The MTA Genius Challenge is as Bad as Expected

A year ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a competitive $2.5 million grant, to be disbursed by what he dubbed the Genius Challenge. I wrote about it at the time, expressing skepticism that it would lead to anything useful. The panel of eight judges had only one person with background in the transportation industry, a former FRA administrator. The word “genius” itself is a tech mainstay that to me mostly means “I don’t know any Fields Medalists.” And the topics within the scope of the grant seemed more about what the tech industry thought were the most pressing issues and not what the lowest-hanging actually were. I had very low expectations, and the announcement of the winning entries met them.

The grant has three topics: signaling, rolling stock (interpreted broadly), and underground mobile or wireless service. The last three is by far the least important; it also got only half a million dollars, whereas each of the other two got a full million. Each of the two main ideas shows how weak the very concept of the genius grant is, but they do so in dramatically different ways.

The rolling stock winners included a vendor asking for a grant for New York to use its rolling stock (CRRC); the problems with that idea are more akin to those of the signaling section, so I will cover them there. A second rolling stock winner was a proposal to use better data collection to facilitate preventive maintenance; this idea may or may not work, it’s hard to tell from layers of obfuscating business language. It’s the third idea that deserves the most attention, and the most scorn: lengthening trains but not platforms.

The crank Idea: lengthening trains

The genius competition gave a $330,000 grant for the idea of lengthening trains from 10 to 14 cars without lengthening the platforms. Trains would alternate between only berthing the first 10 cars and only berthing the last 10. Transit Twitter has already dumped on this idea, and for good reason: the proposal reads like a crank paper purporting to prove the Riemann hypothesis or another famous result, starting with a lot of trivial observations and then making a leap of logic buried somewhere in the middle.

The basic problem with running trains that are longer than the platforms is that passengers need to be able to move to the correct car, which takes time. The report says that this is done on the London Underground, which is true, but only at outlying stations – as is the case on the subway in New York. The conductor announcement “only the first five cars will open” is familiar to anyone riding the 3 train and was familiar to anyone riding the 1 train before the new South Ferry station opened. This is fine as long as the station in question is low-volume enough that the extra dwell time does not interfere with operations. Lengthening trains beyond the platforms at busier stations than Harlem-148th Street 145th Street or South Ferry would result in a shuffle forcing passengers to scramble within the train (if moving between cars is possible) or on the platform (if it isn’t). The dwell times would be brutal and would almost certainly reduce capacity measured in passengers per hour.

The proposal handwaves this critical flaw by saying that dwell times would decrease because crowding would decrease. This assumes that dwell times are a function exclusively of on-train crowding, rather than of the number of passengers getting on or off the train. The same number of passengers would have the same platform space, but would actually only be able to use a fraction of it: many would only be able to use the 6 cars that go to their chosen destination, and at those cars, the volume of passengers per unit of platform length would rise.

The second handwave is unlimited stations, with longer platforms. Acknowledging that the busiest stations should have all doors open, the proposal says,

[P. 20] Third, 18.5% of rides occur through just 10 stations in Manhattan. In the medium term, the platforms can, and should, be extended at these 10 stations to enable customers that embark and disembark at them to use any car at both ends of their trip. Accordingly, 9.25% of the customers that presently need to use the middle cars could instead use the end cars.

This is the equivalent of the logical leap from trivial to wrong in a crank paper. First, the number of central stations that would need to be lengthened is much more than 10, including some key origins (86th/Lex, Jamaica Center, etc.) and transfer points (West 4th, Canal, 96th/Broadway). And second and more importantly, the busiest stations are multilevel complexes, where just adding more pedestrian circulation is hard; London is spending a considerable amount of money on that at Bank. Lengthening platforms at these stations is prohibitively expensive. This problem is discussed in cities with constrained underground platforms in the CBD, such as Vancouver, where nearly all Expo Line stations are above-ground (thus, relatively easy to lengthen), but the most crowded in Downtown Vancouver are in a tunnel, where platform reconstruction costs too much to be economic.

The bigger question is why the judges did not catch the error. The proposal brings up London as an example, which serves to bring the magic of the foreign to people who are unfamiliar with best industry practices. Saying that New York does the same is equally true, and in a way more relevant to the proposal (since New York doesn’t let people move between cars, making this more challenging than in London), but would raise questions like “can the dwell times of relatively light stations like South Ferry or Harlem-145th be replicated at the top 40 stations?”. London is Anglophone and some reformist New Yorkers have used it as a source of foreign ideas the way they wouldn’t use non-Anglophone cities. But the judges didn’t do the basic due diligence of checking whether London really implements the idea as widely as the proposal implies, and if not, then why not.

