Cuomo at Cornell Tech Conference: Oversimplification

Written by Dr. Alan F. Rumsey, FIRSE, P.E.
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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the Cornell Tech Conference. Photo courtesy Cornell University.

As someone who has personally spent their whole career championing the application of new technology solutions to enhance the safety and operational efficiency of mass transit systems, I can relate to, and indeed be inspired by, much of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s presentation on Sept. 20, 2019 at the Cornell Tech Conference:

“New Day at the MTA: Innovative Solutions for New York’s Mass Transit System.”

However, in his challenge to the high-tech companies to propose new signaling solutions, and to enter into competition with the established signaling system providers, one clear omission in his presentation was any reference to the specific requirements for such a new signaling solution (other than it had to be cheap and easy to implement).

In all of the historic examples provided in Cuomo’s presentation—of past New York City Transit innovations—each of the innovations described was driven by a very specific requirement, one that could not be satisfied by technologies available at that time. So, the lack of any reference to the specific signaling system requirements in this presentation was particularly troubling, particularly given that most of the intended audience would have had little prior experience with, or understanding of, the purpose and functions to be delivered by any signaling solution.

In addition, while Cuomo highlighted the exorbitantly high cost of NYCT re-signaling projects, using the existing CBTC (communications-based train control) signaling technologies, he failed to mention that the exact same CBTC signaling technologies, deployed by the exact same system providers, were being successfully implemented in Europe, Asia, South America and elsewhere for a half to a third of the costs being experienced in New York. Surely this suggests that the higher re-signaling costs in New York are not driven by the technology per se, but rather by the New York-specific requirements? For example:

• Requirements driven by the complexity of the project scope.

• Requirements driven by New York’s desire to be able to procure interoperable equipment from multiple suppliers.

• Requirements driven by the need to support “mixed-mode” operations (a mix of equipped and unequipped trains simultaneously operating on any given line), as the new signaling solution is rolled out.

• Requirements driven by New York’s specific delivery model.

And so on.

Cuomo’s presentation also implied that CBTC is one specific technology—a technology developed in the 1980s. This is clearly not the case. By definition, the term “CBTC” embraces any communications-based, computer-based and software-based technology that is capable of delivering a specific set of requirements (requirements that, for example, are clearly summarized in IEEE Std. 1474.1 “Performance and Functional Requirements for Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) Systems”).

The specific CBTC communications-based and software-based technologies being deployed around the world today, for example, are very different than the CBTC technologies that were first being deployed 40 years ago. The technology to deliver CBTC functionality continues to evolve.

So, the fundamental questions that Cuomo’s presentation failed to address are:

• Is this new-technology signaling solution required to deliver the same functionality and performance as current CBTC technologies (only cheaper and quicker)?

• Is this new technology signaling solution required to deliver additional or different capabilities  that currently cannot be delivered by existing CBTC technologies? If the latter, what exactly are these new capabilities, and what is the basis for these new requirements?

Without an answer to these fundamental questions, I frankly don’t know how one can possibly assess, or compare, the value of any new signaling solution that may be offered by the high-tech companies.

It is of course possible that a statement of requirements to be satisfied by a new technology signaling solution was included in another presentation. If not, I would offer the following as a set of high-level requirements for the high-tech companies to respond to:

• The new, non-proprietary signaling solution shall provide for the safe, reliable and efficient movement of passengers both during, and subsequent to its implementation, using interoperable components that can be competitively procured from multiple suppliers using open interface standards.

• Providing for the “safe” movement of passengers requires a signaling solution that prevents catastrophic accidents that could result in passenger fatalities/injuries, such as: train-to-train collisions (rear-end, sideswipe, or head-on), train-to- structure collisions (at the end-of-track), and train derailments (as a result of over-speed, or traveling over an incorrectly set turnout).

• Providing for the “reliable” movement of passengers requires a signaling solution that has to have a high level of system availability, through the provision of appropriate levels of equipment/functional redundancy, with the ability to support degraded modes of working in order to continue to safely move passengers in the event of equipment failures.

