A recent report by NY State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli highlights the MTA’s declining on-time performance.
Thomas DiNapoli has served as New York State Comptroller nearly as long as I’ve run this site. He’s outlived governors and MTA Chairs alike at this point, but he’s still chugging along. One of the problems I’ve had with his “audits” of the MTA is that, for those who pay close attention to these sorts of things, they aren’t too insightful. He hasn’t identified the key problems plaguing the agency — namely, the insanely high capital construction costs and lack of productivity for the dollars — and his reports generally take public information and condense them into soundbites. His latest audit is no different, but it’s worth spending some time with it and the MTA’s response.
In his latest report — the PDF is right here — DiNapoli took all of the MTA’s on-time performance numbers the agency shares once a month at its board meetings and determined what Transit officials have been saying for some time: The subways’ on-time performance has been dreadful, and it’s getting worse. In 2013 and 2014, Transit had set an on-time performance goal for itself of over 91 percent, but weekday trains were on time 80.5 percent of the time in 2013 and just 74 percent of the time in 2014. Instead of combatting the problem, the MTA has instead lowered its on-time performance goal to 75 percent, far below national average.
“The subways are New York City’s arteries yet on-time performance continues to be an issue,” DiNapoli said. “The MTA has actually lowered its own expectations for addressing subway delays. We’re encouraged that MTA has put more money toward improving the ride for straphangers, hopefully it will help improve on-time performance.”
The audit’s recommendations aren’t much. DiNapoli has asked the MTA to identify the sources of delays, come up with a plan to mitigate these delays and then track performance monthly. Yet again, that sounds like something the transit agency already does even if their mitigation plans aren’t particularly effective.
Things got interesting though in the back-and-forth between the New York comptroller and agency officials responding to the audit. Transit has long maintained that on-time performance — the time a train actually arrives at a terminal — doesn’t much matter so long as even headways are maintained. I believe the agency is ultimately correct, but it’s not a point that’s going to win them much sympathy from a public that, by and large, has no idea what “headways” mean. Riders will hear trains are late; nod their heads in agreement; and sigh in exasperation.
Anyway, in response, the MTA highlighted wait assessment as their primary internal metric of even and reliable service and claimed that they already know why trains are delayed. They cited fallout from record ridership, new flagging rules and ongoing maintenance, and unexpected and emergency maintenance as the main causes. “New York City Transit does not have a single policy or directive on reducing delays and improving on-time performance, nor should we,” agency officials said in response. “Providing high-quality service is our central objective, and it is inherent in everything we do…We do not wish to compartmentalize responsibility for improving service performance. Therefore, it is neither practical nor desirable to condense our performance related activities into one policy (or even several policies).”
DiNapoli, in his response to Transit’s response, noted that wait assessment has also declined and urged the MTA to attempt some sort of root-cause analysis. Of course, the root-cause analysis should recommend more subway lines and faster upgrade to a technology that allows for more trains per hour. That recommendation carries a high price tag and a multi-year lead time that won’t do much to solve the current problem. Thus, it’s not one designed to appease politicians who must run for office every few years.
Ultimately, no matter how you slice or dice it, performance has suffered, and the MTA hasn’t been able to overcome ridership that isn’t showing signs of doing anything other than increasing. DiNapoli may have pointed out the obvious, but sometimes, the obvious needs pointing out. Is it going to get better? Can it?
Postscript: On the Queens Boulevard Line
While we’re on the subject of delays, riders on the Queens Boulevard Line should gear up for a rough few weeks. Starting on Monday and running through September 4, Transit has to curtail all service along the line for work on the express tracks. The agency waited until 2 p.m. on the day before work is set to start to announce this bad news:
Transit forces are rebuilding sections of the express tracks through this area. Express E and F trains which usually travel at higher speeds will be required to slow to 10 mph through the work zones, reducing the number of trains that can use these lines each hour.
Some E and F trains will run on the local tracks, reducing the number of M and R local trains which can operate on those tracks. There will be no E service to or from Jamaica-179 St; customers should use the F instead and transfer at Union Turnpike. Customers on all four subway lines that use the Queens Boulevard route should expect less frequent service and should plan extra time for their travels.
This vital work is necessary to keep the express tracks in a state of good repair along the Queens Boulevard line, which is the second-busiest line in the entire subway system. The work was scheduled for the last three weeks of summer because it is typically one of the lowest-ridership periods of the entire year.
Even with ridership lower than normal, this work is going to cause headaches for a lot of people over the next few weeks. Delayed service, indeed.