Monday, January 28, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) The NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority is investigating ways to improve safety on the subway weeks after two passengers were pushed to their deaths in separate incidents.
Ruled in: public information campaigns and emergency assistance kiosks on platforms. Ruled out: slowing down trains. Worth exploring: experimenting with platform doors at one station on the L line, and "intrusion technology" that would sound an alarm when a person was on the tracks.
The Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents a majority of New York transit workers, has been pushing the idea of slowing train operators from 30 mph to 10 mph when entering stations, giving operators more time and space to react to someone down on the tracks. But NY MTA acting executive director Tom Prendergast said computer modeling had shown the move would slow service by 20 to 30 percent while creating "unintended safety impacts" like dangerously overcrowded platforms as riders waited longer to be served by fewer trains.
And while the authority did not reject the idea of sliding glass doors on subway platforms, it is approaching the idea extremely cautiously.
On the one hand, the NY MTA said that it plans to conduct a pilot program in the “next few years” that would add platform doors to an undetermined station on the L line, which links Brooklyn and Manhattan. On the other hand, it laid out a long list of reasons against installing platforms doors throughout the system. Those reasons included curved platforms, the historic landmark status of some of the system's 468 stations, non-standardized train lengths and door placements, and a final price tag of more than $1 billion. The NY MTA also said the doors would require "substantial electrical upgrades" to stations before they could be installed.
As for steps that the authority can take immediately, it's ramping up a public information campaign by delivering safety messages via poster, brochure, website, increased station announcements and a variety of digital screens that passengers encounter as they travel through the system--from electronic billboards at station entrances to Metrocard machines.
A message on the back of some Metrocards reads, "Drop Something? Leave it! NEVER go down onto the tracks, for any reason." Another says, "Don't become a statistic. 141 people were struck by subway trains in 2012, 55 were killed."
The authority also said it's going to accelerate the installation of Help Points at throughout the system to let riders notify the NY MTA directly that there's a dangerous situation. The Help Points are installed at only two stations, but the agency says it will add the machines to 27 stations this year and 26 next year.
The authority is also looking into putting sensors on subway tracks to sound an alarm when someone is down there. Prendergast said the NY MTA had issued a Request for Proposals inviting companies to bid on creating, installing and operating the so-called "intrusion technology."
Fifty-five people died last year after they were pushed, fell or jumped onto the tracks. Over past 12 years, an average of 135 people were hit by subway trains annually, resulting in 44 deaths, 36 of them suicides.
Below: a subway platform safety public service video from the MTA.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(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.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - Jim O'Grady) Leaders of the NYC subway's largest union are urging members who drive trains to enter stations at 10 mph, considerably slower than normal operating procedure, to allow more time to brake and avoid hitting a rider on the tracks.
(See flyer above, which uses NY MTA parlance in referring to subway deaths as 12-9s.)
The NY MTA, for its part, is characterizing the slower driving as an illegal job action that places the union, TWU Local 100, in danger of losing its right to collect dues from its members automatically. An authority spokesman also said a driver "could lose up to two days' pay" each time he follows the union's prompt to slow his train down when entering a station.
The union, in a letter to NYC Transit president Tom Prendergast, said slowing to 10 m.p.h. is necessary because the authority's effort to reduce subway deaths "by posting signs encouraging riders to stand back from the edge of the platform has not had an measurable effect on subway deaths."
The union is also recommending that the authority install customer-activated safety warning lights on subway platforms, add power cut-off switches to station booths and launch a public competition to improve platform safety.
Members of the union's train operator division will be meeting Wednesday to discuss those measures, and the NY MTA's reaction to them, which union spokesman Jim Gannon called, "very negative and threatening."
Thursday, December 06, 2012
By Jim O'Grady
(New York, NY - WNYC) Following the death of a man pushed onto the subway tracks at the 49th Street station of the Q/N/R line in Manhattan, many New Yorkers are wondering about their best shot at survival in the unlikely event they wind up on the tracks.
There's basically no good option. But here are five of the best choices you could make.
1. Try to get back onto the platform. This is obvious. It's also the one piece of advice that a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman would affirm. Other than that, the authority's standard response is to recommend riders stay away from the platform edge and contact a subway worker if an item is dropped on the track.
2. Moving away from the train could increase the odds of survival – it gives the motorman more time and space to hit the emergency brake and stop the train. And there are ladders and stairs at the ends of platforms. When this option was posed to an NY MTA spokesperson, he countered, "What if you trip?" The implication being that this is why the NY MTA doesn't give advice about escaping the tracks -- something could go wrong and the authority could be blamed for it.
3. Ducking under the platform or lying down on the tracks and fitting under the train, in the style of "Subway Hero" Wesley Autrey, doesn’t always work. Clearance varies from station to station. That's because the New York City subway was built over decades by a mix of private companies and municipal entities, often to differing specifications and designs. What works at an elevated station in the Bronx may not work at an underground station in Manhattan.
4. There may be set-backs in the walls that could provide shelter. Major caveat: A band of diagonal red and white stripes means there isn’t enough space for you and a passing train.
5. Getting to a space in the middle of two tracks, where workers sometimes shelter, entails stepping over the third rail. The “protection board” above the third rail is designed to deflect debris, not hold a person's weight. Don't step on it.
If you find yourself on a platform when someone is down on the tracks and can't help them up, signal the motorman in the approaching train by waving your arms. If you have a flashlight, pull it out and use it.
Station agents on elevated lines have a "kill switch" in their booth, according to a spokesman for TWU Local 100, which represents many New York subway workers. If alerted in time, an agent can use the switch to stop the train by cutting power to the third rail.
Last year, 146 people were struck by New York City subway trains – 47 were killed. In 2010, 146 people were struck and 51 killed. Considering that 1.6 billion people rode the subway last year, these are extremely rare events.
By comparison, in one recent 12-month period, 291 people were killed in traffic in New York.