apply to $2.4 billion extensions of the 7 line to serve entirely uninhabited areas slated for enormous "private" real estate ventures
posted by jcrcarter at 2:44 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


The problem is that a lot of funding for the MTA needs to come form the state, and funding capital projects in NYC is a political non-starter for a lot of upstate politicians whose constituents resent "sending their tax money downstate", never mind the enormous amount of state tax revenue that comes from the city.

Substitute "CTA" for "MTA," "Chicago" for "NYC" and "downstate," and "Downstate" for "upstate" and you've described the way it is here.

Chicago finally got countdown clocks for the El a few years ago. A lot of the downtown bus stops now have countdown clocks for buses, and that is very helpful!
posted by SisterHavana at 2:46 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Note: "Hostile funding environment" does not apply to $2.4 billion extensions of the 7 line to serve entirely uninhabited areas slated for enormous "private" real estate ventures
jcrcarter

I see where you're coming from, but the new Hudson Yards station did make going to Comic Con this year a breeze...
posted by Sangermaine at 2:58 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


I see where you're coming from, but the new Hudson Yards station did make going to Comic Con this year a breeze...

Seconded! I commute on the 7 regularly, but Comic Con was the first time I've had occasion to go to the new stop and it was pretty damn convenient.

It was also like getting off at a station that belongs in another city....
posted by Pryde at 3:06 PM on November 13, 2015


Yeah, unless there was a medical emergency or mechanical problem in some nearby station (which they would announce), I can't imagine waiting 10, 15, 20, 45 (!!!!) minutes for a train. I guess maybe if the trains ran between 2 and 5am it might be different then.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:17 PM on November 13, 2015


So if the trains run so infrequently, why don't they have a fixed schedule like busses? I mean I know things can fall behind, but surely that's less of an issue with subways than busses and it works most of the time for busses, so it should work most of the time for trains, I would think.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:54 PM on November 13, 2015


Countdown clocks sound cool and all, but when I stand on the platform in DC and the clock says 2 minutes for the last 5 minutes, I just can't buy it. And then you can see the headlights but no train.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 4:27 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


So if the trains run so infrequently, why don't they have a fixed schedule like busses?

NYC Subway Schedules - I have never referred to them in practice or heard of someone using them, but they do exist.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:43 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I mean, I love unions, but this is not just a deferred maintenance problem or lack of management vision. The drivers and maintenance workers don't want to lose their jobs. And since the system can't run without them and can't get their buy-in, the fixes won't happen. That's not to blame the union itself for protecting their own interests, just to note that it's a systemic problem in that the ridership is not the only important constituency. There's a reason the knot is so Gordian, and the article doesn't do the best job at teasing out all the threads.
posted by rikschell at 4:49 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


The trains in Tokyo run on schedule, consistently enough that people know when they have to leave their home in order to arrive at the office just a couple of minutes before the official start of work. If a train is delayed by more than a couple of minutes, this is announced on the train (along with an apology) and the information is relayed to the public via monitors at stations and online. (IOW, if your excuse is that the train was late, your boss can verify that.)

Trains here do not run 24/7, which seemed odd to me at first. But a lot of maintenance and inspection goes on in what amounts to the three or four hours per day the train is not running.

I went on vacation a few months ago on the Sea of Japan side, and the train arrived five minutes late. Amazingly, no one commented on this and there was no apology.

On another vacation recently, I rode a single-car diesel train that ran less than once per hour at times -- but it still rain according to a published schedule.
posted by oheso at 7:13 PM on November 13, 2015


The main issue is that the MTA is an authority with no transparency. It is almost impossible to get a real sense of what their finances look like. One year they'll say that things are awful and they'll have to look at another fare increase, then six months later they'll say, our bad, finances are great, no fare increase.

I haven't been taking the train much the past year, but I did note the use of duct tape on the escalator at my station, which is on the 1 line. This is along the elevated portion of the line which has received extensive work on the iron and stone work (and gosh what fortuitous timing that this is happening at the same time as Columbia's new construction nearby). So yeah, they have piles of money when it suits them.

I'm still seething that diBlasio and Cuomo have made a deal to pull the floor out from under the next phase of the 2nd Avenue subway. Everything is a political deal. People's benefiting from the trains is just an afterthought.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:40 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I love the MTA & this article and would sign up to work for an internal mini-startup to write them software. L train: call me!

PS: Headways in rush hour are not 12 minutes unless you ride the F train of the damned. On the L, they're 3-5 and on the G, 10 at worst.
posted by dame at 8:47 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


I think it's assuming people have a sense of this: How far apart (in terms of time) do NYC trains run? I think of it as a fabulous system but this makes it sound like the trains are kind of infrequent.

