MTA subway delay data misled public for years, comptroller says

The MTA admitted its data was "incomplete or unreliable" in internal documents, according to City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
The MTA admitted its data was "incomplete or unreliable" in internal documents, according to City Comptroller Scott Stringer. Photo Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The MTA in recent years has knowingly released data on subway delays that misled the public and “obscured” the system’s decline, according to City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Internal MTA documents in 2015 and 2016 acknowledged that delay data was “incomplete or unreliable, particularly the classification/categorization of delays” and that “[n]o 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,” according to a report published by Stringer Friday.

The report highlights three main problems with the agency’s data: delays were chronically misattributed to “overcrowding”; the metric used to show improving wait times was “statistically insignificant” and “likely the result of sample error”; and delays that were internally identified as “unknown” were grouped with other categories publicly. 

“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. 

The MTA has already stopped using the wait times metric and has a new subway performance dashboard with delays separated into six categories: track, signals, persons on trackbed/police/medical, stations and structure, subway car and other. 

“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 spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement. 

Tracking delays is a challenge with the system’s antiquated signal system, which only provides approximations of train movements, the MTA said. 

“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 said.

Only about a third of the subway system is on automatic signaling.

While Stringer acknowledged that the MTA has implemented reforms, he said the new categorization of delays still excludes delays caused by planned work, and he called for more transparency on the methods used to calculate performance metrics.