MTA Flags Contractor Errors, Adds Two More Years to Subway Signal Work Forecast
Service disruptions abound, as modernization efforts to address them face obstacles.
The MTA is suffering from signal distress on multiple subway lines, including a two-year delay for upgrades along an elevated section of the F and G in Brooklyn because a contractor manufactured parts in the wrong size.
Transit officials said this week that signal upgrades to portions of several subway lines in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan have run into delays, significantly slowing the rollout of a more modern technology that is designed to make trains run faster and closer together.
“This is complicated, difficult, not-all-good news,” Janno Lieber, MTA chairperson and CEO, said during the agency’s committee meetings.
The newer technology, known as communication based train control (CBTC), is replacing a signal network that has been used to direct subway traffic since the 1930s.
The new CBTC system is currently equipped end-to-end only on the L and 7 lines, whose performance and reliability have become the best in the subway since switching over, respectively, in 2009 and in 2019.
But MTA documents show that software-related reliability issues have hamstrung a $663 million CBTC project from the Union Turnpike station on the E and F lines in Queens, to 50th Street at Eighth Avenue (C/E) and 47-50th Streets-Rockefeller Center (B/D/F/M) in Manhattan, pushing back completion from early this year to the second quarter of 2023 — and increasing the price tag to $734 million.
Agency records accuse contractor Siemens of a performance that “is still far below contract requirements” and which could lead to financial penalties against the German industrial giant.
“We are not happy with the reliability outcomes that we are seeing,” said Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA Construction & Development. “We expect some failures that impact service as we transition to CBTC, but we are seeing one major disruption a month and also regular or minor disruptions, which are far too many.”
A report by the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant said the number of incidents on the Queens Boulevard Line range from six to 20 per day.
The delays stem from problems with software updates to trackside and subway car equipment that have led to “mixed results” and daily meetings between MTA and Siemens officials, along with monthly check-ins with the company’s executives in Germany and France.
“New York’s subway system is one of the most complex in the world — and we are confident that our CBTC solution will not only fulfill our obligations to the MTA, but provide efficiency and reliability benefits to their riders,” a Siemens spokesperson told THE CITY. “We are working closely with the MTA to implement the necessary software updates as quickly as possible.”
Measure Twice, Cut Once
Delays are now projected to extend more than two years along a stretch of the F and G lines in Brooklyn, where signals are being modernized between the West 8th Street-New York Aquarium and Church Avenue stops, alongside other projects that include trackwork and station improvements.
Officials said the hoped-for completion date for work along the century-old elevated structure that extends from south of the Church Avenue station to West 8th Street has been pushed back to August 2024, because special track ties needed for the trackwork were not adequately measured or surveyed before being fabricated.
“As part of the reworking of the trackwork at Ditmas Avenue, and due to the long lead time for fabrication of new Fiber-reinforced Foamed Urethane ties, the project schedule forecasts a 26-month delay,” MTA records show.
A spokesperson for the contractor for that job, the Tutor Perini Corporation, did not respond to a request for comment from THE CITY. But documents show the firm is disputing the rework of the track ties and has filed for arbitration.
Torres-Springer told THE CITY that the MTA is moving to separate intricate signal replacement from other components of line upgrades in hopes of avoiding similar problems in the future.
“The problem is that we are trying to do too much, call it, heavy civil work, like replacing track ties as part of a signal modernization job that’s really technology heavy,” he said.
Switching from old signals to CBTC is a top priority of the MTA’s more than $50 billion five-year capital plan, with more than $7 billion earmarked for upgrades along stretches of several subway lines.
“We have to recognize [CBTC’s] technology,” Torres-Springer said. “So we need people to manage the technology work, we need contractors in the lead who are technology proficient and we need to get rid of all the stuff that was slowing us down.”
Just the Latest
The MTA has already run into several other hurdles along the way — in July, plans to modernize signals along the busy stretch of the Lexington Avenue Line that carries the No. 4/5/6 trains in Manhattan were pushed back and work was shifted to other lines.
Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, said the latest delays are “clearly a disappointment” while adding that it’s key for riders to benefit from signals that allow for more reliable subway service.
“Obviously, they’re keeping a close eye on the project and aren’t letting through substandard work,” Daglian told THE CITY. “At the same time, delays in CBTC mean that riders on those lines are missing out on the increased frequency and time savings it brings.”
As she waited for an F train Thursday at the Ditmas Avenue stop in Brooklyn, Maruschka Valentin said she is resigned to delays that extend beyond the daily commute.
“They’ve been working on the F line all six years I’ve been living here, at various days, weekends, nights,” said Valentin, 23. “Such a pain in the ass.”