L Train Faces Both Old And New Challenges
As the only subway link to Manhattan for many in the Canarsie area, the L train is a vital vein in the city’s transit bloodstream. But delays and service interruptions continue to frustrate those who rely on the line.
“Service is horrible,” said Lydia Rivera, a patient care technician whose stop is the Canarsie/ Rockaway Parkway station. “There’s always something wrong on the weekends, always delays.”
“It’s just crowded,” said another rider, regarding the Broadway Junction station where he was waiting for a Manhattan-bound train. “Everybody from all over Brooklyn comes here.”
“There’s a lot of issues with the L,” said Bill Henderson, Executive Director of the Permanent Citizens’ Advisory to the MTA, which acts as an umbrella for several transit rider advocacy groups. Henderson stated that many of the problems are due to an expanded population along the line’s route.
“No one really anticipated the growth along the L,” he said, citing a demographic surge in places like Williamsburg and Bushwick since the late 90s. Many stations on the line were built when the area’s population was much lower, and have not been expanded to accommodate recent developments. Platforms are now too narrow for the increased numbers of commuters, a problem only made worse by the relatively few entrances and exits.
“The stations aren’t designed for the kinds of crowds they’re getting right now,” he said.
He compared the L to other heavily used lines, such as the 4, 5 and 6, where overcrowding also has an impact on service. With large groups entering and exiting cars, and holding the doors persistently over the course of a day, the seconds add up and lead to delays.
Henderson’s group is advocating an upgrade of many L stations to better serve the expanded population, with some getting additional entrances and others being expanded internally. By creating more space, he said, crowds will move faster and cluster less, enabling trains to arrive and depart more quickly. This would open up the time for a greater volume of trains to run.
However, fiscal realities dictate that these goals be long term. “It certainly is going to take time,” Henderson said, explaining that the MTA’s first priority goes toward regular maintenance issues. “The reality is that there’s just not a lot of money.”
There is also another aspect of the line that is taking priority.
As many riders in the area are aware, the L train has long been the laboratory for the experimental Communications Based Train Control (CBTC) system, informally referred to by some as the “RoboTrains.” As reported in the Daily News last week, the program has been in various stages of development since the early 1990s, and at the end of last year, the L train made the final transition to becoming the city’s first fully automated subway line. While train operators remain on board to supervise and take over during emergencies, and the conductor’s role remains unchanged, the actual driving is done by the computer system.
According to Henderson, one of the CBTC’s goals is to improve efficiency by reducing the need for slowdowns and standstills. One main difference between the old and new systems is that the computer uses more detailed criteria for determining how fast to go and what distance to maintain between one train and the next.
“Under the old system, you have a signal every so often, and the spaces between the signals are called ‘blocks,’” Henderson explained. “If a train gets to be within 1 block of the train in front of it, it is required to slow down.” A problem, he said, is that some of those blocks are much larger than others. The CBTC, instead of strictly adhering to the old guidelines regardless of how close or far apart the signals are, sets the distance between the trains by accounting for several conditions, such as the speed of the train ahead, the curve of the track, and any uphill or downhill slopes.
“This will let more trains run through the area, and run closer together,” Henderson said.
Despite welcoming this change, he expressed concern over what he feels has been a slow implementation of the program. “The concept is a good one,” he said, “The problem is that apparently there are continuing issues with it.”
During the past two weeks, the program has been subject to ongoing testing on certain weekdays between 10:15 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., prompting the shuttle service—quite familiar to frustrated L riders —to run between the Broadway Junction and Rockaway Parkway stops every 24 minutes.
Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the MTA, confirm ed that CBTC-related delays have accounted for ap-proximately 25 percent of all delays on the L line over the past year, but stated that continued testing is to be expected when implementing this kind of transition.
“The old wayside signal system was only removed along the L line in December,” he said. “The perfor-mance of these tests is not indicative of a problem, but a means of achieving peak and proper performance from the new advanced signaling system. Testing needs to occur at various points of the day and week to test performance during different peak versus non-peak conditions.”
The L’s transition is a first step in the kind of update Ortiz said the city has needed for a long time.
“CBTC addresses the need to upgrade the previous system whose design remained basically unchanged over the past one hundred years,” he said. “CBTC was designed and built especially for the requirements of New York City’s subway operation, and is the standard for the majority of modern rapid transit systems around the world.
“There are no plans to remove train operators or conductors from trains,” he added.
Regardless, there may be a gulf between the MTA’s goals and public perception of them.
"Computers can't take over a job a man's supposed to do," said rider Nelson DeJesus. "I feel better knowing that a conductor's controlling the train."