JANUARY 1 2017 was a landmark day for New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Nearly 100 years since the idea was first mooted, residents of the Upper East Side of Manhattan were finally offered straightforward access to the New York City subway with the opening of the Second Avenue Subway project.


Since 1920 generations of planners had presented and presented again their vision for the new line, only to be denied the chance to see it become reality. The Great Depression, the Second World War, and New York’s economic problems in the 1970s all derailed various versions of the project, much to residents’ frustration.

Prendergast 1City politics also halted progress on several occasions, and the challenges of building in one of the most densely populated areas in the country - 50,000-62,500 people per km² - meant that the cost of construction, estimated at $US 86m in 1929, continued to balloon. The project seemed doomed. And The New York Times’ front-page declaration that “It is highly improbable that the Second Avenue subway will ever materialise” following another failure in 1957 reflected this sentiment.

That the project is no longer alongside the original Penn Station and Lower Manhattan Expressway as one of New York’s “what might have been” infrastructure schemes is testament to administrators’ willingness in recent years to get it over the line. Many of the dignitaries that made it happen enjoyed a reception on the first official train on December 31. New York governor Mr Andrew Cuomo, who pushed hard for completion by the end of 2016, was among them, as was MTA chairman and CEO Mr Thomas Prendergast.

Prendergast describes the project as the “most significant addition to our system in 50 years.” The new line features three new stations at 72nd Street, 86th Street and 96th Street, and an enhanced station at 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue. It utilises existing tunnels from 92nd Street to 105th Street, which were abandoned in the 1970s, and a new 3.2km tunnel along Second Avenue from 63rd Street to 92nd Street.

Yet keeping with the nature of the Second Avenue Subway, even the successful project was a long time in coming.

Plans were first issued in the 1995 Manhattan East Side Alternatives (Mesa) study as a means to ease congestion on the Lexington Avenue Line, which is used by 4, 5, and 6 trains and carries 500,000 passengers per day, and to improve transit accessibility for residents of the east of Manhattan. Four years later, the Mesa study issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement that proposed a new line running from 63rd Street and Lexington Avenue to 96th Street. Greeted with widespread approval, various assessments and preliminary engineering work was carried out over the next eight years, and with a 2005 bond issue providing the majority of funding, tunnelling began in 2007.

The project has faced difficulties, however. It has cost an eye-watering $US 4.5bn to build following delays, with Prendergast pointing out that Manhattan’s geology had a significant impact on the work.

“A lot of people don’t realise it, because people who come to Manhattan now see very flat terrain, but the original Manhattan was not flat,” Prendergast says. “You had hills and valleys. You had rock strata. And when they filled it in to make it flat, you had a lot of fill that wasn’t rock. So where you tunnel here, you can actually tunnel through rock as well as tunnel through soil.

“There was a point where in the construction of the tunnel they had to freeze the soil, so that the boring machine could continue with work. Those are the challenges you have when you build a subway tunnel here.”

Despite public scepticism over the pace of construction and its cost, the Second Avenue Subway is already proving a hit with passengers. The extended Q Line service is now carrying an extra 200,000 passengers a day, easing pressure on the Lexington Avenue Line as intended.

First phase

The 4.4km extension is in fact the first stage of a four-phase project. Phase 2 expects to add a further 2.4km to the line, taking it north to 125th Street and Fifth Avenue, and $US 535m in funding for planning of this stretch as well as $US 500m to begin initial construction is included in MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Investment Programme. However, no further funds have yet been committed to the staggering $US 6bn estimated cost of construction. Further extensions south to Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan are also envisaged, which will take the line to 13.7km and 16 stations and the overall cost to more than $US 17bn.

The $US 29.5bn capital programme, the largest ever investment in MTA’s infrastructure (see panel pXX), was approved in October 2015 and is fully funded; MTA is providing $US 11.8bn of its own funds, $US 8.3bn is coming from the state, $US 6.4bn from the federal government, and $US 2.5bn from the City of New York.

The $US 29.5bn figure was reduced by around 10% compared with the initial estimate of $US 32.5bn, with MTA expecting to use design-build, negotiated procurement processes, and public-private partnerships in order to increase the efficiency of its investments.

The challenge to reduce the cost of the programme came directly from Cuomo. In contrast with other administrators who have dealt with public transport in New York at “arm’s length,” Prendergast describes the governor as taking an “all-in” approach. In particular, he says Cuomo has engaged with the goals of the capital programme and asked tough questions of it, which has helped to reduce costs without eliminating projects that are critical to future reliability.

“Governor Cuomo continually asks me, why?” Prendergast says. “He continually challenges me and the organisation to think outside of the box and to try to change the culture. And it’s something that at first I was resistant to - I had difficulty with. But now I understand the importance of it.”

