Lawmaker: NYC subway deaths a 'wake-up call'

Last Updated: Fri, Feb 08, 2013 00:00 hrs

Alarmed about safety after a spate of recent deaths in the nation's busiest subway system, lawmakers pressed transit officials on Thursday to step up studies of platform barriers, warning systems and other measures that could stop trains from hitting people.

Fatalities on the tracks — 55 last year — are few compared with the 5 million subway rides taken on an average weekday. But the at least six deaths since early December, two from chilling pushes, should be "a wake-up call to our transit system," City Council Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca said.

The city doesn't run the subways; the state-created Metropolitan Transportation Authority does. After the recent deaths spiked public concern, the agency said it's in the early stages of planning to test platform safety barriers on one subway line and exploring technology that sounds alarms when someone or something is on the tracks.

More immediately, the MTA intends to ramp up safety messages and to expand emergency call boxes from two subway stations to 114 by next year, subway chief Carmen Bianco told lawmakers. The call boxes connect to a train control room that can alert subway drivers and cut power to stop trains.

Vacca and other council members pushed MTA officials to move faster on evaluating the bigger measures, noting that the agency started gathering information two years ago about the barriers. They have been installed in subway systems from Shanghai and Dubai to Paris.

"Why haven't we had action?" Vacca asked outside the hearing, adding that he wasn't sure he favored the idea but wanted the analysis to move faster.

The subway workers' union, meanwhile, is pushing another approach: telling drivers to enter stations as slowly as 10 mph. The trains' average speed is about 30 mph.

The MTA says slowing the trains would lengthen commutes by about 30 seconds per station, make platforms more crowded and reduce the frequency of arriving trains by about 20 percent unless more trains were added. Bianco called the idea "infeasible."

The Transport Workers Union Local 100 disagrees.

"The working people of New York are afraid of the subway because they know the trains come barreling into the station," said union Vice President Kevin Harrington, a veteran subway driver who said his trains have hit people or come close more than 10 times. "Coming in slow, I think, is the best way to keep from running people over."

On average, about 135 people a year are hit by New York City subways; most survive. The issue has gotten heightened scrutiny since early December, when a homeless man pushed a stranger onto the tracks at the Times Square station, according to authorities. Adding to the attention, a photograph of the man on the tracks, just before he was hit, was on the New York Post's front page and spurred angry debate over journalistic ethics and bystanders' responsibilities.

In the months since, another subway rider was pushed to his death by a muttering woman, a stumbling woman took a fatal fall onto the tracks, a man was killed when he fell while walking between cars and another was killed after apparently jumping under a train at Times Square. Just Wednesday night, an apparently homeless man was hit and died in a Brooklyn subway tunnel, police said.

The deaths have spurred discussion about installing safety barriers, sometimes known as platform screen doors or edge doors; they generally are transparent barriers with sliding doors. Bianco said the MTA is gathering information toward trying such a system on the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn L line, chosen for a technical reason. He didn't have a timeframe.

But installing such barriers throughout a more than century-old subway system with several types of trains and 468 stations with varying architecture would be "a big challenge," he said. "It would take a lot of maintenance and a lot of extra cost."

Given the uncertainties, Councilman David Greenfield called on the MTA to tell riders what to do if they find themselves on the tracks. Bianco said he couldn't make a recommendation on the spot because of differences among stations.

A union spokesman has suggested lying down in the trough, or even outrunning tracks may work if there's no way to clamber back up onto the platform.


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