As Bad As We Thought: Signal Problems Scrambled 92% Of Morning Rush Hours During 2018

New report from the Riders Alliance shows 98% of all morning commutes were delayed because of signal problems.

New York subway riders are suffering through a transit crisis. Since 2012, delays have tripled and on-time performance has plummeted. In 2017, the governor and MTA embarked on the Subway Action Plan, a set of quick fixes to maintain service quality.

Signal malfunctions are often noted as a major cause of delays and poor performance. But how frequent and how dramatic an impact do they have on riders’ lives? The Riders Alliance set out to explore the frequency not of the signal problems themselves but of the times when riders feel the consequences: when they cause delays, particularly during the high-stakes period of the morning rush hour, a time when delays can cause hundreds of thousands of riders to show up late for work, and when delays can cause backups that reverberate through the workday.

We also intend to examine the degree to which New York’s transit problems can be solved by short-term solutions like the Subway Action Plan, which aims to reduce delays by stationing additional staff on duty to resolve problems in the system, preforming more frequent maintenance and addressing other operational concerns. The Subway Action Plan began in 2017; how much of a difference will it make?

In 2018, beginning several months into the plan’s implementation and ending more than a year after the Subway Action Plan went into place, we found that signal problems delayed trains during a noteworthy 92% of morning rush hour commutes. Regardless of adjustments to operational management of the subways, the core infrastructure that relies on 1930s-era signal technology has continued to fail regularly, with relentless impact on riders’ day-to-day lives. We examine this data and conclude that greater intervention, including the modernization of the signal system, remains necessary. As a core recommendation, we urge state leaders to endorse the Fast Forward MTA modernization plan and provide necessary funding for that project.

While the New York subway operates 24/7, the morning rush hour, from 6 am to 10 am on non-holiday weekdays, is when millions of New Yorkers rely on public transit to get to work. When service fails, or is unreliable, tremendous anxiety and frustration result. Lost wages and work opportunities and lost time with family are the consequence of increasing amounts of time being devoted to unpredictable, harrowing commutes.
During 2018 there were 251 non-holiday weekdays. For each of those days, the Riders Alliance examined MTA service alerts archived at

We singled out signal problems, counting them up for each non-holiday weekday. Finally, we tallied them by month and by subway line.

Of 251 morning rush hours in 2018, 230 – or 92% – were marred by signal problems. January and February were the worst months – with signal delays literally every morning. The F was the worst line – with 72 days of morning rush hour signal delays, meaning that F train riders experienced signal delays on more than a quarter of all morning rush hours in 2018. Six subway lines posted more than 50 days with signal delays, which is at least 20% of all work days; another 10 lines suffered more than 30 days with signal delays.

More than a year into the Subway Action Plan, signal problems causing train delays remain extremely widespread. There is no trend toward significant improvement:

• There were signal problems every rush hour morning in January and February and four rush hour mornings without signal delays in December.
• Meanwhile, of the 21 rush hour mornings without signal problems, 11 were in the first half of the year and 10 were in the second half of the year.
Only a comprehensive investment in modern infrastructure will fix the subway. The MTA has a plan to modernize signals:
• The Fast Forward plan would retrofit most subway lines with Communications- Based Train Control over a decade.
• The essential work of upgrading the signal system will, like the acquisition of hundreds of new subway cars and station elevators, cost billions of dollars.

The MTA’s proposed upgrades are essential to meeting contemporary expectations for transit service and restoring New Yorkers’ trust both in the transit system and the elected leaders who determine its fate. To end the transit crisis and restore reliability to New Yorkers’ commutes, the governor and legislature must now adopt a comprehensive, fair, and sustainable plan to fund the MTA’s modernization.