The 6-Hour Tram Shutdown Is Not Okay Nor Is the Malpractice That Caused It

The 6-Hour Tram Shutdown Is Not Okay Nor Is the Malpractice That Caused It

Reported earlier this month, 6-hour Tram shutdown points to a serious engineering mistake now known only because a technical failure exposed it. Here’s what RIOC has not explained.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Two hours into the 6-hour Tram shutdown, RIOC issued this advisory: “The Roosevelt Island Tram is currently down due to unforeseen technical issues. We apologize for the inconvenience and are working as fast as we can to restore service.”

Of course, it was “unforeseen.” Otherwise, it wouldn’t have happened. The advisory lacked attribution to anyone or any group and was a little defensive.

Then, four hours later, they emailed this, also unattributed: “Roosevelt Island Tram service has been restored. There was a minor Wi-Fi issue disrupting onboard communications that has since been resolved.”  

Note to RIOC: No 6-hour shutdown issue is “minor,” except in a world where full responsibility is a fantasy.

Later, unofficial information leaked in that a WiFi connection atop one of the towers failed, causing a lack of cabin control. That is not confirmed but sounds right.

In Context: The 6-Hour Tram Shutdown

What if the WiFi failure happened while the cabins were packed with tourists? Would RIOC still call it “minor?”

RIOC tries getting away with this failure because it happened in off-peak hours. But we still don’t know exactly when it started, and it can easily repeat without warning. We’ll explain why that should never happen, not even the first time.

Meanwhile, a report in the Roosevelt Islander shows that the problem is hardly solved.

Last night on the Tram…

The Tram cabin suddenly lurched out of control as it approached the station. RIOC never issued a statement, and we don’t know if the incident was isolated.

Engineering Malpractice

Something any conscientiously designed system avoids is a single point of failure, that is, a point where a simple breakdown collapses the entire operation. That’s exactly what we had yesterday morning.

A faulty WiFi connection exposed a glaring and risky failure because RIOC never arranged any backup up and $5 million contractor, POMA, didn’t insist on it. That’s unforgivable under any conditions.

What if the next failure comes during on one of those over-capacity cabin trips over the middle of the East River? RIOC/POMA has no answer.

And let’s point something else out: We were promised that the new, shakier system guaranteed that, because they operated independently, both cabins would never go down at the same time.

But they did.

If you spend any time wandering around, relying on WiFi on your mobile device, you know how unpredictable connections can be. Why didn’t RIOC or POMA know that?

The answer is: Well, of course, they did. They just didn’t do anything about it.

The most troubling part about that is, it would have been easily fixed. Professional engineering calls for a backup, maybe less robust than the primary system, but there, filling in the gap when something fails.

Averting a single point of failure is not arcane engineering stuff. It’s commonplace, and smart operators avoid it like a plague.


RIOC and POMA share blame for setting up an inadequate and risky Tram operation on Roosevelt Island, but don’t expect an admission or apology. Accountability is in neither’s DNA.

And last night’s rocky incident proves it’s not fixed, but there’s a larger issue:

What other single points of failure are in the system and unknown to the public? What risks are we taking every time we walk into a cabin?

Hopefully, new leadership at RIOC – where currently there is no leadership at all – will staff up properly with professionalism ahead of political patronage and return Tram users to the level of security we once thought we had.

Putting a call in to ex-CFO John O’Reilly, the last qualified manager on the staff decimated by unwarranted dismissals, might be a good start. If willing, he could hit the ground running.

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