Much of the technology in the New York subway system hasn’t been updated in over 100 years

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An MTA employee tracks trains by hand.
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MTA/YouTube

From the looks of straphangers during rush hour, with their headphones, smartphones, and e-readers, it would be easy to miss how old the New York City subway system is.

But every day, hundreds of trains run through the largest subway network in the world on century-old technology. When things go wrong – as they have been doing more and more often – the delays pile up.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, a state agency responsible for the New York City subway, is fighting a budget battle to get the funds it desperately needs to update the century-old system. To garner public support, the agency took to YouTube a few months back, uploading video of the antiquated signaling system and what’s being done to update it.

A crucial element of the MTA’s capital plan, the program that stands to lose the most funding from the state legislature, is Communications Based Train Control (explained below). The technology is revolutionary for a system as old as New York City’s, and installing it on just one subway line took six years and $288 million to complete.

Scroll down to learn what’s being done to improve a subway system that remains largely unchanged since its inception in 1904.

[An earlier version of this post was written by Graham Rapier.]


“In our system, it’s not just the architecture that’s 100 years old,” an MTA employee explains. “It’s a lot of the basic technology as well.”

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MTA/YouTube

Here, at the West 4th Street station, MTA employees log train movements by hand.

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MTA/YouTube

Every signal on each line is mapped on this board, which looks more like a an old board game than a method of keeping thousands of commuters safe and on time.

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MTA/YouTube

Here’s a closer look.

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MTA/YouTube

Staff members even have to manually pull handles to operate track switches and signals that tell train operators when it is safe to pass through a section of track.

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MTA/YouTube

These antiquated signals are changed by the manually operated handles in the control room. They are difficult and expensive to maintain.

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MTA/YouTube

“This equipment is not supported at all by the railroad industry,” explains Wynton Habersham, vice president and chief officer of subway delivery. “It’s very hard to maintain.”

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MTA/YouTube

That means when something breaks, the agency has to turn to its own machine shop to either produce a replacement or scavenge the system for an extra part.

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MTA/YouTube

Just check out the year on that sticker — over 50 years ago!

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MTA/YouTube

Currently, the fixed-block signaling system allows staff to know the general area of a train, its “block” of about 1000 feet, but with “no precise location or speed control, we never really know where the train is,” the video says.

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MTA/YouTube

Change is coming, but slowly. The MTA is working to install what is known as Communications Based Train Control, or CBTC, which is already in place on Canarsie-bound L trains.

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MTA/YouTube

Installing the system on the L train took over six years, with multiple delays and cost overruns reaching $288 million. The so-called “robot trains” require far fewer operators, too, which drew ire from the Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union of America.


Currently, controllers have an imprecise understanding of where the trains are. But the new system attaches transponders under cars, so they can all be tracked in real time.

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MTA/YouTube

This means the system can handle more trains at even higher speeds, as the video demonstrates, because trains can communicate with each other and will automatically brake to avoid collisions if they get too close.

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MTA/YouTube

Communications Based Train Control is currently being installed on Flushing-bound 7 trains, and someday (fingers crossed!) it will find its way to the entire subway system.

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MTA/YouTube

Here’s the full MTA video, if you want to see even more outdated technology.