Last week, subway commuters faced a tangle of delays, detours and cancellations. Electrical problems, switch problems, signal problems and a broken rail wreaked havoc on the A, B, C, D, E, F, M, N, Q, R, W and S lines during Tuesday and Wednesday’s commutes. The MTA insisted nevertheless that things are getting better. To riders forced to walk in the slush instead last week, that sounds absurd — because it is. We now have three months’ worth of data from the results of the MTA’s “action plan” to fix the trains — and the most charitable interpretation of that data is that it will take a long time to fix a mess that was years in the making.
Remember back when it was warm out, Gov. Cuomo declared the subways to be in crisis. In June, he tapped Joe Lhota to serve as chairman to beat the disaster, because Lhota had handled Superstorm Sandy well five years earlier when he oversaw the trains then.
In July, Lhota unveiled his “subway action plan.” He promised to reduce delays through better track and signal maintenance, more reliable subway cars and improved cleanliness and communication. The effort requires an additional $456 million in annual operating spending, including for 2,700 permanent new workers, in addition to the subway system’s preexisting $9.5 billion budget.
Despite the governor’s talk, the MTA’s plan to improve subway service was always going to be a long slog — if everything goes well.
These are all good ideas, even if the MTA, under Cuomo’s previous leadership, should have thought of them already.
But Cuomo declared victory too quickly. The governor said in September that “if you were looking very carefully, you would see improvement already.”
Last week, the MTA doubled down on its imagined triumph, noting that “major incidents” are down by 40 percent since July.
That’s not true — or only true if you compare summer and autumn to winter and spring, instead of a season to the previous year’s season. The latter is a far better measure because of similar crowding and weather.
The MTA is slow to release data. But even with this, er, delay, we finally have the numbers for August, September and October — the first three months under the action plan. On several measures — delays, disruptions, wait times and cancellations — the MTA was still failing its captive passengers in late 2017 compared to the same time in late 2016.
By the time Cuomo declared the crisis over, the number of delays had soared. Weekday commuters were suffering on 57,585 delayed trains each month, up from 22,371 in 2012. On-time performance stood at just 65.1 percent, down from 85.4 percent a half-decade earlier.
So far, the action plan has not resulted in fewer delays. According to the data, last week’s chaos was not an aberration. In October 2017, the third full month of the plan, the subway system’s on-time performance was 64.4 percent, down from 64.6 percent the previous October. September and August had shown similar slips compared with the same months in 2016.
The only good news for riders was that the rate of the increase in delays slowed. In October, delays worsened by less than 1 percent above the previous year’s figure, an improvement over the 2 percent slippage and 5.5 percent slippage in September and August respectively.
The same was true of the number of weekday trains delayed. The total number of delayed trains continued to increase in August, September and October. But the rate of increase slowed, from 19 percent to 11.5 percent.
That’s cold comfort, though: It still means passengers waited for 64,840 delayed weekday trains in October, up from 58,139 the previous October.
The MTA has been similarly slow to make consistent progress on averting major disruptions. These are incidents, like last Tuesday and Wednesday, that delay 50 trains or more, often for hours, causing more trouble to passengers than a few minutes’ extra time. Between August and October 2017, riders experienced 196 such disruptions, up from 193 for the same three months in 2016.
The good news is that such disruptions fell in October, after increasing, compared with the previous year, in August and September. However, it is too early to tell if this decrease represents a welcome trend. Either way, September was way too early for Cuomo to say that things were starting to get better.
It’s hard to tell, too, whether the MTA is making progress in targeting specific causes of disruptions. The MTA reduced its disruptions due to broken signals, for example, from 74 to 54 over the comparable three-month periods of 2016 and 2017. But disruptions due to track problems increased from 42 to 54.
Wait time on platforms and trains
Unsurprisingly, without making measurable progress on delayed trains and disruptions, the MTA has failed to make progress in reducing waiting time on train platforms. In October 2017, passengers waited an average 1.3 minutes above their scheduled wait time on platforms, compared with 1.1 minutes the previous October. Passengers saw similar, small increases in wait time in August and September compared with 2016.
The MTA did make some progress in September and October in reducing the amount of time that passengers are delayed on trains, rather than on platforms, from 1.6 minutes to 1.5 minutes.
But the MTA’s overall failure to cut delays, disruptions and wait time all result in one final statistic, again something that commuters already know. Because of delays and disruptions, the MTA cannot provide the service it has promised. In fact, the MTA was delivering less service, in the fall of 2017, as a percentage of schedule than it did in the fall of 2016. In October, the MTA provided 94.3 percent of scheduled rush-hour service, compared to 95.5 percent the previous October. These would be great grades on a geometry test. But with crushes of people already taxing the subway system on a perfect day, anything less than perfect causes more misery.
Conclusion: Despite the governor’s talk, the MTA’s plan to improve subway service was always going to be a long slog — if everything goes well.
It may simply be too early for recent investments in signal and track maintenance to show results in reduced delays, disruptions and wait time. And perhaps November and December just went wonderfully, but we just don’t know it yet, because the MTA is still keeping its data secret for months before making it public. One possible positive side: train cars are failing less often, running 4 percent longer, on average, without having a door that fails to close or another problem that disrupts service.
But remember, too, that planned cancellations in nighttime and weekend service to do all this maintenance and repair work will never show up in any data. Those service cuts aren’t disruptions or delays, just trains that don’t come in the first place. But these “planned work” shutdowns are still dreary for passengers.
Continued deterioration in service is spurring yet another final bad number: declining ridership. In October, average weekday and weekend ridership fell by nearly 1 percent. The decline continued a year-long trend, even though the number of workers and visitors in the city continued to rise. That more people are rejecting mass transit is not a good development in a city that is trying to reduce car usage and, in turn, congestion, pollution and crashes.
In short, Cuomo should stop declaring that he’s winning the war when subway riders are still doing the fighting.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Post