MTA’s Aug. 29 power outage attributed to human error

Sept. 13, 2021
While an emergency power off switch was accidentally activated, power restoration was delayed due to inadequate maintenance organizational structure.

An Aug. 29 power outage that left half of the New York City Transit (NYCT) subway system at a standstill was caused by someone manually activating a power off switch. The switch in question lacked a protective plastic cover that could have prevented it being activated.

Two engineering firms, HDR and WSP, issued separate reports on the incident that occurred over a two-hour and 50-minute timeframe during the evening of Aug. 29. According to the HDR report, Con Edison experienced a dip in power at 8:25 p.m. Several pieces of mechanical equipment stopped functioning at the Rail Control Center (RCC) of NYCT shortly after the power dip. At 9:06 p.m., all electrical equipment connected to one of the power distribution units at the RCC lost power because an emergency button had been activated. At 10:30 p.m., breakers on the power distribution unit were reset, which made power available to all loads connected to the power distribution unit and at 11:15 p.m., all systems at the RCC were restored to normal.

While human error caused the initial power loss, the WSP report states “it took too long for maintenance personnel to bring back to service the critical loads at the RCC, which is not acceptable.”

The delay was due to “inadequate maintenance organizational structure at the RCC” and a “lack of a proper power distribution monitoring system,” per the HDR report.

"I am directing mitigation steps to ensure riders are not interrupted by these causes ever again," said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul. "New Yorkers deserve absolute confidence in a fully functioning subway system, and it is our job to restore that confidence. I am also directing the MTA to review all operation control centers across the entire system to identify any further potential weaknesses and provide assurance in preventing a situation like this from happening ever again. We will deliver the modernization, enhancements and reliability that riders deserve."

The reports included several recommendations, including the reorganization of the RCC maintenance management structure and protocols, the installation (where feasible) of additional equipment to provide alternate electrical circuits to feel all electrical load in the building and the implementation of a modern Building Management System (BMS) that would give details regarding the status of the electrical, distribution, mechanical and security systems.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Acting Chair and CEO Janno Lieber said the agency will install additional cable connections to improve the building’s power redundancy and install a BMS to provide detailed visibility of the status of the building’s electrical, distribution, mechanical and security systems.

“The report tasks the MTA with immediately reorganizing how we maintain and manage key systems that support the RCC,” said Lieber. “I want to thank Gov. Hochul for really digging into these issues with us and helping to identify lasting solutions."

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.