It really varies wildly by train and time. Some trains at some times (like most of the major Manhattan ones during rush hour) come every few minutes. Other times (especially very late at night), it can be a half hour or forty-five minutes. It's also worth mentioning that the NYC subway has way, way more lines than any other subway system in America, and most (though I'm pretty sure not all) other subway systems in the world, so there's a ton of space for variance.
posted by Itaxpica at 8:56 PM on November 13, 2015


What, no love for the M? I ride my bike most days. But when I take the train, the M usually doesn't let me down (except on weekends or whenever it snows...).
posted by Drab_Parts at 9:00 PM on November 13, 2015


Chicago finally got countdown clocks for the El a few years ago.

Though some of them have a bit of slop. If you see a Logan Square clock saying "2 min", the train will be there in 15 seconds. If you see it say "due", it's pulling out of the station.

So if the trains run so infrequently, why don't they have a fixed schedule like busses?

In fact, they almost always do -- but with 6 minute headways and +-3 minute arrivals, publishing the actual paper schedule is generally useless. The CTA in Chicago will publish schedule times when the trains are 20 minutes or more apart (typically, only the Red/Blue during the very late night hours) but otherwise just publishes frequency.

The best part is that the train tracker is also online and you can just watch the local station until the train is 10 minutes, or whatever, out, then head down and only spend a couple of minutes on the platform. If you're on one of the elevated platforms and it's winter, this is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold.
posted by eriko at 9:13 PM on November 13, 2015


Anyone who likes getting deep into the conflicts, the technical issues, the policy issues and the politics of trains may like London Reconnections. You can even order the very swish looking paper version.

Also here is a train driver blog, currently mostly discussing the union negotations over introducing night tubes in London.
posted by emilyw at 5:22 AM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Countdown clocks sound cool and all, but when I stand on the platform in DC and the clock says 2 minutes for the last 5 minutes, I just can't buy it.

Ugh, this! We got countdown clocks a few years ago in Boston, and honestly I preferred no information to maddeningly misleading information. AND, the countdown clocks will randomly be blank on the weekends because of ??. And AND, the majority of stations that have countdowns have them only visible from the platform after payment, so it's not like you can do anything useful with your time except wait and be annoyed once you see that the next train is in (an alleged) 9 minutes.
posted by threeants at 1:56 PM on November 14, 2015


I'm sure that someday the NYC subway will be great.

Someday.
posted by freakazoid at 3:35 PM on November 14, 2015


> AND, the countdown clocks will randomly be blank on the weekends because of ??.

I've seen them blank pretty often recently, not just on the weekends. (I think.)
posted by cardioid at 4:18 PM on November 14, 2015


My iPhone allows me to see on a map where I am at any given time, to a pretty high degree of accuracy. Any reason that we can't just strap an iPhone (or whatever the GPS device inside the iPhone is) to the front of each train and then use that to track the trains on a giant Google map?

I'm only half kidding. This seems like a really stupid problem. So is the reason we don't fix it actually some complicated technology thing like the article seems to describe? Or is it mostly political, where everyone would rather spend the next five years in committee meetings about "A Subway for the Next Millennium" instead of cobbling together a solution that would work for right now?
posted by decathecting at 4:51 PM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


Do you get a signal on your phone while riding on the subway in tunnels underground?
posted by andoatnp at 5:42 PM on November 14, 2015


No, but large swathes of the lines in question are above ground. Also, from what I understand (based on how it was done in other cities and based on proposals I've seen to do it in New York), it would be easier and cheaper to put cell towers in the subways so that you could get a signal down there than it would be to do all the things the article describes as the proposed method of connecting those subway lines to the modern control center. So again, I guess I'm wondering whether there is actually an easier way to do this that people are ignoring? Or am I missing some (practical, not political) reason why it couldn't be done without upgrading the entire line?
posted by decathecting at 6:05 PM on November 14, 2015 [4 favorites]


AND, the countdown clocks will randomly be blank on the weekends because of ??.

I've seen them blank pretty often recently, not just on the weekends. (I think.)


They're blank whenever there is bus replacement or some other service interruption going on somewhere on the relevant line (though the announcements still work). On the Red and Orange Lines, this has pretty much been every weekend for the past several months, as they do winterization work on the third rail and the tracks. For the Red Line, this affects the areas south of JFK/UMass more, since those are the areas that are exposed to the elements, so if you're in Cambridge/Somerville/Downtown you won't notice the disruption as much, other than the lack of countdowns on the inbound side.

