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MTA Taps Need for Speed in Subways by Expanding Limits on Tracks

A 7 train snakes through Long Island City, Queens. Feb. 22, 2021.
A 7 train snakes through Long Island City, Queens. Feb. 22, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Subway ridership plummeted during the pandemic, yet speed limits shot up last year at 64 locations across the transit system, THE CITY has learned.

The velocity improvements along stretches of several subway lines came even as the MTA’s efforts to safely accelerate service were twice sidetracked for months by the COVID-19 crisis — and as a growing number of people have ended up on the tracks or sought shelter in tunnels.

“There is certainly value in [raising speed limits],” said Eric Loegel, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president who represents train operators and conductors. “And there is no harm in trying to make a better experience for our operators and our customers, even if the ridership is down.”

Internal bulletins obtained by THE CITY show subway speed limits were increased at more than 40 locations in the first three months of 2020. The upgrades resumed in June, after overnight passenger service had been suspended — and paused again in late November.

Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of New York City Transit, said the work “will remain a priority” as more riders return to the system while the city rebounds from the pandemic.

But sources told THE CITY that “management isn’t all on the same page” about the need for speed.

According to the bulletins, some of the new speed limits include:

  • 45 miles per hour — up from 30 — on Manhattan-bound A/C trains between the High Street station in Downtown Brooklyn and the Fulton Street stop in Lower Manhattan
  • 32 miles per hour — up from 20 — on the northbound stretch of the Sixth Avenue line between Seventh Avenue and 59th Street-Columbus Circle in Manhattan
  • 23 miles per hour — up from 15 — for F trains traveling south from the underground Church Avenue station to the elevated Ditmas Avenue stop in Brooklyn

“This was very hot before the pandemic, they were getting a lot of speed changes approved and there was a lot of signal work being done,” Loegel said. “They were really making some great strides, and then, of course, the pandemic came and knocked it off to the side.”

Mixed Signals

The 64 speed-limit changes are among 279 that have been implemented since the summer of 2018, when Andy Byford, then the president of New York City Transit, launched the “Save Safe Seconds” campaign to fix hundreds of faulty timer signals and cut seconds off the time trains spend in stations.

But with the departure of Byford and other senior subway officials last year and ridership down by nearly 70% from pre-pandemic times — when crowded trains and platforms were the norm at peak hours — sources cited some concerns over the future of the push to speed the subway.

“These improvements have resulted in continued and consistent on-time performance above 90% for customers in 2020,” Feinberg said. “This work will remain a priority.”

In all, the MTA said, 663 speed limits have been identified for potential raising. As part of the work, crews conducted tests to determine whether certain curved sections of track could safely support higher speeds.

The signals, which trip the emergency brakes on trains that go above the speed limit, were increasingly installed after a pair of deadly crashes — the 1991 derailment of a speeding No. 4 train at 14th Street-Union Square that killed five people and a 1995 crash of a J train into an M train on the Williamsburg Bridge, killing the motorman.

‘A Way to Attract Riders’

Since 2018, an MTA spokesperson said, crews have identified 485 faulty timer signals that could contribute to needlessly slowing trains by enforcing incorrect speed limits, and recalibrated 413 of them.

“Everything you do with the signal system is very involved and you want to do everything very deliberately,” a former transit executive told THE CITY, citing the “risk factor” that comes with raising speed limits.

A G train rolls into the Court Square station in Queens, Feb. 19, 2021.
A G train rolls into the Court Square station in Queens, Feb. 19, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Last year, according to the MTA, workers fixed 156 slow-clearing timer signals, with 14 completed so far in 2021. That’s compared to 243 fixed in 2018 and 2019.

A December 2019 report from a task force that Gov. Andrew Cuomo had called for to examine “longstanding and unnecessary train slowdowns” made several recommendations on how to safely increase subway speed.

A followup to that still-unreleased report was completed last year, an MTA spokesperson said, and found that end-to-end trips on lines could be shortened by up to five-and-a-half minutes if all signals are working correctly and trains are moving at top speeds. The document also contains a set of recommendations for sustaining the progress made so far.

“People were seeing their trains speed up and it was taking them less time to get to work,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “The MTA should continue to explore every avenue for safety and reliability as a way to attract riders back.”

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