Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What's wrong with MTA New York City Transit? Part 1, announcements

To oversee the nations largest urban rail system is a daunting task, there will be good days and bad days in running the railroad.  But what shouldn't be difficult to oversee are the announcements, in trains and on station platforms.  Announcements should be accurate and reflect current lines of operation as well as any major planned service changes.  However, from what I have observed over the past 20 years, the announcements inside subway cars are left something to be desired as if some conductors really don't want to be bothered and supervisors don't care about the accuracy of these announcements.

A typical announcement as the train approaches the station should have the following:  Name of station, transfer lines, rail connections and special bus transfers, such as the M60 to LaGuardia Airport or the M15 SBS+, finally followed by another announcement detailing the line you are on, direction of travel (Manhattan-bound) and next stop followed by the requisite "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors".  The announcements about transfer to other lines should be accurate to the time of day..  For example, a E train approaching Queens Plaza station on a Saturday should not allow the "transfer to the R or M train" announcement because the M train does not stop at Queens Plaza on weekends.  Furthermore, when there is a major planned service disruption, such as the suspension of 7 train service in Manhattan, then "transfer to the 7 train" is clearly wrong.

However, if I collected a penny for every wrong announcement, I would be making over $2,000 a week.  To illustrate the severity of the situation (and most customers don't listen to announcements anyway), I spent a Sunday afternoon/evening traveling to Manhattan and Brooklyn on July 20th.  On that day, the 7 and 5 trains were not running in Manhattan, PATH train service is not available at World Trade Center , and work on the R Montague tubes is winding down.   I went to Borough Hall on the 2/3 lines (R Borough Hall station is closed on weekends),  then to Fulton and Park Place, also on the 2/3 lines (no 5 service at Fulton, no PATH connections near Park Place).  Finally I finished up on 6th Ave with 42nd Street/Bryant Park on the D and F lines (no 7 train service).

The results are truly appalling, less than 20 percent of all announcements observed by me, or questions asked by me to conductors) were  deemed accurate - - of the 27 total observations from 4 to 8 PM, only 5 passed the test.  I started with a ride on the 1 train from the Bronx into Manhattan, inside car #2231, at around 3:45 PM the conductor announced the C line transfer at 168th Street (no C trains at 168th Street). 

I transferred to a 3 train at 96th Street, inside car #1307, I faintly heard the conductor announcing the 7 line suspension at Times Square.  We continued to Borough Hall in Brooklyn, my first stop.  For each train observation, I would try to listen for the announcement, if I could not hear the announcement then I would ask the conductor as a test if the R or 7 train was running.  A "pass" meant the conductor accurately did not make or allow the R, 7 transfer or PATH connection announcement or told me the line was not running.  A "fail" meant the conductor made/allowed the R, 7 or PATH announcement or told me the line was running - - or just didn't know if the line was running.  Because my time for the day was limited, I tried to spend 30 minutes or more at each location so I can get a good sampling.

Borough Hall (4:30 to 5:15 PM) - all samples were on the 3 line in both directions - - all of them failed by announcing or telling me that R service on a Sunday is available at this complex:

Car #           Direction             Time                     Pass/Fail
1391                 NB                    4:35                      Fail (asked conductor, yes running)
1615                 SB                    4:43                       Fail (asked conductor, don't know)
1360                 NB                   4:48                       Fail
1412                 NB                   4:59                       Fail
1401                 SB                    5:00                       Fail (conductor doesn't know)
1326                 SB                    5:07                       Fail (conductor wasn't sure)

Then I went on a northbound 4 train at 5:15 PM , car #1196 - - the conductor NEVER said anything at Bowling Green about the 5 train not running in Manhattan.  I continued to the Fulton St complex.  The intent was to listen for announcements about the 5 line transfer  - - only 1 out of 4 passed for a 25 percent success rate

Line          Car #            Direction                Time        Pass/Fail

C              8425              NB                          5:22          Fail
A              5862              NB                          5:26          Fail (asked conductor)
A              6076              SB                           5:30          Fail (asked conductor) 
F*             9398              SB         `                 5:33         Pass (asked conductor)

