Death On The Tracks: Its Human Cost & The Labor Fight It Has Provoked

Wednesday, January 16, 2013 - 05:00 PM

NYC subway train operator Ed Goetzl, an 11-year vet, has been at the controls for a pair of 12-9s, transit shorthand for someone hit by a train.

(New York, NY - WNYC) A spate of deaths on the subway tracks has led to a confrontation between the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union representing train operators. The two sides disagree about how to reduce the number of deaths, which take a serious toll on the train operators who witness them while piloting their trains.

Train operator Ed Goetzl has had two 12-9s -- transit shorthand for hitting someone with a train. In both cases, a woman tried to commit suicide by lying on the tracks. One lived, the other did not. He says he took no more than five days off to recover, and claims that's because he didn't blame himself for the incidents.

"See, I didn't kill them," Goeztl said. "They committed suicide and I was the instrument of their suicide. That's how I look at it."

On average, three people a week are hit by subway trains and one dies. Sometimes these incidents come in clumps. Right now, we're in a clump.

Twelve people have been hit by subway trains in the three weeks since a woman pushed Sunando Sen in front of a 7 train in Queens on December 27th. Sen died, and the woman has been charged with second degree murder.

The Transport Workers Union says each death leaves a train operator prone to nightmares, trauma and the impulse to withdraw from others. After a 12-9, operators get three days off at full pay. They can also take unpaid or disability leave for up to a year. It usually takes them three to six months to return to the job.

This week, the union distributed a flyer and sent a sharp letter to MTA management. The union wants the MTA to order trains approaching stations to slow down from 30 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour to give operators more time to brake if there's a person on the tracks.

The authority doesn't like the idea. Spokesman Adam Lisberg says operators who slow trains without permission are taking part in an illegal job action that could get them suspended. It would also lead to fewer trains running per hour at some times, and potentially to overcrowding on platforms, a danger in an of itself.

Ed Goetzl disapproves: "What's really offensive is management's concept that this is about a work slow down rather than what it's really about, which is the safety of the riding public." And of train operators.

Psychologist Howard Rombom has been treating train operators for 15 years. He says motormen react in many different ways after 12-9s, but that all of them are deeply affected. At his office in Great Neck, where hundreds of traumatized train operators have sat in a chair and looked out the window at the waters of Manhasset Bay, he talks about how a 12-9 can shake up the strongest-seeming train operator.

"I remember one worker, he was a big guy, the kind of guy you wouldn't think would get upset by a situation just by virtue of the physical presence," Rombom said. "He was involved with a 12-9 episode where he hit someone coming into the station. Someone jumped in front of the train -- smiled, waved and jumped."

The operator stopped the train and calmly went through the required procedures: he found the body, did interviews with the police and MTA supervisors and submitted to a drug test. His wife and children were supportive. But as time went by, his mind kept replaying the scene. He couldn't concentrate or sleep at night and had trouble connecting to the people around him.

"He felt sort of out of it, socially separate from everybody else. He said, 'I just don't feel like myself. I want to be alone,'" Rombom said.

The man needed months of therapy, sleep medication and conversations with his fellow operators before he felt better, Rombom says. Then one day, he was ready to drive a train again.

Such recoveries are usually private affairs. But the spate of recent highly publicized deaths has spurred the union to collective action. In the end, train deaths are rare--an average of 50 out of 1.6 billion riders per year. The MTA says that number is tragically high, but not high enough to slow the entire system down.


Comments [9]


On the other hand, it costs far more time if the train hits someone. Slow down. Save a life. and save everybody's time.

Jan. 22 2013 01:16 PM
Jim O'Grady

@Bill. Well told. Thanks for that.

Jan. 18 2013 06:36 PM

It is twoseparate things, trying to make things safer and slowing down entering the station. Slowing down will have minimal impact. Yes, it might prevent hitting a drunk who falls towards the end of a platform, operative word is might. It will do very little to stop the suicides who mostly wait near the train entrance to the station and jump just as the train enters, giving the poor operator little time to react. Unfortunately, I have been in the first car on multiple occasions over the years as this has happened, the latest being on an R train last year pulling into 9th Street. I feel horrible for the operators and extremely angry at the selfishness of the jumpers who impose their death or attempted death on innocents. On the last occasion, I was riding with a friend and when we emergency stopped, I turned to him and said we just had a jumper. He looked at me strangely. Having been through it a few times the stop feels different. The poor motorman that day stopped very quickly, we only were two cars into the station, but it didn't matter the jumper was under the train. He ran through his protocol, put on a vest and was walking to the rear of the first car to exit and look and wait form the emergency crews, when I caught his ashen looking face, and said jumper, to which he nodded and to which I said as strongly as I could, not your fault.

Jan. 18 2013 02:47 PM

What they can do is just follow what the Japanese are doing to reduce suicides. Since Japan has the most number of subway trains in the world (sorry NYC, they got you beat) and the highest rate of suicides in the industrialized world, many of which are train relate, why not install the half height barriers.

Just google "Yamanote Line platform barrier" The barriers are about 5 feet tall and sloped so you can't easily jump or climb over. Works pretty damn well, and the jumper rate has dropped pretty good.

(The Yamanote Line is equivalent to the A-train on the MTA)

Jan. 17 2013 07:04 PM
Sathari Singh

Surely delaying you is too high a cost to save lives. It is just too much to ask of you.

Jan. 17 2013 06:13 PM
Jim O'Grady

p.s. A-a-a-and here's that link to the Komanoff piece:

Jan. 17 2013 05:43 PM
Jim O'Grady

@Someone Here's an interesting analysis by Charles Komanoff at Streetsblog about the potential cost of slowing down subway trains as they enter stations.
@Matthias Thanks for pointing out the grammatical error. (I layed an egg on that one.) It's been fixed.

Jan. 17 2013 05:43 PM

Mr Goetzl chose an interesting spot to pose for this photo: between the column and platform edge, just as a train is entering the station behind him.

There are signs and announcements everywhere telling us to say something if we see something. To whom are we supposed to say something? There are rarely transit personnel around, and police are not always present either.

Slowing trains down to 10mph is a ridiculous proposal. Traffic fatalities are on the rise, yet no one has proposed lowering the speed limit to 10mph. If someone is determined to be careless or wants to off him/herself, there isn't much that can be done to prevent that.

By the way, a woman tried to commit suicide by lying on the tracks, not by laying as though she were a hen!

Jan. 17 2013 09:27 AM
Eleanor Lunn

I commend the transport workers union for taking the initiative to fix this problem. They are attempting to prevent deaths in the system. Someone needs to do it because there is precious little in the way of suggestions coming out of the MTA.

Jan. 17 2013 05:22 AM

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