6 Ideas for a Better New York Subway

City Lab

The beleaguered system looked outside its own ranks for ambitious new fixes.

Craig Avedisian, a New York City lawyer and one of the Genius Challenge winners, proposes increasing capacity by adding more cars to trains, without having to build longer platforms.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) wants to know if anyone, anywhere, can figure out how to fix New York City’s beleaguered subway.

With the hopes of solving problems such as persistent overcrowding, train delays, and crumbling physical infrastructure, the MTA launched a Genius Transit Challenge in June. Offering as much as *$1 million for the best idea, nearly 500 groups hailing from 23 different countries sent in submissions. Now, the final results are in.

Last week, an expert panel selected six winners, awarding them a total of nearly $2.5 million in prize money. They present new ideas for train control signals, subway car design, data management, and tunnel maintenance.

Train Control Signals

The subway’s current signalling system is woefully out of date and a major cause of delays and overcrowding. Currently, all lines except the L employ a fixed block signalling system. This system divides lines into “blocks,” preventing two trains from being on the same one at once. While effective for maintaining safety, the fixed block system prevents trains from running as close to one another as more modern systems. The MTA plans to install more efficient signalling systems known as Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) on many of its lines, and is nearly finished upgrading the 7.

But the process is time consuming and expensive. Two MTA Genius Transit Challenge winners propose cheaper and faster methods for installing state of the art train control systems:

Robert James and Metrom Rail propose installing wireless communications devices along the track that require much less hardware and installation labor than current methods for installing CBTC technology.

Ansaldo STS and Thales’ proposal also cuts down on hardware and labor by implementing CBTC technology with cameras and sensors on the front of each train.

Subway Cars

Craig Avedisian, a New York City lawyer, proposes increasing capacity by adding more cars to trains, without having to build longer platforms. This would be done by creating “A” and “B” sections of trains, corresponding to A and B stations.  At an A station, only the A section car doors would open, and vice versa. The intervention could theoretically increase train capacity by 42 percent.

The Chinese train builder CRRC MA plans to invest $50 million to develop New York City’s subway car of the future. Its key features would be lighter materials, greater energy efficiency, and a modular design that would make it easy to upgrade as new technologies become available.

Data Management

CSinTRANS (or CSiT) proposes to centralize the data coming to and from transit vehicles, allowing for for MTA staff and passengers to be aware of problems in real time. The system is also intended to help reduce maintenance costs by spotting breakdowns before they become severe.

Tunnel Maintenance

As one of the world’s few 24-hour systems, New York’s subway has very little time to make repairs. Bechtel Innovation’s proposal hopes to make that process more efficient by providing the system with a tunnel maintenance robot that can perform routine repairs. The robot, similar to those already in operation in the U.K., could help lower costs and improve worker safety.

Whether these “genius” ideas will be implemented remains unclear. If they are, the MTA’s notoriously glacial pace of progress means it’ll still be a while before riders would experience their benefits. Still, after last summer’s countless delays and hellish hiccups, any effort to think outside the box should be a sign of encouragement.

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