Key to Improving Subway Service in New York? Modern Signals

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A More Modern Tube

Then there is London. A close look at how it is attacking the same problems could provide something of a blueprint for New York.

As its population climbs, London is facing similar concerns about subway overcrowding. The London Underground, known as the Tube, opened in 1863 and is the oldest subway system in the world. It now carries about five million people each day, its highest ridership ever. The crowding at rush hour is so intense that officials sometimes must close certain stations.

The rollout of modern signals on four lines has significantly reduced delays, making travel across this huge city of nearly nine million people more efficient. This month, the Victoria line will reach a peak of 36 trains per hour — compared with 27 trains per hour a decade ago, and among the highest rates in Europe. In New York, the Lexington Avenue line, the nation’s most crowded subway route, runs a peak of 29 trains per hour.

On the Victoria line, which already has some signal upgrades, riders enjoy reliable service and a constant flow of trains.

“I’ve never been stuck waiting for a train,” Joe Brooke, a 20-year-old student, said as he rode the line on a recent afternoon. “It’s convenient, easy, quick.”

London has moved more quickly on signals because officials completed the work on each line faster as they gained experience, prioritized funding for the project and were willing to face commuter wrath when closing stations. The projects have required disruptive weekend closings and a major overhaul of the system’s infrastructure.

“People think it’s just a few computers — how could it be so expensive?” Mark Wild, the managing director of the London Underground, said in an interview at his office. “It’s new trains, new track, new power. The signals are a relatively small piece of the capital cost, but it’s the bit that unlocks it.”

The project to modernize the next four lines is expected to cost roughly 5.5 billion pounds, or about $7 billion, and increase capacity on those lines by a third. Funding in London is generally less challenging because the system relies on higher fares than New York and on a capital grant from the national government. But scheduling work is also easier because the subway has not traditionally run round-the-clock, as New York’s system has. The Tube only recently introduced overnight service on some routes.


Mark Wild, managing director of the London Underground, in one of the system’s control rooms. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Over the years, officials learned from each line and settled on standard technology, Mr. Wild said. The Northern line modernization was completed in about three years — a shorter period than on other lines.

“The key thing to get across is: The duration to do these jobs gets shorter and shorter the more you do it,” Mr. Wild said.

Tube riders applaud the results. Maes Al-Gabry, 25, who recently moved to London from New York, said she often found herself waiting — and waiting — on subway platforms in New York. On the Tube, a train arrives every minute or two.

“It’s so much more reliable,” she said as she rode the Victoria line on a recent afternoon.

London is also working to ease overcrowding by building a new line and buying roomier subway trains, with accordion-style connectors between cars. A new route called the Elizabeth line will open in London next year, with plans for 10 new stations and 26 miles of new tunnels. The plan, known as Crossrail, is the largest infrastructure project in Europe, costing about £15 billion, or more than $19 billion.

But Transport for London, the agency that runs the Tube, has faced obstacles, too. In 2013, it canceled a contract with Bombardier, a transportation company, over concerns that it could not complete signal work on four older lines on time, and started over with a different company.

The agency lost time and money, but officials learned from the mistake, said Stephen Joseph, executive director of Campaign for Better Transport, an advocacy group.

“There’s a feeling Transport for London knows how to do this now,” Mr. Joseph said.

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