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Inside a half–subway car prototype in the Hudson Yards station on Friday afternoon, an MTA employee holding a tablet peppered Thomas Downs, a student at Fordham Prep, with questions. “How would you rate the material of the grab rails?” “How would you rate the color of the grab rails?” “How would you rate the finish of the grab rails?” After each question, Downs, wearing a light jacket over a green polo shirt, gave a measured, occasionally enthusiastic response, which the MTA employee dutifully logged.
Unlike many of the other people who ambled along the Hudson Yards mezzanine, Downs had trekked from the Bronx specifically to see the new prototype, called the R211, which is on display through December 6 to solicit feedback from the public. The people’s opinions, the MTA promises, will be shared with the car’s designers “to help better inform how the cars are ultimately produced.”
The prototype design closely matches the renderings released last year, with an updated color scheme that compliments the new blue-and-yellow buses deployed around the city. The car’s nose features a diagonal lighting pattern that creates an octagonal effect, along with a much brighter and more discernible line identifier.
Inside the train, there are more poles to grab, brighter lighting, some fold-up seats to increase capacity during rush hour, dynamic strip map displays above the door, and plans for a touch-panel subway map to replace the current paper ones.
But for Downs, these innovations were simply not enough. “It’s really disgraceful they’re just doing it now,” he grumbled after finishing the MTA survey, demurring at the $3.188 billion cost for the new fleet of 1,025 cars. “It’s just sad. These should have been employed years ago.” Before he left to go back to school, he lambasted the transit authority for “keeping people entertained with these fancy cars.”
While other visitors welcomed the cosmetic changes — “It’s nice! Definitely more room, which is nice,” one woman who popped in for a quick peek told an MTA employee — many straphangers share Downs’s primary concern about not getting stuck in the tunnels or on the platforms. In this respect, the new cars may be too little, too late. The cars, first conceived in December 2011, are scheduled to be delivered starting in 2020 — at which point they will have to undergo testing before entering service — with the last of the cars delivered by the end of 2026.
Of course, the cars aren’t merely a cosmetic upgrade. The most obvious improvement is that newer cars break less often. The R211s are intended to replace old R46 and R32 models running on the A and F lines, the oldest in the system, which fail as often as you’d expect fifty-year-old train cars to fail. Last year, the R32’s Mean Distance Between Failure (MDBF) was 32,327 miles, whereas the newer R188s that serve the 7 line fail once every 521,186 miles. The fleet-wide average, including all trains old and new, currently hovers around 118,000 miles.
In addition to being new, the R211s feature two design elements that the MTA hopes will improve performance. The doors are eight inches wider, meaning, in theory, people will be able to enter and exit the cars more quickly and with less congestion. The MTA has estimated the wider doors will reduce station dwell time by 32 percent.
Will they, though? Far be it for this lowly human to question the “computer simulation of passenger flow conducted on behalf of the MTA” where the 32 percent figure comes from, but that seems implausible. The doors used on current cars are 50 inches wide; the R211 doors are 58 inches wide. It’s hard to imagine how eight inches will make such a tremendous difference on crammed rush hour platforms. Even when doing the sideway subway squeeze, most humans are wider than eight inches. Personally, I did not even notice a difference when walking through the new doors, nor did I feel like the doors on the 7 train downstairs were particularly narrow when I returned.
(The MTA did not release any details about its computer simulation, including the parameters under which they were able to see 32 percent improvements. This question, along with others sent to the MTA press office, were not answered before press time; the roughly half-dozen MTA employees stationed at the prototype were not permitted to answer questions from the media.)
The argument that speeding ingress and egress to cars is key is in keeping with the MTA’s strategy of blaming as much of the subway’s recent struggles on “overcrowding” as possible because that makes it sound like the subway is just too popular and it’s not the agency’s fault. But the “overcrowding” excuse is a proxy for the fact that trains come less frequently, fail more often, and are more bunched than before because of a decrepit signal system, leaving passengers with no choice but to wait it out on the platform, which results in — you guessed it — crowding.
Even the MTA’s own ridership data, as revealed by the New York Times, shows the overcrowding excuse is bunk. In March 2016, there were 11,000 more delays attributed to “overcrowding” than the prior March, even though 2 million fewer trips were taken. Since overcrowding is the result of fundamental issues like signals and maintenance, it’s hard to see how 8-inch-wider doors will noticeably improve the system’s performance.
The final improvement, open gangways — the lack of dividers between cars — is a more guaranteed plus. Widely featured in the London, Paris, Toronto, and Rio de Janeiro metro systems, open gangways allow more people to fit onto trains and move between cars; some estimates say that they can increase capacity as much as 10 percent (although there are fair reasons to be suspicious of that number, too). Of the new R211s, 750 cars are expected to have open gangways.
Unsurprisingly, the open gangways and bright colors give the subway a more polished, cosmopolitan feel. In the prototype, three businesspeople, all wearing black coats, stopped by to peruse the new design.
“It looks a little European,” one woman remarked.
“To me it looks Australian,” the man replied. The three looked around at the promises of the future, still far enough away that it wasn’t worth lingering. Anyway, they had a train to catch.
“Oh well,” the third shrugged. “Back to reality now.”