The ‘improved’ MTA is still a complete mess

The past two weeks were a nightmare underground. On Monday, signal and switch problems, plus a trespasser, meant rush-hour delays for passengers across eight city subway lines. A year and a half into an “emergency” subway action plan, things are a little better — but only compared to rock bottom.

In June 2017, Gov. Cuomo declared New York City’s transit system in a “state of emergency.” He ordered the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or MTA, to fix itself, handing it $836 million extra in city and state money — in addition to the nearly $17 billion it gets every year — to fix tracks, signals and cars, and respond faster to situations like sick passengers.

Eighteen months later, how is the MTA doing? Slightly better on delays, but nowhere near as well as when Cuomo took office.

Start with delays. In May 2017, only 62 percent of weekday subway trains arrived at their destination on time, down from 70 percent in May 2015 and 85 percent in May 2011.

This slide meant that passengers on 67,452 trains endured delays in May 2017, up from delays for passengers on 21,732 trains six years earlier.

The good news is that, since the disastrous 2017 performance, the MTA has improved. On-time train performance hit 70 percent in October 2018, the best figure for more than two years.

This October, weekday passengers suffered delays on 56,139 trains, compared with 64,840 a year earlier.

That’s hardly anything to brag about. From 2010 to 2013, the MTA consistently performed with more than 80 percent of subway trains arriving on time each weekday. In October 2013, for example, 34,521 weekday trains experienced delays to their final destination. The October 2018 delay level was nearly 63 percent higher.

Then there are the “major incidents”: delays that disrupt service without warning on 50 or more trains. On this measure, the good news is things have stopped getting worse. (The MTA began measuring this statistic only in January 2015.)

From May to October this year, for instance, the MTA had an average of nearly 63 major disruptive incidents each month, down from May through October 2017, when there were nearly 68.
Taking a longer view, when comparing the average of the first 10 months of each year, the MTA’s performance in 2018 was no better than it was in 2016.

If there’s a glimmer of good news on “major incidents,” it’s because the MTA has made progress in two areas that drive them: track failures and problems due to human factors, such as sick passengers.

The number of delays owing to track problems has fallen, from 18 in the six months ending in October 2015, to 11 in the six months that ended in October 2018.

Likewise, human-caused incidents — a sick passenger, a person who has fallen or jumped onto the tracks, or police activity — have dropped, from an average of 15 to 11.

But the reason why customers aren’t seeing much relief on their commutes has to do with another significant cause of delays: signals.

The MTA hasn’t reduced its ever-common signal problems. The number of “major delays” due to signals stood at 23 per month in the six months ended in October 2018, up from 22 per month in the six months ended in October 2015.

The stubbornness of signal problems underscores the need to modernize the MTA’s prewar signal technology.

Andy Byford, the MTA’s New York City Transit chief, has been pushing his “Fast Forward” plan — to update most signals within the next five years — for seven months now. He pitched his cheery slideshow one more time Monday to the City Council.

But the governor hasn’t accounted for where the billions of dollars needed will come from. Nor is there a specific schedule from the MTA.

These mixed results point to one reality: Riders aren’t experiencing the governor’s promised turnaround. Now, having barely begun its “Fast Forward” project, the MTA is going backwards — cutting service to deal with deficits, even after fare hikes.

The bottom line: Don’t expect to return to those halcyon transit days of the early 2010s anytime soon.

Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of its just-published report, “Has New York City’s Subway System Improved?”

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