fast track

New Technology Signals Hope for Faster Subways

The Myrtle Avenue J station in Brooklyn, March 15, 2019.
The Myrtle Avenue J station in Brooklyn, March 15, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The MTA is looking to get on the fast track with new technology that could speed up the modernization of ancient subway signals.

A test train has been running along a stretch of the elevated J/Z line in Brooklyn since Tuesday, as crews scout locations where equipment for a wireless technology known as Ultra-Wideband Radio could eventually be installed far quicker than other signal systems.

“Ultra-wideband is a tremendously exciting technology that, if it performs as we believe it will, could help us can re-signal our subways more quickly, more cost effectively and less intrusively,” said Amanda Kwan, an MTA spokesperson.

The MTA has set aside $40.5 million in its 2015-2019 Capital Program for future pilot programs of the technology, touted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Vendors are installing technology they designed in the ‘80s,” Cuomo said at an Association for a Better New York luncheon in April. “I believe there is a better technology out there.”

The L and the 7 lines have so-called Communications Based Train Control — a modern signal system that allows trains to run more closely together. Ultra-Wideband Radio is designed to complement that by providing faster updates on train positions and speeds, allowing for qiucker, more efficient service.

Installing the new system on the L and the 7 took close to a decade. But transit officials hope that timeline could be cut if Ultra-Wideband Radio proves a fit for the subway.

“Imagine upgrading our signal system in 10 years, or eight years, instead of 30 years,” said Andrew Albert, an MTA board member who represents the New York City Transit Riders Council. “It would be a huge plus.”

Test Train Running This Week

According to an internal MTA document obtained by THE CITY, the four-car test train is running from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. this week on an out-of-service track between the Myrtle Avenue and Broadway Junction stations. Crews are conducting a survey to establish radio frequency conditions and collect data for safety certification.

While ultra-wideband is in use in other industries, it’s an emerging technology in transit systems, with testing done in sections of the Los Angeles and Boston subways.

The MTA runs a test train along the J/Z line in Brooklyn to survey locations for ultra wideband radio technology to increases service, June 5, 2019.
The MTA runs a test train along the J/Z line in Brooklyn to survey locations for ultra wideband radio technology to increases service, June 5, 2019. Photo: Jose Martinez/THE CITY

It was a popular choice last year when the MTA held the “Genius Transit Challenge” to solicit ideas for improving the subway.

Among the winners were Illinois-based Metrom Rail and Robert James, a transportation engineer with the global firm HNTB. Metrom Rail and James both submitted proposals for using the wireless technology.

“The main advantage is you have real-time knowledge of where all the trains are relative to each other,” James told THE CITY, adding he hasn’t been in contact with the MTA in recent months.

Subway riders along the J and Z said they frequently encounter signal problems in their commutes.

“In the morning, all the time,” said Jamel Davis, 34. “I just want to get to where I’m going in the morning faster.”

Previous phases of testing took place in 2017 along a section of the F and G lines in Brooklyn. Ultra-wideband sensors were also demonstrated along the shuttle that runs between Times Square and Grand Central.

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