You probably don't realize it, but, at any given hour on any given day, a small yet incredibly sophisticated train armed with cameras, lasers, and ultrasound equipment is sliding around New York City's subway system inspecting the tracks. It looks a little bit like Optimus Prime, and, like the good Transformers, it's there to keep you safe.
New York City Transit calls this its "Wonder Train Car." A more descriptive name for it, however, is the track geometry car. As that name implies, the train inspects the subway tracks for wear and tear on a daily basis. Because it's only two cars long, the track geometry car can ride easily between the regular passenger cars without disrupting the regular flow of traffic.
This is no regular passenger car, however. Gizmodo recently got a chance to take a ride—and the experience of watching the automated instrumentation take measurements of the many geometric parameters of the tunnels and tracks is nothing short of futuristic.
The Fanciest Subway on the Tracks
We boarded the train like any other train from the F train platform at the Jay Street in Brooklyn. The difference in technological sophistication was immediately apparent. Not only was the train carpeted and outfitted with unusual amenities for a subway train—there was a small kitchen, an office, and even an on-board network—but it was also full of blinking lights and curious screens.
"It feels like Air Force One in here!" one of the other guests bellowed as we gathered in the very front of the train. Indeed, where the driver and analysts sit could only be described as a cockpit. The man in charge is even called the pilot.
As we steered through the tunnels, a matter-of-fact MTA employee named Antonio Cabrera explained how everything worked. The outside of the train was covered in instruments that took as many measurements of the track as possible, and the front of the train was covered in high-powered halogen lights so that the cameras could see better. Passengers waiting on the platform squinted as we passed by, the lights were so bright. The train itself was as heavy as a passenger train so that it would create the same reaction from the tracks beneath.
Inside, the track geometry car is like a giant computer, complete with a server and screens around every corner. The one that makes the most immediate sense to a layperson is situated just to the left of the driver. It shows the cross section of a rail and scan of the whole tunnel created by lasers and other instruments.
"I used to call this the EKG of the track," explained Cabrera, the MTA's Assistant Chief Officer of Track Engineering, "but, different from an EKG, the flatter the track, the better."
It makes perfect sense, doesn't it? As hundreds of thousands of trains roll over the tracks, they wear down and start to slope in dangerous ways. The tracks also spread further apart as the gauge rods that hold them together slowly wear out. By the time the gauge is an inch-and-a-half wider than the standard, it's considered a priority one defect, important enough to dispatch a response team immediately.
The most common flaw, however, happens around the holes where the fasteners meet the tracks. Sometimes cracks form, and if left unattended, can spread through the entire track, creating a full fracture. In time, these factures will cause the entire track to splinter, and that can cause trains to derail.
The Team That Keeps the Subway Safe
But that's what the track geometry car is there for: to spot these defects before they become dangerous. While track geometry trains are hardly a new invention, they're becoming increasingly high tech. As Cabrera walked us back through the front car of the track geometry train, we encountered more analysts.
One was tasked specifically with watching the video capture and flagging problematic frames. There's also a specialist assigned to shoot ultrasound waves into the tracks that can tell the MTA more about the structural integrity of the tracks. Since most of the subway tracks are a century old, that integrity varies substantially.
The biggest challenge of the whole process, Cabrera told us, was handling the massive amounts of data that the track geometry car collects on a daily basis—about 500 gigabyes. At the end of every day, the engineers hustle portable hard drives from the track geometry car into headquarters, where they crunch the data and look for red flags. The idea behind having so many different methods of collecting data about every inch of track is to catch spots that set off multiple alarms. This is usually indicates where maintenance is needed.
Despite the track geometry car's technological sophistication, however, accidents still happen.
Just a couple days after our ride along, an F train jumped the track in Queens, only a few miles up from where we had been riding. The MTA didn't name a specific cause for the accident, but it did say that there was track damage at the site of derailment. There were 19 people injured, four of them seriously.
It's hard not to cast an accusatory glance at the track geometry car when accidents like this happen. The train has one job. "What we are doing with this car," Cabrera explained in plain English, "is monitoring the safety and quality of the track system."
So when they miss a spot, that means the track geometry car isn't doing its job, right?
Like the rest of the MTA system, though, the track geometry car does the best it can with the resources available. With such a big system and only four track geometry inspection cars, the transit authority can only check each stretch of track six times a year. And while the technology has improved the process of track inspecting immensely, there's still room for human error. There also doesn't appear to be any plans to fully automate the process—not that robots would necessarily do a better job than the highly trained MTA specialists.
Even highly trained specialists get distracted, though. Accidents still happen, but the subway is safer than it used to be. The MTA is also constantly putting new track safety measures into place, as well.
The Pursuit of Perfection
By the time we were heading back toward Jay Street and the end of our ride-along, the tour was over and we got to see the team at work. It's funny how the driver and analyst sitting in the front sort of sounded like your parents navigating the road on a family vacation. The analyst would tell the driver he was going too fast. The driver would ask the analyst how fast he should be going.
"Why so many dead seagulls, man?" the analyst said at one point, when we were near the water by JFK airport.
"They got hit by the train, man," the driver said.
That's about the time I adjusted my initial impression of the track geometry car. It does look like a Transformer, and it does perform an incredible task. Watching every inch of the 656 miles of tracks that New Yorkers ride every day is nothing short of superheroic. That doesn't mean it's perfect. The sheer volume of data is sometimes overwhelming. In the thousands of hours of video, spots get overlooked. The ultrasound equipment can see things the video can't, but the analysts can miss it. They usually don't. But even Superman has his Kryptonite.
The system isn't perfect. But it is the best we've got.
F Train image via AP, All other images and video by Michael Hession