My next stop was Park Place by way of taking a northbound A train at 5:42 PM, car #5974, when I asked the conductor about the PATH train at WTC station, I was told it was running.  I went over to the Park Place 2/3 and rode them between Chambers and Wall Street to listen for the "connection to PATH" at Park Place, as well as the 5 transfer at Fulton Street.  Virtually all conductors I observed for this nearly 1 hour period, failed miserably

Line         Car #            Direction                   Time             Pass/Fail

2               6982               SB                           5:53             Fail (PATH and 5)
2               6675               NB                           6:00            Fail (PATH)
3               1395               SB                           6:05             Fail (PATH)
2               6610               NB                          6:12             Fail (PATH and 5)
3               1373               SB                           6:24             Passed (5) Fail (PATH)
2               6602               NB                          6:30             Fail (PATH and 5)
2               6560               SB                           6:35             Fail (PATH and 5)
3               1449               NB                           6:45             Passed (5) Fail (PATH)

On the last observation, the conductor announced the J at Fulton Street, and the M at 14th Street.  Perhaps she does not normally work on weekends.  I went to Times Square, then took a walk outside to 6th Ave for the D and an F and rode them for a few minutes.  The observations were now listening for the 7 train transfer announcement.  I selected this transfer point because it requires to wait for another F train to Queens.   Though I had a few observations, the pass rate was much better here.

Line        Car #             Direction                    Time           Pass/Fail

D             2594                 NB                             6:56            Fail
F              9825                 SB                             7:06            Pass
F              9585                  NB                            7:22           Fail
F              9224                  SB                             7:36            Pasds

As these observations show, it's best to check the MTA website for any planned service changes and use TripPlanner+ if possible (but TripPlanner+ can be flawed too as I will discuss in another part).  Most conductors need to read the service changes and make the proper adjustments in their announcements, be it their own voices or Charlie Peller's automated announcements in the newer subway cars.   The R weekend Sandy reroute over the Manhattan Bridge has been going on for almost a year and it's unacceptable for conductors on the 2 and 3 lines to continue making R transfer announcements when that station is closed.  The R Montague tunnel was hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy (save for the A train along the section between Howard Beach the and Rockaways), in the 2 months from November 1 to December 21, 2012 when the Montague tunnel reopened, all conductors on the 2/3/4/5 lines announced the R transfer at Borough Hall when there was no service at this station 24/7.  You would really think that managers and employees going to work at 130 Livingston or 2 Broadway would hear these wrong announcements as they were heading to work.  Of course it shows that these NYCT managers are more interested in their paychecks than the customers they serve.

The automated announcements are another deficiency which NYCT failed to address.  They are on the newer subway cars on the 2/4/5/6/7/E/F/J/L/M/N/Q and R lines.   The announcements are automatically applied once the train enters the station and are set to one of the five specific times of the day:  rush hour, midday, evening, weekend and late night.  These time parameters do not take into account specific lines which may not operate the entire timeframe.  For example, Z train service in Manhattan is scheduled to leave Broad Street during the PM rush from 4:55 PM to 5:45 PM.  Since the rush hour block is 3 to 7 PM, it is not uncommon to hear announcements about transferring to the Z train on a 4 train at Fulton Street at 6:30 PM when the last Z train left Broad Street 45 minutes earlier.  The Bx41 Select Bus Service+ schedule shows the last southbound bus leaves the Gun Hill Road intermodal center at precisely 9 PM seven days a week, while the last northbound bus leaves The Hub (East 149th Street on 3rd Ave) by 9:45 PM.  But I could ride a 2 train at 10:30 PM, well after the last Bx41 SBS+ bus left both terminals and hear the "Transfer to the Bx41 Select Bus Service" at both 3rd Ave and Gun Hill Road stations.  

In short, the MTA and NYC Transit have ignored for years about how the on-board train announcements work, and how accurate they are.  They simply do not have any concerns for the riding public they are supposed to serve.  If MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast and NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco rode the subways and really listened to these announcements then this mess would have been corrected a long time ago.  

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