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The MTA just paid a group of “geniuses” $2.5 million for subway fixes

By Clayton Guse

Last May, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the MTA announced the Genius Transit Challenge, a competition calling for proposals that would bring expedited fixes to New York City’s rapidly deteriorating subway system. After sifting through 438 submissions, the authority released a list of 19 finalists in December and announced a group of eight winners on Friday.

The victors, who will split a net $2.5 million in prize money, presented a range of ideas, including a semiautomated robot that installs communication systems with a form of “next generation” wireless technology. All of the pitches were required to solve one of three problems: quickly modernizing the subway’s outdated signal system; expediting the rollout of modernized subway cars; and increasing communications infrastructure across the entire system.

Unfortunately, the MTA did not accept any of our proposals for fixing the subway (this writer is still convinced that lighting cash on fire in the tunnels is a smarter idea), so we’ll just have to live with the winning solutions. 

Here’s a full breakdown of the winners and the improvements that they aim to bring to the subway. 

The signals

Robert James, a seasoned transportation engineer, and Metrom Rail, a transit tech company, were each awarded $250,000 for their proposals. Both of their pitches revolve around Ultra-wideband (UWB), a relatively cutting-edge form of wireless technology that would replace the current, arcane signal system. Currently, MTA dispatchers have no way of knowing precisely where a train is located in the subway. 

The installation of a UWB-based network would require substantially less equipment than the current technology that’s being rolled out across the subway and would provide “centimeter-accuracy location” for cars in the tunnels. 

According to the proposals, the MTA has the ability to begin installing such a system immediately.

The cars

The second part of the challenge yielded three winners—two companies and one individual—each of which was awarded $330,000. Craig Avedisian, a lawyer and transit nerd, proposes the rollout of longer trains on the subway’s most overcrowded lines and changing the loading procedures on those trains to separate straphangers who are boarding and deboarding. In theory, the concept would shorten the time that trains spend at stations.

CRRC, the world’s largest train car producer, is perhaps the most intriguing winner in this category. As part of its proposal, the company ponied up $50 million to work with the MTA on the New York City Transit “car of the future.” The idea here is to manufacture cheaper cars with a shorter shelf life, which would allow the MTA to more regularly replace old trains with ones that lean on up-to-date technology. In a system that still uses the oldest subway cars in the world, this is a delightful solution. 

The third big idea for the train cars doesn’t revolve around the infrastructure itself but rather the software that runs it. Proposed by CSINTRANS, a transit IT solutions firm, the idea here is to implement software that automatically provides passengers with real-time service updates and MTA crews with real-time train diagnostics. It’s the kind of tech that’s commonplace in most other forms of transit (automobiles being a prime example), but it’s no surprise that the MTA is not leveraging it at the moment.

The comms

Bechtel Innovation was the sole winner of this award, with two other companies getting cashless honorable mentions. The company, which received a $500,000 prize, proposes a system dubbed “The Big B,” a semiautomatic robot that is allegedly capable of rapidly installing communications in the city’s subway tunnels. According to the MTA, “This radical robotic system is quick and nimble enough to climb off the railways, into stations and onto platforms or service bays,” which sounds like something out of Minority Report

The two companies receiving honorable mentions were Transit Wireless and Alcatel-Lucent, which is part of the Nokia Group. Both of their proposals centered around installing a private LTE network across the subway system’s tunnels, giving straphangers access to the internet throughout the duration of their rides. This may be the one feature that New Yorkers care about the most; if it gets implemented riders will finally have unfettered access to their Instagram feeds.

These solutions are certainly innovative and echo some of the ideas that other transit think tanks have been pitching for years. At the end of the day, the MTA still needs to find a way to pay for them, which is a whole other battle. 

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