Products and Design

How to Fix NYC’s Subway Signal Woes

Subway service in New York City keeps getting less reliable. Five years ago, saying you were late to work because of the subway might have raised an eyebrow in doubt, but not anymore.

Delays have become such a chronic problem, in fact, that both of the city’s tabloids have featured the subway system’s woes on their covers:

What’s causing these delays? According to MTA statistics cited by the New York Times, overcrowding is the most common reason on weekdays, and the second most common is signal problems. The subway’s antiquated block signal system messed with my commute twice in the past week, and signal failures represent about 13% of delays.

But, what are signals, and why don’t they work? And what can Governor Cuomo do about it? To learn more, we turned to an expert on the New York subway system, John DeAlto, who runs the NYC Transit-Subway-Signals Shapeways shop.

When the conductor announces a signal failure, what’s going on?
If the track senses anything on it, that interrupts the circuit so they have to go out and figure out why that signal dropped to red. And they have to clear it, and that might take some time, because a block can be much as 200 feet long, it can be as little as 10 feet long. So you have to go out and clear the block.

Maybe sometimes it could be a broken rail, maybe sometimes it could be a piece of garbage that got wet and it’s laying against the rail. Condensation would cause a relay to drop out and cause the signal to go to danger. Sometimes it could be a bad relay in the relay house that malfunction, like I said a coil can go bad.

A coil?
You remember the old doorbell, ding ding ding? Picture that copper coil, when you send current through that coil, it sends current through a magnet that causes the bell to ring. It’s the same system on the subway, but a little more complicated.

How did you learn so much about subway signals?
I always had a train layout. It started off with HO and then I graduated to O gauge. But I was always interested in the subway signals. As the years went by, I always wanted to replicate the original signal of the subway, but there is nobody around that had them.

So what did you do?
Well at first I used the kind of signals they use on a regular American railroad setup, and incorporated the technology of the subways into those signals.

Schematics for subway signals are different from railroad signals. The technology is different. It’s a block system. It’s actually a traffic signal but in reverse: instead of being green, yellow, red, it’s red, yellow, green. It works on the negative side of the current that returns back to the transformer that doesn’t engage the relay, it turns the signal red.

The last wheel of the train, when it clears that block it deenergizes that relay and sends the signal back to another relay, so then the signal goes from red to yellow. And then the next block, it would clear and goes back to green.

But let’s say a train was following it and the signal was yellow and it goes into a caution block, that signal would cancel out the green and go back to red.

Did you ever work for the subway system?
As a teenager I was going to try to work for the transit, but back then you didn’t get hired right away. You took a test, you went on the waiting list. In the interim I took a job with Con Edison and became a cable splicer.

I was called to work in the transit, but at the time I was making so much money at Con Edison and I had my weekends off. Because when you work for the city you start at the bottom of the barrel, you’re always working midnights. I didn’t want to bother working midnights, so I gave up trying to work for the transit. I said, “I’m going to stay with Con Edison.” I graduated into management and then I went to energy services. I worked at Con Edison 38 years. I’m retired from them.

Over the years I did projects with the transit through Con Edison, so I got to know a lot of people in the transit.

So did your friends in the MTA help you figure out how to make subway signals?
I’ve never actually seen a regular signal transit wiring diagram, but my system works exactly as the subways does. And I’ve had many transit employees that are motormen over the years that have come to see my layouts on different occasions. They said, “Gee, how did you get this technology?” I said, “Well, actually I just stumbled onto it.”

The first set of signals you made didn’t look like subway signals. How did you start making your own?
So what happened was I got hold of a guy that does CAD drawings and had him make a 3D CAD drawing of the signal. Then I got in touch with a mold company, and then had the molds made. And then some of them were produced at Shapeways in plastic, and then I got a company out in Oregon, I think, that make me molds so I can produce them in brass. If you go to Integrated Signal Systems, type down to O gauge, you’ll see subway signals and you’ll also see railroad signals.

So you produce them two ways?
Right. And with that, I supply a schematic and any technical support that somebody may need to get these wired onto their train board. ’Cause railroad signals are different from subway signals, so the schematic is a lot different, but if somebody’s having problems wiring on their train board, then they would contact me and I would walk them through.

How often do your signals fail?
I bought back in 1974, it was a set of 77 plastic-enclosed 12-volt relays. I had only one relay where the coil failed over those years.

But you don’t have as much ridership as the NYC subway system.
Right now I’m up in Jersey, but when I’m in Florida, I usually go in every day and spin the trains. In Florida I have a train board that’s 20 feet long by 8 feet wide. I have a three-rail loop, and my middle rail is a reverse, it can run either way, forward or reverse.

Where do you get your subway cars?
Subway cars are designed two different companies: One is called MTH RailKing. And then the other one we all know is Lionel. So that’s where I purchased my subway cars for the layout.

Do you ever ride the full-sized subway anymore? And do you have a favorite line?
I enjoy riding the subways. Any chance I get when I go in the city, I always try to ride the subways.

As a kid, I lived at 106th Street at Central Park West, so when I had to go to work, I would ride up to 125th Street, get off, go back, and get on the A train to ride down to 59th Street, because that train really flew. Once it left 125th Street, we call it, it went on the post until 59th street, it rock and rolled all the way down Central Park West.

What would you do to make the subways run more smoothly?
First of all, you have career employees who works in the transit, and who has more experience in getting things to work correctly? Listen to your employees, they’re the ones who can tell you how to make the subway run better, they’re the ones who can tell you how the subway’s gonna be more efficient. These guys got a world of knowledge. I’ve got a whisker of knowledge.

OK, so what does the governor do? He goes and he puts somebody in charge of the subway that has no background, no background whatsoever. So what he decides to do is not going to make the subway any better.

To buy John DeAlto’s subway signals, visit his Shapeways shop, NYC Transit-Subway-Signals, or Integrated Signal Systems. He also takes questions by email.

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