• Providing for the “efficient” movement of passengers requires a signaling solution that can maximize the number of passengers that can be carried per hour on a given line, in a given direction; a line capacity that is not constrained by the signaling system, but only by the number, location and configuration of the station platforms; the track layout, particularly at terminal stations; the braking and acceleration performance of the rolling stock; and the number of train available for service. Providing for the “efficient” movement of passengers also requires a signaling solution that supports high levels of operational flexibility (an ability to safely route any train to any destination on any track in any direction), and that supports high levels of automation, including the automation of train driving functions (to include a driverless capability), automatic train routing, automatic regulation of train service, automated failure management and automatic energy optimization.

In the real world, achieving any two out of three of the above requirements (“safe”, “reliable” and “efficient”) would be difficult. But the real technology challenge is being able to achieve all three at the same time!

The current suppliers of existing CBTC technology can point to literally hundreds of examples of where these high-level requirements have been satisfied, and where today this technology is indeed safely, reliably and efficiently moving passenger around major cities in the world. In other words, the existing technology is both service-proven and safety-proven.

As such, surely the initial challenge to the high-tech companies is for these companies to present—at least at the conceptual design level—their proposals with respect to a complete, new technology signaling solution that not only meets these high-level requirements, but that also can be deployed quicker, and at a lower cost, when considering the NYCT-specific requirements.

Although no timeline was given in Cuomo’s presentation for companies to respond to this challenge, I eagerly await such a new technology signaling solution to emerge that meets the above high-level requirements. But what does the New York MTA do in the interim, to deliver existing, readily available signaling technologies more cost effectively? Another very important topic that sadly wasn’t even touched on in Cuomo’s presentation.

Why I am therefore simply left with the uncomfortable impression that, regardless of Cuomo’s bold and ambitious goals, this is really nothing more than the politics of being seen to be doing something that grabs the headlines, rather than a serious attempt to develop a realistic and meaningful plan forward to address the true root-cause issues and deliver the safety and operational improvements that the New York City subway system so badly needs.

Editor’s Comment: I often get the impression that Gov. Cuomo, a native New Yorker from Queens, thinks he’s playing with a big electric toy trainset called the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Alan Rumsey, one of the railway industry’s most brilliant minds, is spot-on in his characterization of Cuomo’s technological bully pulpit as little more than attention-grabbing political theatre. The New York Times recently reported, “Cuomo had steered clear of the MTA during his first years in office, but in his second term he took an intense interest. He placed aides within the organization and, in an unusual move, made some report directly to him. He badgered transit leaders about the construction of the Second Avenue Subway on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And over the objections of some board members, he cancelled several MTA capital projects to make room for his own priorities. According to high-ranking current and former MTA officials, the moves interfered with the authority’s plans to address the rising delays.” Cuomo’s directive that advanced-technology signaling should be “cheap and easy” is disingenuous. I suggest he take some direction from his ex-wife Kerry Kennedy’s uncle, President John F. Kennedy, who famously said before Congress on May 25, 1961: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” Re-signaling the entire 800-mile New York City subway system with CBTC isn’t the same as going to the moon, but in a way, it is indeed “rocket science,” and saying that it be done on the cheap without understanding its full implications and cost is misleading. There are plenty of experts who can advise Cuomo on rail transportation, its complexity and costs—if he cares to listen to them.

— William C. Vantuono

Dr. Alan Rumsey, Principal of Rumsey Transit Systems Consulting, is a licensed Professional Engineer in the Province of Ontario, Canada, a Fellow of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE), a member of the IRSE International Technical Committee and a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Dr. Rumsey was Chair of the IEEE Working Group that developed industry consensus standards for Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) systems and is a recognized industry leader in CBTC for both new-start and re-signaling applications, including driverless systems. He is regularly called upon to provide expert advisory services to rail transit agencies and system suppliers around the world that are seeking to achieve a step-change improvement in rail transit system safety and operational performance through the implementation of advanced-technology systems.

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