MTA Genius Transit Challenge winners announced

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-In-Chief, Railway Age
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MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford: “A modern signal system is the key to running more trains, to driving up reliability and to increasing network capacity.”
MTA photo

The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on March 9 announced eight winners of the MTA Genius Transit Challenge, including two that "plan to immediately reinvest their cash awards from the competition and contribute seed money to advance their ideas in conjunction with the MTA."  


“As part of a wide-ranging effort to upgrade the subway system’s capacity and reliability, all the winning ideas will be thoroughly vetted and further developed as quickly as possible with future procurements subject to any required MTA Board approval,” MTA said. “Given the urgent need to effectuate near term change, the Genius Transit Challenge sought innovative ideas to rapidly modernize the New York City subways signal systems, procure new state-of-the-art subway cars and bring connectivity to underground tunnels and trains. The eight winners were chosen for their ability to deliver quickly maximum positive impact on subway service and customer experience. In some categories, judges gave out multiple awards because more than one proposal had significant promise, or because two proposals utilized similar technological strategies.”

“Prior to the Genius Challenge, estimates for modernizing the New York City subway signal system ranged from 40 to 50 years, with a cost of tens of billions of dollars,” MTA said. “New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo declared the status quo to be unacceptable and challenged the MTA to launch the Genius Challenge to find better solutions. With the ideas recognized today as winners of the Genius Challenge, NYC Transit has the potential to cut that timeline dramatically and the cost significantly, delivering modern signal technology to a century-old subway system. Winning submissions in the signals category offer the possibility of modernizing NYC Transit’s antiquated signal system far faster and more cost-effectively than previously estimated, reducing installation and implementation time by decades. Customers would see faster, more reliable and far more frequent service across subway lines, lessening crowding conditions in cars and platforms and decreasing commute times.”

That signal technology is communications-based train control (CBTC), which has been deployed on the Canarsie (L) Line and is in procurement, installation or testing on several others.

“As President of New York City Transit, I am committed to upgrading and modernizing this transit system from top to bottom and a top priority is modernization of the subway signal system,” said Andy Byford, MTA New York City Transit President. “A modern signal system is the key to running more trains, to driving up reliability and to increasing network capacity. I have directed my staff to research and engage in all of these ideas, whether it is ultra-wideband technology or new installation techniques. But we cannot rest on the laurels of these winners, which is why the MTA and the Partnership for New York City are launching the Transit Innovation Partnership, a public-private collaboration dedicated to bringing new ideas, resources, and expertise to support the MTA’s mission.”

The winners:

Challenge 1: Signaling

Challenge 1 sought to accelerate the deployment of modern train signaling technologies in the subway system, to increase the number of trains at peak periods and promote faster and more reliable service. The panel chose two winning ideas, split between four winners, with joint awards going to applicants with nearly identical entries. Each will receive a $250,000 award.

Winner 1: Revolutionize signaling deployment using ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless technology. Proposed separately by Metrom Rail and transportation engineer Robert James, this next-generation technology eliminates the need to acquire and install expensive, cumbersome equipment required by CBTC signal technology. A UWB-based network has the potential to provide precise and accurate locations for subway cars within centimeters. UWB sensors can also be placed in work trains and even on personnel, to add an additional level of safety for track workers and contractors working near passenger trains.

The MTA is continuing proof-of-concept tests with UWB technology, and plans to work with industry suppliers of CBTC technology in exploring UWB’s potential in signaling. The MTA will look to incorporate UWB, as well as various new signaling technology, in future procurements for signaling projects, to modernize the system at a greatly expedited schedule and lower cost than current estimates.

Winner 2: Onboard sensors and cameras for train positioning, submitted separately by Ansaldo STS and Thales Group. This technology, similar to those used in autonomous vehicles, would be placed on trains with little to no equipment near tracks. Existing train location technology depends on complex wayside equipment that is time-consuming and costly to deploy and maintain. The winners each proposed innovative onboard systems that would efficiently and accurately perform necessary train position actions while maintaining safety, reducing delays and mitigating costs. The MTA plans to develop specs for a sensor-based system supplementary to CBTC signal technology. This process is contingent upon the current market for sensor-based technologies and next-generation technologies that are in development industry-wide, and is expected to take up to five years from development to implementation. Such a solution can eliminate the need for expensive and unwieldy wayside equipment, eliminate delays associated with existing, aging wayside equipment, and negate the need for costly upkeep and repairs that require service diversions.

Challenge 2: Subway Cars

Challenge 2 sought strategies to obtain and deploy modern subway cars more efficiently or refurbish existing cars in order to increase the subway system’s capacity and reliability, prevent car breakdowns, and reduce delays. The panel chose three winners, each of whom will receive a $330,000 award.

Winner 1: Modify passenger loading with longer trains to increase capacity, submitted by lawyer transit enthusiast Craig Avedisian. Avedisian proposed changing passenger loading procedures and adding more cars to trains to increase capacity. The MTA will evaluate the system’s busiest subway lines, stations where platforms are long enough to accommodate longer trains, and fleet and yard availability, to further explore applications of Avedisian’s idea. Some subway lines are viable candidates for a pilot program due to ridership demand and their station layouts. A study of fleet and infrastructure availability will be needed for a future pilot program or future car procurement.

Winner 2: CRRC (China Railway Rolling Stock Corp.), the world’s largest railcar producer, proposed to invest $50 million of its own money initially to develop a new subway car for MTA NYC Transit that will explore new, lighter materials such as carbon fiber; modular design to permit quicker installation of system parts; and modern train control technology to reduce maintenance time and make upgrades easier. These trains could include customer benefits such as Wi-Fi, charging ports, LED lighting and screens for real-time customer information. The MTA will immediately begin meetings with CRRC to develop this car, which represents a new approach to car design and manufacturing for the MTA. CRRC assumes all risks and costs for this investment, and the research and development from this investment can be used for future open and competitive procurements for new car purchases.

