Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under Nightmare Fuel

How a Single Mechanical Failure Sparked 625 MTA Delays:

The train’s operator called in to the Rail Control Center, the MTA’s mission control, located on a high floor of a skyscraper in midtown. Unlike much of the MTA’s century-old infrastructure, it’s modern looking, with a bit of a Star Trek vibe, ludicrously high ceilings, and lots of people on computer consoles staring at large screens. RCC dispatchers are essentially the air-traffic­ controllers of the subway system, and their challenge is often as complex. When faced with an incident, they must decide — in consultation with four levels of supervisors — whether to hold a train while the problem is resolved, allowing other trains to stack up behind it, or begin rerouting trains, which can prevent a backup but only by throwing thousands of commuters off their routes. And the dispatchers must choose in which way they’ll inconvenience commuters as quickly as possible. […]

To make matters even more complicated, the RCC has to order service changes without being able to detect precisely where every train is at any given moment. Calandrella calls that “the shocking part” of the place. “For 67 percent of the railroad” — that is, every lettered train line except the L — “we don’t actually see train movement or control any signals and switches from the control center.” Instead, they do it the same way they’ve been doing it for decades: train crews communicating by radio with a dispatcher. If there’s a delay, the dispatcher phones it in on the “6 wire,” an open party line, and awaits instructions.

I can’t imagine life in New York City without the subway, even in its current state of disrepair. This is a harrowing look at just how embarrassingly low-tech many of their systems are. It’s a miracle the whole thing hasn’t broken down already.