1. Transport
June 29, 2017updated 02 Aug 2021 9:04am

Transport systems in London and New York are facing the same problem. They're too popular

By Jack May

New York has a problem. If you know anyone who lives in America’s largest, most hectic, crazed city, their steady trickle of complaints about this problem will have probably become more of a flood over the past year.

For me, as a devout and unapologetic lover of underground railways as profoundly miraculous feats of engineering that double as superb ways of getting about, it’s hard to take these complaints seriously.

“Of course there are bugs in any system,” I always reply. “But despite its flaws, the system is still phenomenally impressive.”

Up to a point.

Something Bad

The fact is that the New York City subway has reached breaking point – and if we’re not careful, London’s could be heading down the same track. Though the two systems are very different in a number of key ways, they’re facing different version of the same problem at the same time.

This problem is not any of the usual flaws that one would expect to afflict a vast underground railway network that’s over a century old.

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Of course, there are the usual suspects. Some mornings, people take ill, fall in front of the tracks, or get involved in skirmishes that require a police presence. These inevitably cause delays.

People yawning does not normally cause delays. Image: Yanping Nora Soong.

Some of the time, the signalling systems on these systems can play up – as London learnt just the other day, when vast swathes of the District, Circle, and Piccadilly lines were crippled for most of the day by a gargantuan system failure. After all, these systems are often very old – in New York’s case, often pre-WW2; in London’s, some signalling dates back a century or more.

The trains, too, can cause issues. The Piccadilly line was in crisis earlier this year when the rubber wheels on a number of its trains had serious faults, meaning all these trains had to be taken out of service for a time to be fixed so as to be fit for safe passenger use. Having so many fewer trains available on the line meant service frequency took a huge hit, with all sorts of disruptive consequences.

All these and more are part and parcel of running such systems. But both systems face a trickier problem – they’re too popular.

Extensive research by the New York Times shows that overcrowding is by far and away the largest cause of delays on the New York subway, causing about three times as many delays as the next biggest, track maintenance.

And the reason your New Yorker friends are complaining about the subway – about twenty-minute commutes taking up to two hours – is most likely to be that there are just too many people between them and their destination..

The big squeeze

Figures from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subway, show that, between 2007 and 2017, the percentage of trains running on time fell every single line of the New York subway. While some lines have only seen minor drops – the L train has only dropped a few percentage points to 91 per cent of trains on time – others have dropped off a cliff.

A packed New York subway train. Image: Daniel Schwen

In 2007, almost 90 per cent of trains on the 2 train ran on time. In 2017, that was barely a third. The same pattern holds true with the 4 and 5 trains. Where the J had a near-100 per cent on-time record in 2007, only 64 per cent of its services now run as planned.

This is nothing short of astonishing, and it’s down to how popular the system has become. The system has 1bn riders a year in 1990; by 2015, that had risen to 1.8bn. In that time, the system has gained only twenty-two extra trains (from 5,255 to 5,282), and has managed to lose five miles of track.

London has a similar problem. Station names such as Camden Town and Victoria make tube users come out in a cold sweat, and anyone who has used the tube in rush hour has faced closed gates, shouting TfL stewards looking harangued, and thick masses of fragrant commuters on the platform watching train after train go by, too full to board.

Dwelling Through Life

Why is overcrowding such a problem? In short: dwell time.

Problem! Image: Daniel Schwen.

The ‘dwell time’ of a train is the amount of time it spends standing at a station platform spewing out alighting passengers and taking on new ones – and it’s really important. It’s why trains these days are specifically designed with doors that open as widely as possible to make it easier for people to get on and off, and why the designers of the Victoria line’s 2009 stock built the handrails so that they subconsciously draw you down inside the carriage (at least, if you’re right-handed; we can’t help you if you’re a sinistra).