With a $US 15.1bn annual budget and assets worth $US 1 trillion, MTA is by some way the largest transit operation in the United States, and one of the largest in the world. It carried 1.763 billion passengers on its subway network in 2015, and across its five operations - New York City Transit’s (NYCT) subway, New York City and regional bus operations, Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), Metro-North Railroad, and the Staten Island Railway - MTA now serves 8.7 million passengers per day.

But it needs to carry more.

New York is currently experiencing its most robust population growth since the 1920s. The city alone is expected to be home to 9 million people by 2040 compared with 8.5 million today, inevitably translating into increased subway ridership, which is continuing to surge year-on-year.

Among the capital investment projects that will address this is the continuing roll-out of communications-based train control (CBTC). Prendergast is a huge subscriber to the benefits that CBTC can provide, in particular boosting capacity and improving safety.

He refers to two incidents in December 1990 and August 1991 as the genesis of CBTC in New York: the difficulty in identifying trains following a cable fire at the entrance to a tunnel from Brooklyn to Manhattan at Clark Street, which left two people dead; and an accident at 14th Street on the East Side where an intoxicated driver went through a crossover at 80km/h, well above the maximum speed of 16km/h, causing a huge derailment which killed four people.

“It was a classic case of, however well the wayside block signal system had served us for so many years, it was clearly apparent that overspeed protection at a much higher level was necessary,” Prendergast says.

CBTC has been in service on the Canarsie L Line for the past 11 years, with full ATO operational since 2009. Thales is now nearing completion of CBTC installation on the Flushing/7 Line while MTA awarded Siemens and Thales a contract worth $US 205.8m to install CBTC on the 43km Queens Boulevard Line in August 2015. This is the network’s second longest line with 25 stations, and is the most complicated CBTC deployment to date as it comprises a network of four lines - E, F, M and R - with local and express tracks.

Funding is also included in the 2015-2019 plan for the second phase of the Queens Boulevard project, and to install CBTC on the Culver Line (F and G trains) and the 8th Avenue Line (A, C and E trains.) The work is budgeted at $US 1.045bn and will comprise 117.8 track-km, more than double the 84km of track set to be covered by CBTC later this year. However, Prendergast concedes that the pace of deployment needs to increase, with 868 track-km continuing to rely on legacy signalling, 30% of which dates to pre-1965. “At the rate we’re going, it’ll be well into the 21st century before the entire system is equipped with CBTC,” he says.

He adds that overseas collaboration has been critical to the development of CBTC in New York, in particular work with London and Paris, two “brownfield” networks most akin to the NYCT system. He also believes that given its size and influence, New York is a now reference point for other CBTC projects in the United States, and that the agency is looking to rollout the technology so that its sister agencies can benefit from “some of the roads we have already ploughed ahead of them.”

For example, MTA has moved away from a policy of installing onboard equipment, interlockings, and wayside equipment at one time. Instead, Prendergast says MTA is now looking to install the onboard equipment when it is purchasing cars, and CBTC equipment along the right-of-way and new interlockings during scheduled upgrades. “We have three different programmes all aimed at the same thing,” Prendergast says. “Ultimately, we will have the most current, state-of-the-art overspeed collision avoidance protection system available.”

Positive Train Control

MTA has also committed $US 220m from the capital programme to complete the rollout of Positive Train Control (PTC) on Metro North ($US 94m) and LIRR ($US 126m). Federal regulations require full deployment by December 31 2018 and Prendergast says that MTA is attempting to step-up the pace on the work. However, he admits that it is challenging given the intricacies of the project.

With a comparably small deployment, rather than pioneer this work, MTA is inevitably working in the shadow of the Class 1 railways, which are also tied to the end of 2018 deadline. As well as their respective PTC programmes, Prendergast feels that MTA can learn a lot from these railways’ approach to maintaining their assets.

“Class 1s have to maintain their assets, they won’t be profitable if they don’t,” Prendergast says. “The first level is to make sure it’s safe and reliable. But how do you get the most extensive life out of each asset? When I started in this business, a railcar lasted about 30 or 35 years. We’re now able to have railcars in terms of structure that last 50 years.

“So, if the cost of a car is $US 2.5-3m and you can get more years of life out of it, that’s money you free up for investment in other parts of the asset or for expansion. The idea is for us to have whole-life asset management systems in place with a manager of the asset. Somewhere in NYCT there is an individual responsible for maintenance of the track asset. I want that individual to have all the information he or she needs to be able to say, instead of replacing track on this curve at 30 years, I can replace it at 32 safely, not affecting service, but saving the investment in that asset for something else. We have to get our whole-life asset management systems to that level, and the destiny of this organisation for the next hundred years will be dependent on our ability to get that right.”

Superstorm Sandy, which hit New York on October 29 2012, also emphasised the need for improved asset resilience.