The rent-seeking idea: CBTC by another name

New York State awarded four applicants $250,000 each for ideas about signaling. All four ideas boiled down to the same thing: introducing new technology for communication between trains permitting the functional equivalent of moving-block signaling, at a lower cost than preexisting communication-based train control (CBTC) installations.

The grantees all have experience in the transportation industry. Rail signaling vendors Thales and Ansaldo propose to use cameras to read automated signals; train sensor provider Metrom Rail and veteran rail manager and consultant Robert James propose ultra-wide broadband to improve train location precision. There’s nothing obviously wrong about their proposals. Nor is there anything outlandish, which is why each of the two technologies has two independent applicants behind it. Thales and Ansaldo in particular have experience in advanced signaling – Thales supplied CBTC to the L 7 train in New York and to Metro Line 13 in Paris, and Ansaldo supplied rail automation to Copenhagen and CBTC to a number of Paris Metro lines.

Even then, questions about cost remain. Robert James’ and Metrom’s proposals leave a bad taste in my mouth for their cost estimates. James has a systemwide cost estimate somewhat less than $200 million, not much more than $500,000 per km; Metrom says its system costs “$3 million per mile” and compares itself positively with legacy CBTC systems at $20 million per mile. Actual costs of CBTC without automation in Paris on Line 13 were about 5 million euros per km according to Wikipedia, and this includes modification of the railyards and not just the signaling system. So the Metrom system’s claimed figure is still cheaper, but not by quite as much. Metrom also complains that in Boston, CBTC would not improve capacity much because it would prohibit double-berthing, an issue that is only relevant to a subway-surface system and not to a full metro.

The broader problem with this part of the grant is that if the MTA put out an RFP about CBTC on the subway, it would get bids from Ansaldo, Thales, and Metrom, and James might well bid or consult for a bidder. It would be able to judge the technical merit of each proposal in much closer detail than given in the competition. Instead, the state is paying vendors to market their technology to the public, which would influence future procurement.

While the grant asks about whether the technology is proprietary, it makes no attempt at establishing a multi-vendor standards. Such standards exist: Thales and Ansaldo are both listed as ERTMS vendors. In France there’s already a discussion in the trade press about whether using ERTMS is better than using CBTC; the discussion specifically mentions New York’s uniqueness as a network with connected rather than isolated lines, and says CBTC is designed for isolated lines whereas ERTMS is designed for shared lines, such as the RER system. European experts might well recommend that New York use ERTMS for the subway, even though it’s a system originally designed for mainline rail.

New York’s highly-branched system means it must be more conservative with new technology – there’s nowhere to test it, now that the L and 7 already have CBTC. The shuttles might be useful test cases, or the 1 and 6 trains on weekdays, but without isolated lines, the cost of a mistake in procurement or technological failure is much higher. This suggests the MTA should try to reduce the complexity of branching (which is what I would’ve proposed if it had been within the grant’s scope), and until then concentrate on imitating proven technology rather than innovating. This is especially important given the potential for rent-seeking, in which the vendors use the grant to market themselves to the state over competitors selling similar product.

The judges don’t know any better

Would a panel of judges with more familiarity with metro operations around the first world have come to better decisions? Probably. Through blogs, railfan forums, and comments, I know people with great knowledge of existing operations in a number of cities in the first world, and for the most part they think highly enough of their local systems that they’d ask of any innovation, “why hasn’t it been implemented here already?”.

I wrote in 2011 that people in the US who make technical arguments in favor of public transit tend to be skeptical of many proposals, to the point of finding existing US agencies incompetent. This is US-specific: London Reconnections is a technical blog but it tends to support Transport for London’s process, Swiss and Japanese railfans seem to trust their local rail operators, and even Transport Paris is more positive about STIF’s capital investment than New York-based blogs are about the MTA’s. Experts (and not just bloggers like me) could point out innovations their cities have that can be imported into New York, as well as shoot down bad ideas for which “why doesn’t London/Paris/Tokyo do it?” is a useful sanity check.