When trains and platforms are crowded, dwell time goes up. If loads of people want to get off at a stop, getting them all out takes longer. If lots of people want to get on, getting them in takes longer. Add in a system where platforms are so crowded that people are barging past each other and passengers on the platform are watching the first, second, or third train go past before one arrives that actually has space for them to board, and you have a nightmare scenario.

The authorities in London have been pretty good at coming up with solutions for this so far.

Look how many ticket barriers. Mmmm. Image: Tom Page.

Lengthening platforms on the National Rail network so that they can handle trains with twelve carriages rather than ten was a clever move worth the investment. Increasing the frequency of the Thameslink route through its central core (roughly King’s Cross St. Pancras to Elephant & Castle) from 16 trains per hour (tph) to 24tph was also shrewd.

Signalling tweaks on the Victoria line means that trains can now arrive and depart on the platform once every 100 seconds. That’s astonishing.

Once signalling changes are complete on the sub-surface lines (Hammersmith & City, District, Circle, and Metropolitan), trains will be able to run far more frequently than they currently do.

The new walk-through trains on these lines has also made a difference, with these same smart design choices also set to be part of the ‘New Tube for London’ rolling stock on the Central, Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Waterloo & City lines coming in the next decade or so.

But these tweaks are not going to be enough.

A packed platform at Bethnal Green. Image: Tom Page.

“One can almost envisage Neville Chamberlain waving around his tablet computer showing the Tube Improvement Plan and reassuring us that all is well,” wrote train nerd maestro ‘Pedantic of Purley’ on London Reconnections.

Defying Brevity 

“Crossrail!” I hear you shout. Again, a great move, and one that will increase London’s transport capacity by a whole 10 per cent.

But Sir Peter Hendy, former commissioner of Transport for London, once said: “I predict that when Crossrail opens in 2018 it will be immediately full.” Obviously it’s now not opening until late next year, and it’s unwise to take him literally on that, but he has a good point.

London’s population is growing pretty quickly, meaning a whole load more passengers needing space on the network. By one consulting firm’s estimation, London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. By TfL’s estimate, it’s growing by a Tube train full of people every week – roughly 750. By an LSE economist’s estimate, we’re growing by 100,000 a year, about 1,900 a week. Buried deep in the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) documents is a projection that suggests London could have grown by 106,000 people every year in the decade up to 2021.

Think about that 10 per cent capacity increase again. The census of 2011 had London’s population at 8.2m. By the GLA’s figures, in 2021, that number could be around 9.3m, an increase of 11 per cent. Far from being the great sigh of relief providing space and connectivity to the capital, Crossrail will merely help us keep our flailing proverbial head above water.

One Short Line

Meanwhile, New Yorkers are facing a population increase of 9.5 per cent between 2010 and 2040, matched only by a piddly three new stations on the Second Avenue Subway.

The second avenue subway. Shiny, but not enough. Image: Jseliger2.

Though $1.7bn has been allocated to build three more stations as part of so-called ‘Phase 2’, phases three and four have been given no funding commitments. Despite the excitement, this is by no means anything like as radical and large-scale as Crossrail.

London and New York have the same problem – as populations have grown, city economies have thrived, and transport systems become less grim and crime-ridden, the underground and the subway have boomed. Ridership is up, and so is overcrowding.

But the nature of the illness is pretty much the end of the similarity. London has seen intelligent quick-fix solutions, small but smart tweaks, and a willingness to put its cards on the table and invest properly in the future. Though at the current rate this will soon prove inadequate, if a similarly large-scale project can be firmly set on its way in the next few years – called, I don’t know, Crossrail 2 – then all shall be well.

New York’s sickness, meanwhile, may prove more intractable. To have performance falling off a cliff on every single line is astounding, and, anecodtally, has meant that many are ditching the subway altogether. New York has failed to invest in the housekeeping tweaks to its system that have proved so canny in London, and where it has embarked on bold projects, it has done so with such sloth and financial largesse that the exercise is almost rendered futile.

Something needs to give.

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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