NY subways fully y2k compliant

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Published Friday, February 11, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

Going Underground Next stop: the 21st century N.Y. subway system belatedly going high-tech BY RANDY KENNEDY New York Times

NEW YORK -- It was a joke that got big laughs around New York City Transit as the end of last year approached: The subways were fully Y2K-compliant.

But to understand why it was so funny requires a peek inside a tiny, mustard-yellow room deep within Grand Central Terminal, where a handful of workers keep track of Manhattan's busiest subways. The technology there -- Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils, sheets of paper schedules, pairs of human eyes -- is not exactly vulnerable to viruses.

``Probably the most technologically advanced thing in here,'' said Barry Greenblatt, a subway superintendent, ``is the fax over there.''

In fact, with the exception of radio, crude lighted maps and the video cameras that were installed only within the past three years, the system for recording the movement of each train and its passengers on more than 650 miles of tracks has remained almost unchanged since city subways first started rolling in 1904. Workers basically watch for trains coming into stations, then note in writing the arrival and departure times. The exact locations of the trains are usually not known at any given moment.

But over the next three years, at a cost of $128 million, a revolution will begin that will essentially drag the system out of the 19th century directly into the 21st. New tracking technology -- similar to that used by air traffic controllers -- will take the New York subway to a level that its smaller cousins in Washington, London, San Francisco and Montreal have been at for decades.

Then, over the next 20 to 25 years, at a cost that will probably reach into the billions, officials say, a system now in use only in Paris will be installed, in which trains will be dispatched, tracked, driven and stopped almost completely by computer.

``This is something that has been talked about here for at least 20 years,'' said Lawrence Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, saying it was one of several major modernization projects postponed by the city's fiscal crisis of the 1970s. ``Now we are finally starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.''

The new tracking system, to be installed first on almost all lines, is being designed by Union Switch & Signal of Pittsburgh, the same company that built many of the lighted maps and bulky switching boards still in use in the 60 subway control rooms, known as towers.

The new system will rely on tiny transponders, placed at close intervals inside the tunnels, that will send signals to passing trains and receive signals identifying the trains in return. That information, which will be conveyed on fiber-optic cables already strung through the tunnels, can then be used to record the train's speed and its exact location second by second.

Compared with the patched-together system now in use, the innovations seem almost like science fiction.

On a recent afternoon, for example, in the cramped control tower that sits almost in the path of the No. 6 train inside Grand Central, Greenblatt and six subway controllers were keeping track of trains the old-fashioned way.

At a gray metal desk with a fluorescent lamp and a small American flag hanging overhead, Ometa Byrd was staring intently at a typed-out train schedule, known as a gap sheet, that informed her when Lexington Avenue 4, 5 and 6 trains were supposed to pull into and leave Grand Central.

For most of her career, as a kind of train spotter, Byrd was required to note the arrival of the train by looking at it through a window near the tracks, much like a waiting passenger would do, then noting its identification number and the arrival and departure times. For the last three years, though, cameras on the platforms have allowed her to see the trains on miniature television monitors in the tower.

In front of her, too, was a huge black map with lights indicating subway stations from Bowling Green to 125th Street. The lights go on when a metal shoe on the bottom of a subway train momentarily bridges a gap in the subway's electrified third rail, completing a circuit. But the gaps are sometimes more than 500 feet apart, meaning that the exact location of the train between gaps is not known.

It is exactly the same kind of circuitry described in a pamphlet published by the Interborough Rapid Transit Co. when the subway opened Oct. 27, 1904. The pamphlet included a description of the construction of the first tunnels, which could apply just as well today to the forthcoming installation of up-to-date electronics: ``The engineering difficulties were well-nigh appalling.''

The essential problem with the system now, Greenblatt, the superintendent, explained, is that ``we can tell if a train is moving, but we can't say exactly where it is or how fast it is moving unless we talk to the train operator.''

And the radios that link train operators with controllers are almost as unreliable as many of the public-address speakers in subway terminals, which sometimes emit only static when a train is near.

All in all, said Greenblatt, a man who comes across with the techie enthusiasm of a computer programmer: ``The system is kind of like watching the minute hand on a clock. It doesn't give you a lot of details.''

At the Grand Central control tower, which monitors more than 80 trains an hour during the morning rush, there is not a computer in sight. The only computer ever installed there, which kept track of employees' hours, is now locked away in a metal case to protect it from the inky steel dust that is produced by train wheels on the tracks.

Byrd, looking up at the wide black map, which shows subway trains as clusters of red lights, said the tower sometimes loses power, and ``this whole thing goes dark.''

``It doesn't happen very often,'' she said, smiling, ``but more than we would like.''

E. Virgil Conway, the chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent agency of New York City Transit, waxed almost nostalgic last week about the scrappy system whose era will soon end.

``It's served us well over all these years,'' said Conway, who at 70 recalls the days of wicker seats on subway trains.

``But we could certainly run a much better system,'' he said, ``if we knew where every train was at any time.''


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), February 11, 2000


This is a quaint article. But it really downplays serious y2k issues NY transit officials had with y2k (I've talked to some of the folks who did early remediation). It is true that the subway switches, etc. were not a problem. But lots of other stuff was.

-- Bud Hamilton (budham@hotmail.com), February 13, 2000.

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