A Train Of The Future

We take the train because we are New Yorkers. We are New Yorkers because we take the train. When it runs, we fly, and when it stops, we break. Nothing is so tied up with the consciousness of our great city than its sprawling, iconic, and often exhausting public transit system. Though we cherish this system’s history as the oldest subway system in the world, the weight of its antiquity becomes heavier with each passing day. As a result, the MTA is currently facing an overwhelming crisis; how can it innovate these outdated systems while keeping NYC moving?

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Introducing the R-2-11: the subway car of the future. The MTA just bought 1,025 of them for $3.188 billion. Testing of the R-2-11 subway car is slated to start in 2020, with full implementation expected to be finished by 2026. The first train lines who will experience these modern marvels are the letter subway lines and the Staten Island Railroad, and our very own A train is at the top of the list.

The most striking new feature of the new R-2-11 train cars are their open gangway design, meaning each car is open to the next through a hollow accordion connector similar to those found on double length SBS buses. The design was based on systems already utilized to great success in the much newer public transit systems of Toronto, London, and Tokyo. By allowing passengers to move freely and safely between continuous subway cars, people will naturally spread themselves out more efficiently and find more open seats that were previously inaccessible, thereby reducing overall congestion and its accompanying delays. Between two thirds and three quarters of the 1,025 new R-2-11 cars the city ordered will utilize this open gangway design, which some studies say can increase total system capacity by up to 10%. Each new R-2-11 subway car will also have 6 fewer total seats and more folding seats than a current subway car, allowing more room for standing passengers and thus increasing the train’s ridership capacity.

The R-2-11 design feature that is expected to save us the most time, however, is not it’s hollow caterpillar form, but rather it’s wider doors. R-2-11 car doors are a full 8 inches wider, growing from 50 inches to 58 inches across. Amazingly, the MTA projects that this added door width alone will decrease station dwell time by up to 32%. This projection was reached using a computer simulation of passenger flow, which sounds like just the tool to capture the everyday unpredictabilities that make our daily commutes, well, not flow.

In addition, the R-2-11 car boasts a plethora of shiny new modern conveniences, including wifi, integrated USB chargers, digital ads, and even touchscreen subway maps to replace the current paper ones. Door frames flash green when open and red when about to close. LED headlights make us more energy efficient while security cameras keep us safe and surveilled. The digital route displays contain real-time information about service changes and delays and show the exact number of minutes you have left before you reach each stop as well as all the possible transfer options when you get there, be it train, bus, ferry, or terminal. Many A train riders are excited about the upgrade. Arverne resident Jhada Hutchinson says, “I am excited about the A train being remodeled. It’s my basic route for transportation when I’m going to and from work. When I took the A train, space always seemed tight. The doors being wider will certainly help more people both exit and enter the train easier.”

But here’s the thing - the MTA’s meters for improvement here are based on the implicit assumption that overcrowding and general congestion are the biggest causes of train delays. As NYers, we know that this just isn’t true. In fact, there were 2 million fewer trips taken on the subway in March of 2016 than in March of 2015, yet the MTA’s own ridership data (released by the NY Times) shows that there were 11,000 more delays attributed to overcrowding in March 2016 than there were in March 2015. The underlying problem fueling the current MTA crisis is not overcrowding, but rather a broken and obsolete signal system and crumbling underlying infrastructure, and it is these root causes that we must address if we have any hope of saving our subway.