NYCT: It’s about time

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Signals in NYCT’s Montague Tube.

MTA New York City Transit announced Dec. 10 that as part of its Save Safe Seconds campaign to safely improve subway performance, a multidisciplinary team of engineers and safety officials, working closely with the agency’s unionized signal maintainers, have begun raising “antiquated” speed limits on certain track segments and repairing faulty speed restriction signals throughout the subway system.

“This past weekend, several months of careful testing and study have led to the safe increase of five speed limits between 36th St. and 59th St. on the N/R line in Brooklyn, with 15 mph zones being increased to 20 or 30 mph,” NYCT said. “Twenty-nine more increases throughout the system have been approved by a safety committee and will be rolled out in coming weeks.”

The approved speed limit changes increase speeds generally in the 10 to 20 mph range to speeds that reach into the 40-50 mph range. NYCT estimates that speed limits will be increased at more than 100 locations throughout the system by spring 2019.

The same team doing this work is also testing and repairing speed regulating signals called “grade time signals” or “timer signals,” with 95% of some 2,000 such signals tested since the initiative began in late August. Approximately 267 faulty timer signals have been discovered, and approximately 30 have been fixed so far “in what amounts to very labor-intensive work to inspect, diagnose and repair or replace numerous possible pieces of equipment during times of exclusive track access for workers, such as weekends or nights,” NYCT said.

“As operators are trained to proceed with safety as the primary factor, train speeds through any given area are impacted by many factors in addition to speed limits, such as congestion, unplanned diversions, equipment issues or trackwork,” NYCT noted. “The positive effects of speed limit changes may be felt immediately under optimal conditions and after a period of operator acclimation to the new limits. The positive effects of timer signal repair work will be felt long-term, as long segments of timer signal repairs must be completed before bulletins are issued and train operators are acclimated.”

“Safety is always our top priority, and we’re working hard to maximize our subway’s potential within the boundaries of stringent safety standards,” said NYC Transit President Andy Byford.“Subway cars have come a long way in safety and performance since the system’s speed limits were first put in place up to a century ago, but some speed-regulating signals have become mis-calibrated over time, forcing trains to go slower than they need to. We’re taking a fresh look, with no compromise to safety, at how to reduce delays and get people to their destinations sooner.”

In 2018, Byford “took a fresh look at the entire system with an eye toward improving service safely and an emphasis on listening to customers and front-line employees about their experiences,” NYCT said. “Timer signals were a frequent topic, and Byford instructed his team to investigate the issue and assemble a methodology by which timer signals could be completely surveyed, tested, inspected and repaired. Byford and Senior Vice President Subways Sally Librera also initiated a broader campaign called Save Safe Seconds, a program overseen by Librera by which personnel have been engaged to help come up with ways to immediately improve subway performance and reduce delays, simply and affordably—or even at no cost—through better operating and service practices.”
These priorities led to the creation in the summer of 2018 of the NYC Transit SPEED (Subway Performance Evaluation, Education and Development) Unit, which is part of Save Safe Seconds.

Overseen by Vice President and Chief Officer Service Delivery Barry Greenblatt, and led by Train Service Supervisor Phillip Dominguez, the SPEED Unit is part of a collaborative effort across multiple disciplines in NYCT, working with union officials. The unit has traveled almost every mile of track in the roughly 800-track-mile subway system in a 10-car train inspection train equipped with a radar gun, performing exercises and tests to find ways for trains to move faster from station to station while still maintaining established standards for safety and ride quality.

Editor’s Note: NYCT also provided a history of grade time signals, reproduced below with only minor editing for our rail-knowledgeable readership. This is an almost unprecedented amount of detail and useful information for press information from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority — William C. Vantuono

“The New York City subway system opened in 1904, and early in its existence, to provide for safe operations, various measures were put in place to ensure that trains were not operating in an overspeed condition. These measures ensured sufficient stopping distance between trains, based on the braking capacity of the following train. They also provided for safe operation at turnouts, on curves and grades, and when approaching a train stopped in a station.

“One simple measure was placing civil speed restrictions—essentially, wayside-posted speed limits—at various locations that that require reduced speeds throughout the system. The speed limits were designed to consider the operating characteristics of the trains that were in service at the time as well as track geometry.

“Another measure involved use of grade time signals (timer signals) connected to timing devices set to trip a train’s emergency brakes with in-track trip-stops if the train passed at a higher speed than allowed. This fail-safe system ensured safety by stopping a train if it was operated too fast at a fixed point.

“Over the decades, car design and track geometry have improved, allowing trains to maintain stability and safe operation at higher speeds, but the speed limits were not always changed to reflect these advancements in safety and comfort. Meanwhile, timer signals continued to be installed throughout the subway system, with an uptick after two fatal crashes in the 1990s—one at Union Square and one on the Williamsburg Bridge (which also prompted NYCT’s migration to CBTC). Eventually, the number of timer signals grew to approximately 2,000 system-wide. Over time, a number of these signals became overly restrictive due to a number of reasons, including wear and tear, and rail replacements that did not restore timer equipment with complete precision. This can cause trains to operate at slower speeds than they were actually intended.

“Both safety measures, which have been extremely effective at their intended goal of preventing accidents, had the unintended consequence of slowing some trains and causing delays by forcing trains to go slower than safely able or allowed.”

Excellent resources on the technology of the New York City subway system are Railway Age Contributing Editor Alfred E. Fazio P.E.’s books, Development and Operation of New York’s IRT and BMT, and The BMT – A Technical and Operational History, both available through Simmons-Boardman Books.

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