Death on the Tracks: MTA Sees Spike in Number of People Killed by Trains

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Commuters watch as a train enters the 40th St-Lowry St Station, where a man was killed after being pushed onto the subway tracks, in the Queens section of New York, Friday, Dec. 28, 2012. Police are searching for a woman suspected of pushing the man and released surveillance video Friday of her running away from the station.
Photo: Seth Wenig/AP

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is on pace to set a grim new mark. If the current trend holds, more people will die along the rail and subway authority's thousands of miles of tracks in 2013 than in any year going back to at least 2008. The number of people fatally hit by New York City subway, Long Island Railroad, and Metro North trains reached 65 at the end of August, putting the system on pace for a total of 98 fatalities by the end of the year.

Statistics supplied by the MTA to Daily Intelligencer show that the majority of those deaths are suicides — a change from last year. Through August, 40 people intentionally put themselves in front of MTA trains, surpassing in eight months the 2012 tally of 36 suicides system-wide. A total of 84 people died on the tracks in 2012, making it the deadliest full year in the last five. But most of those deaths were accidents. 

The authority does not agree that the recent uptick in fatalities represents a meaningful development. "So far, this year seems to be falling within the range of normal year-to-year variability. I would hesitate to call it a trend," MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan wrote in an e-mail.

One possibility is that the increase has been driven by intense media attention given to two incidents late last year in which people were pushed onto subway tracks and died. The New York Post splashed a dramatic photo of one victim seconds before death across its front page. A 2008 Columbia study found decreasing media coverage was an effective way to bring down the number of subway suicides. If the reverse is also true, then a barrage of coverage might spur them.

Photo: The New York Post, via Newseum

The MTA only began keeping comprehensive statistics on suicides in 2010. Authority investigators examine deaths on commuter rail tracks and the NYPD does the same for subway fatalities, but some cases remain permanently unresolved. As one forensic pathologist explained, retrospectively determining the intentions of a person who was hit by a train is an imprecise science.

"Often, the [subway] motorman might not even be aware they've hit someone. Sometimes the train will just stop. The brakes will turn on, they'll find a body; they won't know what happened. Those cases can be difficult to sort out because it's just a dead body on the tracks," said Dr. Peter T. Lin, who studied such incidents through 2007. "The general tendency is that if someone is intoxicated with alcohol or cocaine, it's generally an accident. If they have a history of depression it's generally a suicide."

"For people riding aboard trains, rail travel is as safe as transportation gets," Donovan said. But despite many safety measures, the MTA can't prevent a determined trespasser from making his or her way onto the tracks.

The LIRR has recently made an effort to fence off dangerous trespassing spots. And the MTA is in the process of installing help-point intercoms at subway stations that will allow passengers to alert train controllers of an emergency. But other solutions, such as barriers along platform edges, have proved too costly for the system.

Earlier this year, the union representing the subway's motormen urged its members to slow down before they rolled into stations. They touted the move as a safety measure to avoid hitting people on the tracks. But to the MTA it looked suspiciously like a work stoppage, and the authority didn't endorse the move.

The track deaths often have dramatic consequences for the men and women driving MTA trains. When an LIRR engineer sees a collision is imminent, he or she throws the train into a setting called "emergency" — essentially a full-service application of the brakes, said Michael Quinn, the general chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen division 269, which represents LIRR engineers. But apart from blowing the horn, there's not much else the engineer can do after the train is in the emergency setting. To avoid witnessing the carnage, many get out of the driver's seat and even the driver's compartment.

"It can be an instinct. It depends on the individual. I know it was mine," Quinn said of the time twenty years ago when he did an emergency stop to avoid hitting a group of kids on the track. "Once it's in emergency, the brakes are applied and there's nothing you can do. You sound the horn and then try to get out of the way."

Quinn's train stopped in time to avoid hitting anybody. But he said, "I remember it like it was yesterday."

And for the many engineers who aren't so fortunate as to avoid a fatality, that memory comes back every time they pass the spot where it happened. "That's why we're the forgotten victims," Quinn said. "It stays with us."