They won’t be able to sell you a MetroCard, but New York's next generation of subway intercom will be able to replace some of the functions of the 450-odd station agents that were recently laid off due to budget restraints--and add some new ones.
The new intercoms—a prototype was rolled out during an MTA board committee meeting Monday—will be hard to miss, located in sleek, 6-foot-high columns that are tinged with blue.
Over the next two years, the MTA expects to install thousands of them in each of the city’s 468 subway stations.
Tom Prendergast, the president of New York City Transit, an MTA subsidiary, says the new intercoms weren't planned as replacement for the station agents laid off earlier this year. For one, he said the intercoms will be much more ubiquitous than agents ever were, spread out along train platforms every 200 feet or less, as well as in passageways and outside turnstiles.
For another, Prendergast said the state Public Transportation Safety Board had pressed the MTA to take steps to prevent riders from falling into the path of oncoming trains—a method people sometimes choose to commit suicide.
“There are many cases somebody standing on a platform, somebody’s fallen to the roadbed and they don’t even know where the nearest token booth is,” Prendergast said. “This device will give them much more immediate access to somebody who can take action.”
But Prendergast admits the development effort for the new intercom only intensified in the last three or four months. At that point, the agency had begun installing more and more of the current generation of intercoms—pocket-book-sized metal boxes—in places where station agents once tread. The MTA’s board members had publicly complained that the old intercoms were often hard to spot and occasionally out of service.
Transit advocates said the idea’s a good one, though installing the intercoms in New York City’s century-old stations could prove tricky.
“I don’t think that they replace a person, I don’t think they ever will,” said Andrew Albert, president of the New York City Transit Riders Council. “But obviously they allow the rider to know that someone is in touch with them and we are grateful for that.”
The new intercoms will feature an “emergency” button—which will connect callers with the transit agency’s rail control center, as well as an “information” button that’s linked with the station agent or the MTA’s travel information center.
To test the technology, about 20 of the intercoms are expected to be installed by the year’s end in two stations along the Lexington Avenue line: Brooklyn Bridge and 23rd Street. At that point, Prendergast says certain features—like wireless capability—will be refined, and a contractor will be chosen.
The MTA put aside $10 million for a new intercom system in its capital plan, but Prendergast said that amount would cover only the start of the installation. He said the total cost of the intercoms won’t be known until the design is finalized next year, but that it shouldn’t be a problem to find the money needed.
“This is an agency that’s got a multibillion dollar capital program,” Prendergast said. “We’ll sort through those issues and find the money we need to fund this project.”