New York Subway service is more inconsistent than it has been in years, the New York Times reports:
New York’s century-old subway is straining to handle nearly six million passengers each day — its greatest ridership since the 1940s and up from about four million in the 1990s. More than a third of subway delays are caused by overcrowding, which accounted for nearly 30,000 delays in November. As passengers jostle to get on and off, trains must sit longer in stations, leading to a cascade of delays along a line.
Aging subways in other cities, like London and Boston, are also struggling with overcrowding, and Tokyo famously uses staff to jam passengers onto crowded trains. It is difficult to compare performance among cities because systems measure it differently, but some newer subways are known for punctuality, including Hong Kong’s, which boasts that 99 percent of trains are on time.
The Times mentions a few fixes which could improve service, but although it references signal improvements, it doesn’t specifically identify the most obvious potential solution: installing Communications Based Train Control (CBTC). CBTC technology isn’t cheap, and it’s already in place on several lines, but it would allow the MTA to run trains closer together. On the old analog system (yes, you read that right; most of the current Subway uses physical switches), dispatchers don’t actually know exactly where trains are on the line. They only know which section of track a train has most recently passed over. That limits how often trains can run during rush hour. Additionally, switch failure is the number one cause of delays.
Advanced CBTC technology has been around since the 1990s, but MTA has been slow to adopt it. The reasons include significant and unavoidable costs and hassles. But one cause which goes unmentioned in the NYT is the power of public sector transit unions. Unions don’t like CBTC because it eliminates lots of jobs. For example, the teams of specialized technicians on staff to maintain the decrepit and ancient signal system wouldn’t have much to do if CBTC were adopted system-wide. And, because CBTC can enable fully-automated trains, conductors and engineers could be out of a job too. These potential savings on labor costs could make up for some of the cost of installing CBTC in just a few years. But due to union agreements with MTA, even lines that have CBTC installed and could run autonomously are required to be staffed by conductors and engineers—often two per train—who can make upwards of six figures by the end of their careers.
In the private sector, firms have taken advantage of technological advances to reduce labor costs. That has had some negative effects on employment and career opportunities for working class Americans, but it’s also helped bring costs down enormously across a variety of industries while simultaneously improving customer experiences. In part thanks to the power of public sector unions, government agencies haven’t delivered the efficiencies of the 21st century to their constituents. For savvy politicians, that leaves some low-hanging fruit. But the New York Times won’t tell you that.