What’s Getting in the Way of Your Commute?


Only between 3% and 6% of delays on the subway could be “controlled,” says a report out today by the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign.

They looked at 4,937 electronic alerts issued by the MTA in calendar year 2011, then removed irrelevant data, which left 4,580 alerts, then classified those into two categories: “controllable,” including such things as signal or mechanical problems, and “uncontrollable,” such as police activity or sick passenger.

And while it may seem like you’re encountering some kind of delay almost every day, according to this report, most of them aren’t things the MTA could possibly do something about. On the Q train there were 170 controllable delays (6% of the total delays), and on the B train there were just 78 (3% of the total). To put that in perspective, the 2 train was the worst, with 251 incidents, or 8% of the total.

So what are all these incidents? Of the 397 alerts listed in this spreadsheet that affected the B and Q trains, there were:

• 83 signal problems
• 77 mechanical problems
• 52 sick passengers/medical conditions
• 45 police investigations
• 30 switch problems
• 26 rail conditions
• 18 track maintenance
• 18 smoke conditions
• 13 weather-related
• 10 debris on track
• 1 derailment

And a couple other miscellaneous alerts, like one for that earthquake we experienced last summer.

I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions of your own, but these alerts also raised some questions for the Straphangers Campaign:

• Is there a relationship between the number of significant incidents and the amount of service provided by line?

• Are there explanations for why signal and mechanical problems constitute more than two-thirds of all significant controllable incidents?

• Is there a relationship between the number of significant incidents and whether a line shares part of its right-of-way?

• Are the number of alerts increased on lines undergoing major rebuilding, due to related service problems?

More data is needed to answer any of those, but what they can do with last year’s info is use it to compare the performance of future years. If you want to experience the data in real-time, you can sign up to get the alerts (whether they’ll help you on your commute or not, that’s another question). You can sign up to receive them via text or email here.

Comment policy


  1. It seems that the vast majority of the time, if I’m on a train and there’s a delay, it’s “due to a signal problem.” Maybe that’s kind of their go-to default problem to announce to customers, I don’t know.

  2. Are delayed trains separate from UNBEARABLY slow ones? If not, then it seems that most of these probably happen during peak hours. The amount of time to get anywhere increases by 10-15 minutes during peak times. And that is really frustrating, as those are times when we are most stressed and hurried and can’t spare those minutes. Nor do I want to leave a half an hour earlier to avoid rushing.

  3.  *Signal Problem* is the conductor saying to his henchman “signal is red – don’t know why – tell the people something”

  4. My favorite, by far, is ‘a smoke condition’.  Where there’s a smoke condition, there’s a fire condition.

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