Council demands an end to the M.T.A.‘s subway-safety ’exploratory' phase

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Subway tracks. (Miss Kitty via Flickr)
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About 135 riders get hit by subway cars every year. Many of them die, some of them spectacularly, like in December, when Sunando Sen and Ki Suk Han were pushed to to their deaths.

The M.T.A., for its part, has been looking into this problem of subway platform safety since at least 2007, probably longer, with not much to show for it.

On Thursday, Bronx Councilman James Vacca, chair of the transportation committee, asked when the "exploratory stage" would finally be over, but didn't get much of a response from the M.T.A. executives assembled before him.

In fairness, the M.T.A.'s options aren't plentiful or particularly good, considering its financial constraints, and the challenges in retrofitting a system that's more than a century old with modern safety technology.

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There are ideas out there that transit advocates think the M.T.A. should consider.

One is for the M.T.A. to install platform screen doors, like the ones on the AirTrain, which would separate riders from the tracks, make suicides and subway pushings and inadvertent falls all but impossible, and, as a bonus, reduce litter-induced track fires.

Platform doors, however, are very expensive and unwieldy, thanks to the age of New York City subway platforms and M.T.A.'s varied train stock. (Different trains running along the same track often have doors located in different places.) 

The authority reiterated its committment to conduct at some point a platform-screen-door pilot program on the L train, which has automatic train control and doesn't share tracks with other lines, and go from there. But the New York City subway will not be seeing platform screen doors anytime soon.

Another idea the M.T.A. is exploring: an intrusion detection system, like this one, which would be less expensive than platform doors.

But it's not clear when, if ever, that sort of system would go into effect, or even how much it might possibly cost.

Yet another idea, favored by the Transport Workers Union, is to slow down trains as they enter stations, which the M.T.A. says is unfeasible (and a labor-protest tactic in disguise). The M.T.A. says train slowdowns would create excessive delays and longer commutes, diminish train capacity, create more crowding on the platforms and, ultimately lead to more rider collisions with trains.

At the moment, the M.T.A. is trying to address the problem in smaller ways: it has launched a widespread public education campaign warning riders to stay away from the platform edge, and is installing "help points" in 114 stations by the end of next year, each equipped with red buttons connecting riders to command center supervisors. So if you see someone on the tracks, you can run to the help point (which looks like this), press the red button, speak to a supervisor, who, in turn, can stop the train, hopefully before it hits the person on the tracks.

Some of the councilmembers on the transportation committee had some other proposals, too, of varying viability.

Queens Councilman Peter Koo suggested the M.T.A. outfit subway platforms with rescue ropes like on a cruise ship.

Queens Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said the M.T.A. should have cameras in all of its stations so that when someone does push a victim onto the tracks, at least the police will have an easier time finding the perpetrator.

Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield, meanwhile, concluded that since "platforms are not really happening right now," and "the slowdown is not really happening right now," at the very least, the M.T.A. should advise straphangers what to do should they have the extreme misfortune of finding themselves in the path of a train barreling down the track.

The M.T.A. has an unspoken policy of not providing such advice, with which Greenfield took very pointed issue.

"What happens if you fall onto a rail?" he asked. "What do you do? Is there a guidance?"

"You know, I'd be absolutely remiss to give you advice, because every station is different," responded Carmen Bianco, the M.T.A.'s senior vice president for subways, going on a bit more about how train stations vary and whatever advice he gives might not apply.

"The best thing that could happen is for anybody on the platform to immediately call for help, and if they're able to help the person get back up on the platform, that would be the best thing," said Bianco.

"I would think that the M.T.A. ... should have an answer," said Greenfield. "And if you don't have one, perhaps research it and get back, and just tell customers. … You guys are the gurus, you're the experts, you must have some wisdom or guidance as to what happens when a person falls on a track."

"The point I'm trying to get to is that if I were to give you an answer, it would not be the right answer," said Bianco.

"What I would say is give them a shot, right? I mean give them some advice," said Greenfield. "Tell them try to run, try to lie flat, try to move up against the wall. I think it's only reasonable."

Greenfield pressed the point yet further.

"It's kind of like a plane," he said. "When a plane's going down, they tell you, grab the oxygen, put it on your mouth. … I'm certain that probably happens about as frequent as people getting hit by trains. … But still there's a plan. 'In case of emergency, here's what you do.'"