Prendergast says it is now not a matter of if, but when and how often New York and MTA faces such extreme weather events. Work is continuing on $US 2bn of post-Sandy repairs with an emphasis on introducing systems and components that will minimise potential future damage.

For example, elements that suffered salt water damage are being replaced with more resilient components. This includes utilising submarine cable in tunnels susceptible to flooding, such as the Canarsie tunnel, which has flooded three times in the last 30 years.

Work also began in November on a $US 193.8m nine-month project to restore the South Ferry subway station while installation of vent gratings at tunnel openings in lower Manhattan is continuing. “Before Sandy we had very rude and crude ways of putting plywood and sandbags down to protect those openings,” Prendergast says. “We have now spent money to put in mechanical systems where somebody can go flip a lever and close off those vent gratings. The vent gratings have to be open when we run normal service for ventilation, but you definitely want them closed when there’s a storm event.”

One thing that Sandy did bring into focus was the critical importance of New York’s transit system to the city. Prendergast was NYCT chairman during the storm and was instrumental in making the decisions to shut down the system and eventually to restore service. He credits all employees, from high-level management to hourly staff for working together to achieve a successful response, and says in this and other emergency situations, infighting among departments and disagreements between different personalities stops because the sole focus is on restoring service.

However, in every day operations, things are slightly different. In fact, managing the differences between the five separate public transport organisations that make up MTA so that they can operate effectively together is a major part of Prendergast’s work.

“What you have to do in an organisation like ours is a little bit of head-knocking, because you can’t afford five asset management systems,” Prendergast says. “We have catenary. We have under-running and over-running third rail. We need to develop a spec that would enable inter-running across all three railways - Metro-North, LIRR and NJ Transit. It is a challenge. But it’s like anything else: if you don’t put it out there and say do it, people will find ways why they can’t do it.”

Prendergast announced on January 2, following the opening of the Second Avenue Subway, that he will step down from MTA in the next few months. After 35 years with the agency, albeit with a brief spell running Vancouver’s Translink, his career has spanned all elements of the organisation - from his start as assistant director of system safety at NYCT, to the chairman of LIRR and president of NYCT.

Whoever his replacement is, they will certainly have big boots to fill. Yet if they look to replicate his and his predecessors’ philosophy when approaching the job, they will be successful. Of all the mentors and people that he admired during his career, Prendergast says they all had one common trait: to leave what they have in a better condition than how they inherited it.

“I’ve subscribed to that theory,” he says.


MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Investment Programme

FUNDS to support the completion of phase 1 of the Second Avenue Subway and design and initial construction of phase two are part of a $US 4.5bn allocation for big ticket infrastructure schemes included in the 2015-2019 Capital Programme.

This includes the $US 10.178bn East Side Access project, which will receive a final $US 2.572bn allocation for completion. One of the largest current infrastructure projects in the United States, it involves construction of 13km of new tunnels in east Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx to connect LIRR’s Port Washington and Main Lines to Grand Central Terminal where a new eight-track LIRR Terminal is being built below the current concourse. The station will serve an extra 162,000 passengers a day when it opens in December 2022.

East sideSimilarly, Penn Station Access, a new project to allow Metro-North trains using the existing New Haven Line to Grand Central Terminal to access Penn Station via Amtrak’s Hell Gate Line section of the North East Corridor is receiving initial funding of $US 695m. This project involves construction of 4.8km of new track and will add an alternative terminus for Metro-North trains in the west of Manhattan as well as four new stations in the Bronx.

The majority of the programme, $US 21.6bn, is reserved for investments to improve core infrastructure in New York’s subway, buses and railways. NYCT’s subway is receiving $US 14.2bn, including $US 2.956bn for the purchase of 940 new R-211 subway cars, and $US 2.781bn for station upgrades, including $US 408m for the complete renewal of 20 stations on six lines, and $US 419m for upgraded fare collection systems. Signalling and telecommunications, including CBTC, is receiving $US 2.766bn while $US 1.845bn is being spent to rehabilitate 116km of track. Traction upgrades receive $US 773m.

LIRR is the recipient of $US 2.8bn, including $US 500m to purchase 164 new M-9 coaches. The railway also receives $US 399m for station upgrades, $US 211m for maintenance facilities and depots, and $US 378m for signalling upgrades. Track improvement projects receive $US 795m, including $US 250m to complete the double-track project between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma.

Metro-North similarly receives $US 2.3bn with 85% allocated to projects that bring assets to a good state of repair and protect previous investments. Among them is $US 532m for the continuing replacement of the M-3 fleet, $US 391m for east of Hudson track and infrastructure work, and $US 57m for structures west of the Hudson River. Signalling and telecommunications upgrades are receiving $US 194m.

In addition, MTA’s Bridges and Tunnels division is receiving $US 2.9bn for ongoing maintenance work, while New York’s buses are receiving $US 2bn.