NYTIP – enhancing the nyc subway, part 7: overnight delivery

UPDATE (04.06.2021): Post revised with additional commentary.

Welcome back to my ongoing NYTIP series! Throughout this series, I fleshed out point 1 of my three-point plan to improve the NYC Subway – enhance. In this post, I’ll discuss overnight service and subway system maintenance.

Under NYTIP, the baseline service levels for each line are as follows:

  • Rush hours: every 4 minutes or better.
  • Middays, evenings, and weekends: every 8 minutes or better.
  • Overnights: every 15 minutes.
    • Thinking about Samuelito’s comment, another option for overnight service is half-length trains at roughly twice the frequency – every 8 minutes. I’m leaning toward full-length trains every 15 minutes, however.

At present, the MTA performs most of its work outside of rush hours – middays, weekends, and overnights. However, continuous weekend construction and constant service diversions led to a continuous drop in weekend ridership (see page 112 in the link); this, in turn, led to increased traffic congestion as people switched from transit to cars (see page 116 in the link). Weekend ridership began to rebound before COVID-19 caused steep ridership drops systemwide.

With so many challenges facing the NYC Subway, how can the MTA restructure its maintenance obligations to encourage off-peak ridership? One way to do this is:

Shift core maintenance work to the overnight hours.

This is the first step to making subway service more predictable. NYTIP proposes an overnight maintenance window from approximately 11:30 PM to 4:30 AM on weeknights; depending on the scope of work, this window could expand slightly from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM. To ensure a smooth transition, all peak-directional express services end no later than 10:00 PM under NYTIP. On weekend nights, the maintenance window could expand by up to two and a half hours (e.g. 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM). These windows would allow several hours of uninterrupted core maintenance work every night. The scope of this work is essentially FASTRACK on steroids, with multiple line segment closures. (FASTRACK is MTA’s accelerated maintenance program which closes a line segment to repair multiple elements at once – e.g. station components, signals, tracks, etc.)

The second step is maintaining network coverage. In most cases, subway line closures require shuttle buses; however, other subway lines could also provide alternate service when they’re close together, as is generally the case in Manhattan below 60th Street. The key is ensuring replacement services are as efficient as possible. Using Upper Manhattan and The Bronx as an example, suppose one subdivides the overnight subway network into segments:

[Fig. 1] Hypothetical segmentation of overnight subway service.

When a segment or subsegment requires core maintenance work, that segment or subsegment could close and shuttle buses – and nearby subway lines, where applicable – would fill in the gaps to maintain network coverage. If regular bus routes traverse a given segment, then increasing service on those routes in lieu of (or, in conjunction with) shuttle buses could also work.

On any given night, the service patterns resulting from segment closures should maximize connections both within the subway system and between subways and buses; the latter requires proper street management, which includes – but isn’t limited to – the following:

  • Busways and bus lanes, including makeshift bus lanes where necessary.
  • Private auto/parking restrictions on select roads.
  • Makeshift bus stops with clear signage, where needed.

While these initiatives don’t necessarily preclude midday, weekend, or emergency maintenance work, they should make off-peak service more reliable and predictable, especially on weekends. This, in turn, should encourage ridership.

In my next post, I’ll begin exploring point 2 of my three-point plan to fix the NYC Subway – extend. Until next time!

2 thoughts on “NYTIP – enhancing the nyc subway, part 7: overnight delivery

  1. Thanks for referring to my comment. I may be wrong about what I said; it seems that the major cost of operating a vehicle is labor. I made the assumption that vehicle maintenance, power, and wear-and-tear are expensive without considering labor costs, forming the basis behind my suggestion to spread out the vehicles during overnight hours instead of running twice as many for double the frequency. But my conclusion after reading this https://humantransit.org/2011/07/02box.html is that two operators (for two trains) costs more than one operator running a train of any length. This is the reason debates are being had regarding continuing with subway conductors and reducing railroad conductors.

    On the flip side however, travel during overnight hours is not only a matter of convenience (the case I tried to make in my other comment) but of social safety. It is risky to wait in a large empty station (without the ability to exit and re-enter for free) for a long period of time; same for being in a large empty train with a lot of room to, uh, fool around.

    I guess it all comes down to whether the transit agency (MTA in our case) is willing to pay for overnight operators. Running full-length trains might be less expensive than I thought — and I never thought about what labor goes behind coupling and de-coupling trains every night and day. It’s easier to make the justification for more operators for any other time of day, whether rush hours, middays, or weekends; not so much for overnight service unless it’s [politically more so than technically] realistic to run automatic driverless trains.

    Moving maintenance to overnight hours sounds like a good idea. Just keep in mind that people are increasingly going home beyond the 10 PM time frame, and that rush hour starts to ramp up at 5 AM. The hours MTA has in place today — 12 AM to 5 — are actually decent. I get that more uninterrupted hours would help the working crew, but (1) bus service would need to be robust at 10 PM (meaning more bus drivers needed 💰💰), keeping in mind that removing on-street parking on residential streets would be extremely controversial (go for it on retail corridors), and (2) sounds like less room for error if the crew has to be fully cleaned up by 6 AM.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These are all salient points (and I know first-hand how crowded the “pre-rush” period can be, from my experience with the D!). There’s no doubt that any policy that calls for reallocating road space will be controversial, especially when current leadership sees non-drivers as invasive instead of fellow street-users. (And wait ‘till I start the volume on highway removal!) You are correct that there has to be a delicate balance between maintenance work and providing, at minimum, coverage service during the overnights. This is indeed a major challenge.

      Labor is another challenge, and for all the stories I’ve heard on both sides, I’m not privy enough to know what the best solution is. If we pursued OPTO (or ZPTO), it’d certainly be controversial, but I wonder if the massive service increases under NYTIP would offset at least the former? What would be a workable policy that both labor and management would get behind?

      Liked by 1 person

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