MTA test­ing sub­way count­down clocks for er­rors

The Buffalo News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Vin­cent Barone AMNEWYORK

Be­fore the MTA has com­pleted the in­stal­la­tion of its new sub­way count­down clocks, the sys­tem’s ac­cu­racy is al­ready be­ing called into ques­tion.

The agency will con­duct a sweep­ing test of its new clocks on let­tered sub­way lines af­ter field­ing enough rider feed­back that the LCD screens – a key to the MTA’s mod­ern­iza­tion plans – oc­ca­sion­ally dis­play wrong train ar­rival times. The spot checks will take place as the MTA works to bring the fea­ture to the re­main­ing few dozen sub­way sta­tions.

Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesman, said that the agency be­lieves the clocks are work­ing well, but with­out man­u­ally check­ing them, it can’t be con­firmed. So the agency will be send­ing work­ers to sta­tions on each let­tered line to phys­i­cally mon­i­tor dis­plays for what Tarek de­scribed as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure. The MTA had con­ducted a sim­i­lar, 90-day test when it was pi­lot­ing the clocks on the N, Q and R lines, and found the tech­nol­ogy to be 97 per­cent ac­cu­rate.

“The new count­down clocks are per­form­ing well over­all, and as we see how the tech­nol­ogy op­er­ates in the sub­way sys­tem we’re con­stantly mak­ing up­grades to the soft­ware,” Tarek said in a state­ment. “In the mean­time we’re con­duct­ing a se­ries of tests to check the ac­cu­racy of the train ar­rival info through­out the sys­tem in order to en­sure that we achieve the high­est pos­si­ble lev­els of con­sis­tency.”

The pri­mary con­cern is the new tech­nol­ogy be­hind the let­tered lines’ count­down clocks, which dif­fers from the clocks on the num­bered lines. The num­bered lines rely on a dig­i­tal com­put­ing sys­tem that al­lows for the MTA to track the ex­act lo­ca­tion of its trains as they progress from sta­tion to sta­tion.

Clocks on the let­tered lines are less pre­cise be­cause they rely on a cheaper, faster-to-in­stall Blue­tooth-based sys­tem that is cost­ing the MTA $90 mil­lion. The MTA places four Blue­tooth re­ceivers in each sta­tion – two at each end of the plat­form. Four bea­cons are placed in the front and backs of each train. The Blue­tooth re­lies on the same Wi-Fi sys­tem rid­ers can ac­cess on trains.

As trains en­ter and leave a sta­tion, the sys­tem es­ti­mates the time at which the train will reach the next stop. It’s a pre­dic­tion. The MTA does not know ex­actly where a train on the let­tered line is when it’s not at a sta­tion.

So a de­lay, service change or a track switch could throw off the ar­rival times if a let­tered train is in a tun­nel. Af­ter con­duct­ing its 90-day test, though, the MTA felt the tech­nol­ogy was ac­cu­rate enough to pur­sue for the re­main­der of its sys­tem. The other op­tion was to wait years for sim­i­lar tech­nol­ogy to num­bered lines to be in­stalled, ac­cord­ing to Tarek.

The clocks also re­cently drew con­cerns from rid­ers who felt they were too sparse and in­ad­e­quately in­stalled, oc­ca­sion­ally blocked by sta­tion signs or ex­ist­ing struc­tures.

Anec­dotes from rid­ers on clock per­for­mance vary widely. Sab­rina Stines, an en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer trav­el­ing from Dit­mas Park, said she’s ex­pe­ri­enced no prob­lems with the signs dur­ing her com­mutes to mid­town.

“They’ve ac­tu­ally been quite re­li­able,” Stines said. “I just wish there were more of them at sta­tions.”

Do­minic Watkins, 33, who com­mutes in from Orange, N.J., and rides the Broad­way line, agreed.

“They’ve worked well for me,” Watkins said while wait­ing at a train in Her­ald Square. “It’s been good, you no longer have to stick your neck out over the tracks.”

But recorded in­ac­cu­ra­cies can be more than slight an­noy­ances. Amanda Wall­win, a chief of staff at the Assem­bly, de­scribed the clocks as oc­ca­sion­ally hav­ing “ab­so­lutely no con­nec­tion” to re­al­ity.

She ended up leav­ing the 15th Street-Prospect Park sta­tion and hail­ing a Lyft af­ter the sta­tion’s count­down clock er­ro­neously dis­played that the next to F trains were 20 and 27 min­utes away.

“Right as I ex­ited the turn­stile I heard the train pull in,” Wall­win said. “It’s ex­actly the op­po­site of what the MTA is try­ing to ac­com­plish.”

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