I actually find the MBTA countdown clocks to be acceptably accurate as long as you're not too close to the line terminus... e.g., Davis Station on the Red Line tends to have pretty inaccurate countdowns because it's so close to Alewife (the train can be "1 minute away" for 5 minutes+), but if I'm at, say, Central, it tends to be pretty good. I read a technical explanation of this once a couple years ago that has to do with the countdown clocks being essentially a clever hack related to the amount of distance between the train and the station in question, taking advantage of information that MBTA central control already had and exposing it to riders rather than a deliberately designed countdown system... and it makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that it's more distorted the closer you are to the end of the line. The train at Alewife is indeed one minute of distance away... it's just not moving.

Even when they're less precise, I definitely prefer it when the clocks are there than not, and I've been using transit in Boston for a long time. It's a weird psychological thing, because it shouldn't matter too much, right? Since the train comes when it comes regardless of whether you know or not, and Boston's transit system is simple enough compared to NYC's that there aren't the same strategic "do I take this train or that train?" questions that this thread raises. But, I find that even less-than-precise countdown clocks are way better than the blanks there used to be. The total lack of countdowns would drive me nuts if I lived in NYC.
posted by Kosh at 10:23 PM on November 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


So if the trains run so infrequently, why don't they have a fixed schedule like busses?

These are the scheduled headways during the morning rush hour:
2:30 - 6, 7
3:00 - 1
4:00 - E
4:30 - 4, L
4:45 - A, F
5:00 - 5, J/Z
6:00 - 3
6:15 - D
6:30 - 2, G
7:15 - N, Q
7:30 - R
8:45 - B, M
9:15 - C
(to be read as, the 6 train is scheduled to run every two and a half minutes and the C train every 9 minutes and 15 seconds in the morning rush, etc.)
Source

The longest scheduled headway for any train in operation is 20 minutes in the "late night," which is roughly from midnight to 5 am; incidentally, something that annoys me about the subway system is that the definition of "late night" seems to vary from line to line, so you could be on an A train running local in Brooklyn only to transfer to a 4 train that's still running express in Manhattan.

The thing to keep in mind if you're unfamiliar with the NYC subway is that while some of these rush hour headways are pretty bad, almost all services run together for some point and there are express and local services on nearly all lines. So the 4 and 5 trains run every 4-5 minutes in the rush, but once they join together between 125 St and Franklin Av they should (in theory) have service every 2-3 min. This effectively means that in most of the outer boroughs there are longer waits for trains while on the Manhattan trunk lines waits are shorter for service.

Anyway, of course delays and disruptions are frequent on the NYC subway due to a combination of all the factors cited above -- ancient technology, grossly inflated costs, union and labor issues, political rubbernecking, etc. But the scheduled service is not as infrequent as people represent. I'm also going to stick my neck out here a little and say that there are likely fewer delays on the subway than people might think. Just like with any other regular/reoccurring event, it's always the bad/unusual days that people remember. A painless and timely commute is memorable for no one. (It's some sort of behavioral economics thing, right? Bad things are definitely more memorable than good things.)
posted by andrewesque at 5:14 AM on November 15, 2015


I feel like there is no universe in which the rush hour F comes nearly as often as the L or the G comes every 6:30. I wonder why the experienced headways and the scheduled are so off. (These are the trains I have commuted on for at least a year, so those are the ones I have experienced over time.) But I am so glad you posted that!
posted by dame at 8:22 PM on November 15, 2015


Do you get a signal on your phone while riding on the subway in tunnels underground?

I'll give the answer as: yes, often, depending on what line you're riding. A lot of the 1/2/3 gets reception underground, as does the F/M for most of the line where I ride it (with the exception of 63rd & Lex and Roosevelt Island, both of which are waaay below sea level). Parts of the 7 get reception underground, although most of the 7 is above ground. The 4/5/6 gets reception at some stations, but it's spotty; same with parts of the N/R/Q that run underground. I assume this varies with what cell carrier you use (I use AT&T).
posted by holborne at 8:52 AM on November 16, 2015


Here's how you add countdown clocks to letter trains
  • quite a few subway stations already have wifi and cell service. Expand this to all major stations (obviously this isn't free but adding countdown clocks is going to cost something)
  • attach a wifi transmitter to every letter train
  • when a train enters a station it will broadcast a message equivalent to "hello, I am a Brooklyn bound 'N' train. I am arriving at 14th St. - Union Square"
  • a central computer keeps track of all this and is able to provide reasonable estimates of where every letter train is in the system
  • there are some flaws in this system, but it's a hell of a lot better than what we have now
posted by timelord at 9:16 PM on November 24, 2015


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