Part two of the Village Voice’s investigation into the causes and solutions of subway delays. Part one can be read here.
Last July 25, MTA chair Joe Lhota held a press conference to inform the city how he was going to fix its broken subway system. The month before, Lhota, who had previously served as MTA chair in 2012, had been reinstated to the position by Governor Cuomo with the task of “stabilizing and improving the system,” as Lhota characterized it. Cuomo had given him thirty days to come up with a plan, and now it was time to announce it.
At the time, the subway system appeared on the verge of collapse. The harrowing scene of trapped F train riders trying to claw their way out of a subway car was still fresh in every New Yorker’s mind. As a result of a seemingly endless cascade of rush hour meltdowns, Cuomo had declared a state of emergency for the MTA, a largely bureaucratic maneuver to remove some oversight mechanisms on the authority in order to speed procurements and repairs. Nevertheless, the idea that the subway was in crisis rang true with straphangers. And, at last, that July day, the MTA was revealing its rescue plan.
The $836 million Subway Action Plan, as it would be known, would expedite signal repairs, install new track, address water leakage issues, clean stations, and place emergency response units throughout the city to more quickly respond to medical emergencies, all in an effort to target the subway’s main issues.
The problem, according to internal MTA documents reviewed by the Village Voice, is that Lhota’s plan, now underway, doesn’t address the causes of the vast majority of delays plaguing the subway system. Most subway delays are the result of a myriad of smaller factors, none of which are directly addressed in the Subway Action Plan — including a general slowdown of the entire system thanks to lower speed limits, a Voice investigation found.
Lhota’s presentation last July had a very different focus. After introductory remarks, he pulled up a slide outlining causes of delays. “Phase I,” the slide read, “will attack the key drivers of 79% of the major incidents causing delays on the system.” On the right-hand side of the slide, a pie chart broke down the causes of delays of major subway incidents. (The same language is also prominently displayed on MTAmovingforward.com, the website set up to introduce the Subway Action Plan.)
This one slide captures the MTA’s shifting priorities during the subway crisis. By focusing on “major incidents” — incidents that delayed fifty or more trains — the MTA actually excluded more than 85 percent of subway delays from its target. Instead, it focused on a relatively small category that does not capture the rising delays over the past five years. In fact, the number of monthly weekday major incidents has remained relatively stable since the beginning of 2014.
(An MTA spokesperson, who asked not to be quoted directly, argues that the Subway Action Plan does in fact target all delays, but focuses on major incidents because they have the biggest impact.)
When the MTA says the Subway Action Plan is working, it is — but only in the limited area where it was meant to work. According to the February 2018 Transit Committee board book, there were fifty major incidents in the month of December, the least of any month in the last three years. There were also clear improvements in the number of major incidents in the second half of the year, from an average of 77 per month to 58.8 per month, lending further support that the Subway Action Plan, which was instituted in July, is having a positive effect.
The problem with this approach is obvious from the agency’s own internal data: Not only do major incidents account for a relatively small share of overall delays, but many of them occur for reasons that are not within the MTA’s control. There are, on average, 8,063 weekday delays each month due to “major incidents,” and only 5,372 of those are from so-called internal causes, such as signals or tracks; the rest are due to factors largely outside the MTA’s control, such as passengers on the track, police activity, or inclement weather.
And major incident delays account for only a tiny fraction of the overall delays in the system. For June 2017, the most recent data available at the time of Lhota’s press conference, the subway system recorded 60,698 total delays, which is almost six times the number of delays riders faced because of major incidents.
Simply put, the vast majority of delays are not due to incidents. When each train gets to its terminal, it is up to the dispatcher to document the reason for the delay. Those listed reasons then get compiled into a database. Last June — a typical month for the system over the last year — 62 percent of those delays were attributed either to planned work or to “insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown,” the MTA’s catchall category. Almost none of the delays in this category are the result of major incidents. Yet, it is this catchall category that has been responsible for most of the subway’s worsening performance — increasing by 1,190 percent since 2012, from 105 per weekday to 1,355 by the end of 2017. To put it in perspective, there are as many delays due to “insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown” about every six days, on average, as there are due to major incidents in an entire month.
With only three months to go before Lhota’s self-declared one-year deadline to see noticeable improvements, the Subway Action Plan is reaching a critical juncture. The data from MTA’s targeted category shows that the plan is working — on delays in that category, at least. But if the total number of delays remains unchanged, thanks to all those causes that Lhota’s plan isn’t addressing, straphangers may be hard-pressed to notice.