If the collective sighs of commuters haven’t already been an obvious giveaway, the New York City Subway has recently been subjected to a (stronger than usual) wave of criticism — due, in part, to its aging infrastructure, which has been causing extensive delays and service disruptions. In an effort to modernize the system’s capacity and reliability, the MTA recently announced the winners of the Genius Transit Challenge, which put a call out for innovative ideas to upgrade subway signals, procure new state-of-the-art subways cars, and bring connectivity to underground tunnels and trains. The eight winners of the challenge were announced last week, and their ideas certainly hold significant promise.

Governor Cuomo initiated the Genius Challenge last summer, and of the 438 submissions received, almost a quarter came from international applicants. According to a MTA press release, estimates for modernizing the century-old New York City subway signal system ranged from 40 to 50 years at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. However, the ideas that have bubbled up in the Genius Challenge could potentially cut both of those figures dramatically. The proposed solutions, selected for their ability to quickly deliver “maximum positive impact,” are listed below:

Challenge 1: Signaling:

Expedite the deployment of modern train signaling technologies to increase the number of trains at peak periods and promote more reliable service. Two winning ideas, split between four winners, were selected and will each receive a $250,000 award.

Winner 1: Proposed by Metrom Rail and transportation engineer Robert James, the first solution will revolutionize signaling deployment using ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology, which can show the precise location of subway cars without needing to install expensive equipment that is required by Computer Based Train Control (CBTC) signal technology.

Winner 2: Ansaldo STS and Thales Group both call for the installation of onboard sensors and cameras, a technology that is similar to what is currently used in autonomous vehicles. The sensors would be placed on trains with little to no equipment near tracks, thereby eliminating the need for complex and cumbersome equipment.

Challenge 2: Subway Cars: 

Efficiently deploy modern subway cars or refurbish existing ones to increase the subway system’s capacity and reduce delays. Three winners were chosen, each of whom will receive a $330,000 award.

Winner 1: Transit enthusiast Craig Avedisian proposed longer trains by adding more individual cars, thereby increasing overall rider capacity. The MTA will evaluate stations where platforms are long enough to accommodate longer trains to explore the possibility of a pilot program.

Winner 2: CRRC, the largest train car producer in the world, proposed to invest $50 million of its own money to develop a new subway car that will explore different design possibilities, including the utilization of lighter material, such as carbon fiber; the addition of customer benefits like Wi-Fi, charging ports and LED lighting; and the incorporation of modular design and modern train control technology.

Winner 3: CSinTrans, an international provider of technology solutions for transit, suggested a software platform that takes the existing diagnostic data for all operating systems within subway cars and transmits the information to MTA maintenance crews so that they can respond quickly to potential problems. Currently, this data is sent to the car’s manufacturer, but not shared with the MTA.

Challenge 3: Communications: 

Identify communications systems that will support the rapid installation and deployment of modern train communications and control technologies in the subway system. One winner was selected and will receive a $500,000 award.

Winner: The Big B, a semi-automatic robotic system proposed by Bechtel Innovation, could quickly install communications and control infrastructure in track tunnels by climbing on tracks, into stations, and onto platforms. This would free up crews and workers, who could take care of more complex maintenance tasks.

In order to help bring these solutions to life, the MTA and the Partnership for New York City are launching the Transit Innovation Partnership, a public-private collaboration dedicated to bringing new ideas and resources to support the MTA’s goals. The partnership has committed $1.5 million to this initiative.

For more information on each of these solutions, visit geniustransitchallenge.ny.gov. Also make sure to join us for our next Underground Tour of the NYC Subway, where we will learn about the secrets and history of the world’s largest rapid transit system.

Underground Tour of the NYC Subway

Next, read about NYC’s Subway Signals and see a video of a Subway Car Without Seats.