Note that sometimes there is a legitimate reason to do something that nobody else has tried. New York’s highly branched network makes ERTMS a better deal there than on other metro systems, and an RFI would be prudent. But because the details of implementation matter more than the idea of innovative genius, it has to go through the regular procurement process.

Cuomo attempted to inject the inventions of the American tech industry into the subway. Instead, he created space for cranks to promulgate their ideas and for vendors to have a leg up over their competitors in any future bid. In effect, his attempt to improve the economic productivity of the public sector to be more in line with that of the American tech industry is going to make the public sector less productive, through weaker institutions (namely, a less robust CBTC bid) and distraction (namely, the useless train lengthening idea).


    • Alon Levy

      Hmmm, maybe? But that, too, is something given by an extra-academic institution, with a lot of internal politics (I know someone who got it because they befriended Donald Rumsfeld).

      • Michael James

        It’s not that the recipients are unworthy but that one can clearly see the biases and self-serving reasons why particular people win such awards. Although such awards like MacArthur, do have an effect, if small, on perceptions and directions of scientific research, most of us just shrug and accept that it can hardly be any other way. Awards in science can help careers but they don’t have much impact on the overall direction of research, thankfully. However an extension of the same phenomenon, the influence of privately funded “big science” such as the Gates Foundation, may not be so innocuous, as they both influence strategic direction and thus public funding flows etc. A bit like the phenomenon of the extremely successful campaigns for Breast Cancer funding over the past decade or two: it is not at all clear this one health issue deserves so much more attention than dozens or hundreds of others; it would be one thing if it was growing the cake but in reality it is just taking a bigger slice of the same–or smaller–cake. Like politicians who think they know best how to spend research funds.

        But when it comes to prizes for things that matter, or purport to propose solutions to real-world problems, then I’m with Alon, that these things can be harmful. From what you wrote in this article, there doesn’t seem a single “new” idea that hasn’t been around for ages–and, as you say, not been implemented for any number of valid reasons. Politicians will latch onto non-solutions if it means they can delay spending money or doing the hard yards working towards a real solution. A genius award is exactly the sort of thing, and its endless photo-ops, to give them a fig leaf.

  1. Untangled

    Given that Andy Byford took part in the challenge (although while still at TTC), is that participation indicative of his ideas to fix the MTA? Just something to think about.

    Also, what exactly is ERTMS?

    I’ve heard of ETCS (is it used interchangeably?) and in any case, CBTC sounds like it’s equivalent to ETCS Level 3 for mainlines, which is not ready yet. Of course, there is ETCS Level 2 and it will help trains run closer, but it’s not moving-block like CBTC. Given that Level 3 isn’t ready yet and assuming today’s CBTC can’t cope with subway branching, I don’t think that some of the genius signalling ideas are too bad. I would like to wait for Level 3 but it depends on how desperate the MTA is for a fix.

    I notice that Thales and Ansaldo proposals use Lidars, which are of course used by driverless cars, interesting choice to adapt that automotive technology to rail so soon. This could have potential while Level 3 is being worked on and standardised, but as I said, I would like to wait it out for Level 3. The UWB idea is completely quack though, similar things could be done using ETCS Level 2 right now, okay it’s fixed blocked but mostly quite similar, I don’t know why they even tried here.

    That’s my thoughts on it.

    • Alon Levy

      Byford also threw a lot of shade on the contest after he got hired in New York, possibly because his idea was unfairly screened out. One of my sources, Adam Rahbee, participated, proposing to increase the emergency deceleration rate, which is currently derated, in order to allow trains to run closer together; the idea made it past the first round but not the second, which Rahbee speculates is because the weight of “can you implement this yourself?” was increased.

      ERTMS is ETCS plus a specified GSM band for wireless communication. So an American implementation would presumably be ETCS with a different wireless band.

      ETCS level 2 is fixed-block, yeah. But it’s also highly automated, and this is part of the benefits of CBTC – it reduces the variability in driving time, which lets trains run faster and closer together. ETCS level 3 is moving-block, which is the same functionality as the CBTC systems provided by Thales, Ansaldo, Siemens, etc., but the details differ. There’s no groundside infrastructure, for one. I don’t want to speculate on which technical details exactly are meant to support its implementations on complex national networks rather than enclosed metro lines, but examples can include temporary slowdowns (not really a factor on non-New York metro systems because of nighttime closures for maintenance), greater support for mixed fleets, and backward compatibility with ETCS level 1 or 2.

