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

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.