MTA Subway Delay Data Deceived the Public For Years, Comptroller’s Report Says

The A train makes its way from Howard Beach to the Rockaways. Photo via Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit.

The A train makes its way from Howard Beach to the Rockaways. Photo via Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit.

By Jonathan Sperling

The MTA for years misrepresented subway performance and delay data despite criticism from agency insiders, according to a report released by New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer on Friday.

Beginning in mid-2015, MTA analyses concluded that the agency’s internal systems could not accurately identify the causes of train delays and chronically placed the blame on “overcrowding,” when the cause lay elsewhere.

“It is an insult to anyone who has ever been late to work or stranded at the station that MTA leadership passed along bogus delay data just to make the agency look good, even as its own staff were raising red flags,” Stringer said in a statement. “While the new leadership deserves credit for trying to clean things up, the MTA still has a long way to go to ensure accuracy and reliability and to regain the public’s trust. For too long the MTA has failed to transparently report what is actually going on underground, a problem which can only mean more delays and more frustration for the working New Yorkers who rely on the subway every day.”

Stringer’s investigation is based on internal documents primarily prepared by the Department of Subways Performance Analysis Unit, as well as interviews with MTA officials.

In a July 2015 internal memo obtained during Stringer’s investigation, an MTA official stated that, “no policy or guidance exists on how dispatchers should properly identify the cause of a particular delay or on how delays should be assigned to incidents … Dispatchers rely on train crews to report the cause of delays, and these explanations are suspect.”

Another memo published in January 2016 and obtained during Stringer’s investigation stated that “much of the delay data is incomplete or unreliable, particularly the classification/categorization of delays and the assignment of delays to particular incidents.”

The investigation also accused the MTA of misleading customers on subway delays based on meaningless “Wait Assessment” results, hidden “unknown” delay causes and flaws in new metrics.

In 2016, the MTA stated that subway service was improving based on increases in “Wait Assessment” scores, a metric used to calculate the reliability of train service and indicate customer service quality. Internal analyses obtained by Stringer’s offer, however, showed MTA analysts warning that alleged improvements in “Wait Assessment” were likely the result of ‘sample error.’

The 33rd Street - Rawson Street No. 7 train station in Long Island City.  Eagle  photo by Jonathan Sperling.

The 33rd Street - Rawson Street No. 7 train station in Long Island City. Eagle photo by Jonathan Sperling.

“After technological advancements in data collection finally made clear that “Wait Assessment” scores had actually gotten worse, not better, the MTA quietly stopped touting the metric without ever acknowledging that the prior reporting had been incorrect,” Stringer’s report states.

A report released by data-scraping tool ReadyPipe last week revealed that according to the MTA’s own data, Queens subway trains topped the city in delays last month.

The A train, which takes straphangers from the Rockaways, Howard Beach and Ozone Park into Brooklyn and Manhattan, was delayed more than 11 percent of the time. Nearly one in every five A trains were delayed during the weekday rush hour (between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m).

“We appreciate the Comptroller’s focus on subway performance but this report is more history and politics than news, focusing on rejected practices of the past while glossing over recent reforms and NYC Transit’s aggressive pursuit of additional transparency and accountability,” MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek told the Eagle. “In 2017 NYC Transit instituted a new set of performance metrics based on global best practices, and as this report notes, one of President [Andy] Byford’s first challenges to NYC Transit when he started last year was to more accurately and transparently report the root causes of delays – a challenge that has already manifested itself in the expansion of specific delay categories for better reporting.”

“NYC Transit’s performance reporting is among the most transparent in the world, is only getting better with ongoing reforms, and what we really need is modern signaling system-wide that allows officials to see real-time diagnostics and the exact movements of trains at all times,” Tarek continued. “This is why it’s vital that the legislature pass congestion pricing and our city and state partners provide additional sources of revenue to fund those critical upgrades.”