      • Max Wyss

        Actually, ETCS Level 3’s main feature is that it contains integrity control of the train (that’s why it is also used for very rural lines operating D/EMUs only). That train integrity control allows to give up blocks, and operate at “electronic sight”. However, there is still some groundside infrastructure, but it is extremely simple (a balise specifying the location, in order to properly set the EBU information).

        ETCS Level 2 works with blocks. But because of the low cost to establish a block, it can be much shorter than a conventional signalling block, and the stopping distance of a train may stretch over several blocks. If I am not too mistaken, such a short block system is in use at the New York subway. On the other side of the speed spectrum, it is in use on the French HSLs, where regular stopping stretches over 3 to 4 blocks.

        • Alon Levy

          New York has short blocks, but it also has short stopping distances because the trains are so slow (and they slow down the trains specifically to be able to stop within a block).

          • Henry

            Does ECTS Level 3 actually exist anywhere in an intensive application? I thought it was stuck in development hell like the SSR resignalling (the only other metro CBTC signalling program I am aware of that resembles the New York case)

      • Untangled

        Yes but not with machine learning (as is the case with driverless cars), in fact, I’m surprised that none of the winners talked about machine learning or artificial intelligence. Sure these technologies aren’t fully ready yet but given how “out there” the competition has been, I would have expected to hear about it.

  2. J. Vogel

    Just for thoughts: here is my idea I submitted to the Challenge, objective “Dramatically accelerate the current deployment of CBTC or similar technology”. The principle was simple — make buses better (stop elimination, all-door boarding), then shut the subways during weekday nights (improved buses are able to replace the service), and by that gain plenty of time to install any proven type of signalling / train control. (The model case for that — Paris Metro line 1 — was even mentioned in the Challenge’s resources.) Of course it didn’t pass.

    Full text here:

    • Alon Levy

      This wouldn’t work in New York. The reason is that there aren’t enough road crossings of the East River to make night or weekend buses a reasonable substitute for the subway. In Berlin there are so many river crossings that the night bus system just duplicates the U-Bahn and it’s fine. But in New York no such thing is possible, because if you tried bustituting the Queens Boulevard Line (the next on the list to receive CBTC, after the L and 7) you’d waste a lot of time just getting on and off the Queensboro Bridge.

      • adirondacker12800

        Have the bustition start at Queens Plaza on the Flushing and Astoria lines.Only when it’s the western part. When it’s the eastern part start it in Forest Hills.

      • J. Vogel

        Yes, I really like the Berlin system. It is really user friendly, if buses can copy the service they substitute. But it doesn’t need to be done that way: e.g. in Paris, there is a completely different night network from the daytime. But I still think that in New York it is possible to design bus routes that will serve most of the original subway stations. And the ones which would need to be omitted, they can be served by different night route. Maybe someone would have to transfer instead of having a direct journey — and maybe someone else would have it the other way round.

        • Alon Levy

          It could work within Manhattan on the north-south lines, but there’s less need for that in Manhattan because the trunks have four tracks. But the connections to Brooklyn and Queens would be awful.

  3. anonymouse

    NYCT doesn’t need CBTC to get high capacity, or any kind of fancy train detection system. The current blocks are more than adequate, the real challenge is getting the block occupancy information to the train with enough resolution and in a sufficiently timely fashion, along with enforcing signal speeds (currently done by the dreaded timer signals). Moscow runs its 39 tph with no CBTC, instead using a frequency coded track circuit cab signal system. Frequency coding is preferable to the traditional American pulse coded systems because the onboard equipment can detect and react to code changes faster (by 1-2 seconds). Driving is also relatively standardized, in that there are “brake point” markers in the tunnel which indicate where to apply the brakes if the train is going at the standard speed. Headways are also managed via headway clocks at every station, which certainly helps drivers with instant feedback about whether they’re going too fast or too slow relative to the train ahead.

    If I were designing a system for NYC, I would probably aim to do something similar to what Moscow has, possibly combined with standard ETCS balises for civil speed enforcement. I’m leery of anything too centralized, simply because of how large and interconnected the NYCT system is and the potential for trouble from having too many handoffs or too big and complex a network for one centralized system to control.

