M.T.A. crowns eight “Geniuses,” with ideas to fix subway service

On Friday morning, the M.T.A. announced eight winners of its Genius Transit Challenge, after receiving almost 438 proposals across three categories from individuals and companies for how to fix the subway system.

The agency said that each idea was selected based on its ability to “deliver quickly maximum positive impact on subway service and customer experience.” M.T.A. Chairman Joe Lhota said that the proposals “[…] represent a new wave of innovation for the MTA.”

For the signals category, there were two pairs of winners.

First, Metrom Rail and individual Robert James proposed replacing the antiquated signal system with one running ultra wideband CBTC, which has already started being tested independent of the Challenge late last year. The key difference between ultra wideband CBTC, and the current version of CBTC being installed by the M.T.A., is that the proposed version makes even greater use of radio technology, leading to less equipment along the tracks, but also requires being tested in a proof of concept before full rollout.

The second pair was made up of Ansaldo STS and Thales Group, who suggested using “onboard sensors and cameras” to track trains, even further removing the equipment needed to operate the system. However, Thales itself noted in its proposal that due to limitations in the technology, trains could only operate at between 18 to 25 miles per hour, a reduction of current top speeds. Thales is the current lead contractor on the CBTC installation contract for the 7 Line, which is currently running millions over budget, and almost two years late.

In the subway car category, there were three winners:

CRRC, a Chinese state-owned train manufacturer, proposed using $50 million of their own resources to design a more modular and modern subway car.

CSinTrans suggested creating software that would send subway car maintenance information directly to maintenance teams, allowing a fast response to equipment breakdowns.

Craig Avedisian, a lawyer, proposed adding additional cars to each subway train, and modifying door opening procedures. The proposal outlined the creation of “A” and “B” stations, where the front and middle cars would open at “A” stations, and the middle and back cars would open at “B” stations. However, the agency’s subway car fleet would have to significantly expand in order for the proposal to be functional–a cost estimated by Avedisian to be almost $12 billion.

Finally, in the communications category, the winner was Bechtel Innovation, which proposed using semi-autonomous robots to speed up repetitive equipment installation along subway tunnel walls.

Also announced at the ceremony was the creation of the “Transit Innovation Partnership,” a public-private partnership between the MTA and the Partnership for New York City. The executive director for the T.I.P. will be Rachel Haot, the former Chief Digital Officer for both New York City and New York State.

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