Winner 3: CSinTrans, an international provider of technology solutions for transit, proposed a software platform that takes the existing diagnostic data for all operating systems within subway cars and transmits the information to MTA maintenance crews quickly and efficiently. Currently this diagnostic data for each subway car is sent to the car’s manufacturer but not shared with the MTA. CSinTrans proposed capturing this data and delivering it in a dashboard to MTA maintenance crews, alerting them immediately, for example, when a subway car’s heating or cooling system has failed. This near-real time delivery of maintenance information will expedite response times, identify problematic systems and prevent breakdowns during service. The MTA is meeting with manufacturers of the existing car fleet to obtain the diagnostic data, and plans to deploy similar diagnostic systems as soon as possible once the data is available. These systems also will be incorporated into future car procurements.

Challenge 3: Communications

Challenge 3 sought to identify communications systems that will support the rapid installation and deployment of modern train communications and control technologies in the subway system, to increase the system’s capacity and overall through-put. Judges selected one winning idea, and one idea worthy of an honorable mention that was submitted separately by two firms. The winner will receive a $500,000 award. Honorable mentions do not receive a monetary award.

Winner: The Big B is a robotic installation system proposed by Bechtel Innovation, which is a part of one of the largest construction and civil engineering firms in the U.S. The Big B is a semi-automatic robotic system that would rapidly install communications and control infrastructure in track tunnels. This robotic system can climb on tracks, into stations, onto platforms or service bays, and install hardware and other preparatory infrastructure needed for communications equipment installation or repair. This technology would free up crews to perform more complex tasks for more efficient use of manpower, as well as decrease the length of service diversions needed to give track access for crews. Similar robotic systems have been deployed and used in large-scale projects in European transit systems.

The MTA will identify time-consuming and repetitive work associated with communications equipment installation that a similar robotic system could perform, and use those design specs for a future procurement. Such a system could be designed, programmed, built and implemented in two years. Bechtel Innovation plans to reinvest its $500,000 cash award in an internal development group that will work exclusively with the MTA to design a similar robotic system.

Honorable Mention: A long-term evolution (LTE) network that would provide ground connectivity for trains in track tunnels, allowing continuous communications for train operators between stations and expanding cellular service or Wi-Fi connectivity to customers between stations, submitted separately by Transit Wireless and Alcatel-Lucent. The MTA will include this LTE approach in its overall communications and information technology plan, with plans for a future procurement.

Transit Innovation Partnership

The MTA and the Partnership for New York City have launched the Transit Innovation Partnership (TIP), a public-private collaboration dedicated to bringing new ideas, resources and expertise to support the MTA’s mission and improve customer experience. The Partnership for New York City has committed $1.5 million to launch this initiative. MTA President Pat Foye will work with Rachel Haot, Governor Cuomo’s former Chief Digital Officer, who will lead TIP as its Executive Director. TIP’s advisory board, chaired by Alan Fishman, will comprise leaders of business, civic, high tech and transit advocacy organizations “committed to MTA’s growth and success.”

Chairman: Alan Fishman, Chairman, Ladder Capital Finance LLC

Kenneth Bronfin, Senior Managing Director and Head of International Investments, Hearst Ventures.

Kevin Chavers, Managing Director, BlackRock.

Maria Gotsch, President and CEO, Partnership Fund for New York City.

Carol Kellermann, President, Citizens Budget Commission.

Linda Kirkpatrick, Executive Vice President, U.S. Market Development, Mastercard.

David Levin, Former CEO, McGraw Hill Education.

Nancy Louden, Senior Vice President, Global Government Relations, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc.

Bill Mulrow, Senior Managing Director, Blackstone.

Charles Phillips, Chief Executive Officer, Infor.

Steven Rubenstein, President, Rubenstein Communications Inc.

William C. Rudin, Co-Chairman and CEO, Rudin Management Company Inc.

Scott Salmirs, President and Chief Executive Officer, ABM Industries Inc.

Edward Skyler, Executive Vice President, Global Public Affairs, Citigroup Inc.

Tom Wright, President, Regional Plan Association.

Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO, Partnership for New York City.

Genius Challenge Process

Of the 438 submissions, almost a quarter came from international applicants, and nearly half of the proposals are not in current commercial use. Applications came from a wide range of individuals, businesses, non-profits and higher education institutions, including student proposals. Substantial participation came from transit enthusiasts outside of the MTA, as well as a range of firms from non-transit industries.

The Genius Challenge was launched in June 2017. Participants were asked to submit strategies for any of three challenges: improving the signal system; increasing service capacity and reliability; and identifying ways to quickly deploy modern train communications and control technology across the system. A panel of technology and transportation experts, aided by an evaluation committee of MTA staff and experts from academia and transit industries, reviewed 438 submissions from 23 countries. The panel narrowed the submissions to 64 semifinalists, then further down to 19 finalists.

MTA Genius Transit Challenge judges:

Sarah Feinberg, former Federal Railroad Administrator.

Daniel Huttenlocher, Dean and Vice Provost, Cornell Tech.

Charles Phillips, CEO, Infor; former co-president and director, Oracle.

Kristina Johnson, Chancellor-elect, State University of New York.

Nick Grossman, General Manager, Union Square Ventures.

Eliot Horowitz, co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, MongoDB.

Balaji Prabhakar, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Stanford University.

Joe Lhota, Chairman, MTA.

Pat Foye, President, MTA.

Veronique “Ronnie” Hakim, Managing Director, MTA.

Janno Lieber, Chief Development Officer, MTA.