      • anonymouse

        Moscow used to have a branch on line 2 (to what is now 11) and currently has branching on line 4 and interlining between lines 8a/11a in some rather hard-to-understand pattern, though I will admit none of the currently interlined lines have anything like 39 tph. But then again, neither does NYC! They can’t even manage 30 tph, and that’s with much slower trains that barely exceed 50 km/h (yes, even on the express trains), compared to Moscow’s 80 km/h service.

        • Eric

          Oh right, Moscow has a couple lines that interline, but those are the less-used lines (and at least line 4 has lower frequency in my experience)

  4. Eric

    Isn’t the train lengthening idea like adding skip stop service for part of the train? And is that such a bad idea? Imagine the L (because it’s simple) what if you had a 14 car train, cars 5-14 stopped at 3rd St, cars 1-10 stopped at the other Manhattan stops, various stops outside Manhattan were one way or the other. Cars 1-10 would have essentially the same functionality as at present, cars 11-14 would provide extra access to east Manhattan. Is that worse than the current setup?

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, it’s worse, because the vast majority of passengers would want to use cars 1-10, so the outlying stops with cars 5-14 would end up overcrowding cars 5-10. You’d end up having 14-car trains with more crowding than today’s 10-car trains at equal demand.

      (Also, the L uses 8-car trains, so this should read 1-8 and 4-11, but, same principle.)

        • Joey

          For the same reason that subway cars with 2 doors instead of 4 or 5 are a bad idea, it would still be a bad idea.

        • Alon Levy

          No, because passengers would have to move within the train to exit and that would take time and lengthen peak dwells. The standard sanity check applies: London, Paris, Singapore, etc. have open gangways, and do not use trains that are longer than the platforms.

          • adirondacker12800

            Yer not at the door that will open when it opens, too bad. Not that it’s a good idea but if you aren’t at the door that opens, too bad. Oh gawd… I can see, fairly frequently, some idiot pulling the emergency stop because he or she isn’t on the right car.

          • Michael James

            I must admit to occasionally thinking that adding a half-train at each end, with wide-open gangways connecting to the last car (on the platform), might work. But it is one of those things that is self-defeating: it works well under lighter pax loads, and starts failing upon the very conditions it is intended to solve: peak hour congestion. In normal trains, under peak crush it can already be a bit of battle to struggle thru the people crush in the vestibule to get to the exit (before the platform crush starts to force its way in).

            The comparison with London, Paris, Singapore etc, merely points to the only solution: spending money to keep updating fundamentals such as signalling (platform doors, train design). Here is Aaron Gordon in yesterday’s Village Voice:

            The subway’s performance has been steadily deteriorating for many years. The authority’s own internal data shows that delays due to “incidents,” such as broken signals and tracks or water damage, have only marginally increased since 2012. But there is one type of delay that’s gotten exponentially worse during that time: a catchall category blandly titled “insufficient capacity, excess dwell, unknown,” which captures every delay without an obvious cause. From January 2012 to December 2017, these delays increased by a whopping 1,190 percent — from 105 per weekday to 1,355. In December, one out of every six trains run across the entire system experienced such a delay. The increase has been steady and uninterrupted over the past six years:

            I admit to the weakness of “intuitive” appeal of adding an extra half-car at both ends to these NYC subway trains. The logic is that since they are reducing train frequency anyway* (because recovering from a serious interruption is far more disruptive) and thus being forced into longer dwell times, then why not add capacity (that requires a bit more dwell time to unload those extra pax)?

            * “They slowed the trains down after the Williamsburg Bridge crash,” a veteran train operator who asked not to be identified told the Village Voice. “The MTA said the train was going too fast for the signal system.” As a result, the MTA, quite literally, slowed all the trains down, issuing a bulletin informing employees in April 1996 that their propulsion systems would be modified so they could achieve a maximum speed of 40 miles per hour, down from the previous high of 50 to 55 miles per hour on a flat grade.

          • Eric

            London has double decker buses. The upper deck is useless for getting on/off, it just provides extra long distance seating, accessible through the bottleneck of a narrow staircase. Is this a net gain or loss, and how is it different from a metro car without doors?

            (One difference I can see is that a train in the station holds up the entire station, while if a bus takes a long time to load/unload at a particular stop, other buses can stop in front or behind it.)

          • Alon Levy

            I really don’t know how the buses in London work. For example, I don’t know how crowded they get, or whether they get stuck behind each other much.

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