Inside a former public school near Avenue U in Brooklyn, NYC Transit conducts safety classes for anyone who might need to go on the tracks—transit employees, contractors, Verizon workers, cops. In the back of Room 206, a bulletin board is covered with newspaper stories: TRAIN KILLS TA WORKER ON TRACKS, TRANSIT WORKER KILLED BY THIRD RAIL, SUBWAY WORKER FATALLY HIT. The instructor peppers his morning lecture with one horror story after another: A worker tried to clear up on a pile of debris and fell onto the third rail; another was hit by a train, the wheels ran over his shoulder, and he bled to death before reaching the hospital. The teacher holds up a shredded jumpsuit and says it belonged to a subway worker who was electrocuted.
Staying out of harm’s way is more difficult than you might think. Trackworkers used to be able to feel the vibrations of an oncoming train on the rails, but now that’s much harder to do, in part because the rails are welded together instead of bolted. With generators running, it’s not always easy to hear a train approaching, either. Sometimes two trains will pass at the same time, and if you’re not paying close attention, you might step out of the way of one and into the path of another.
Trackworkers most fear the narrow tunnels that run beneath the East River, which they refer to as “tubes.” One of the most narrow is the Steinway tube, completed in 1907 and originally intended for trolleys; now the 7 train runs there, from Grand Central to Long Island City. The tube is so narrow that if you’re standing on the bench wall next to the track when a train comes, it’s best to turn sideways and crouch down on your hands and knees. If you don’t, if you instead try to press your back against the tunnel’s curved wall, your head may be right in the path of the train.
The train stopped abruptly, with only two cars in the station, a sign that something was very wrong. “Man under!” It was Marvin’s voice calling from under the train.
In the afternoon, the safety class ventures onto the tracks, and one day not long ago I followed along, walking to the end of a subway platform and climbing down a short ladder. I clutched my flashlight and struggled to get my bearings. My safety goggles kept fogging up, and there was no shortage of items that could cause you to trip—rails, ties, coffee cups, cigarette packs, Red Bull cans. I tried to keep as far from the third rail as possible, and I strained to hear every sound.
A subway worker—playing the role of the “flagman”—was positioned further down the tracks with a light to warn oncoming trains of our presence. When he blew his whistle, we all stepped into the area between the two sets of tracks, bracing ourselves with one hand on a column; this way, we’d been taught, we would be less likely to lean too far forward and get clipped. This situation bore only a minimal resemblance to the day-to-day reality of trackworkers’ lives, of course. There was plenty of room to clear up and none of the unpredictability that characterizes work carried out on live tracks.
Still, as the first train came roaring past us, I felt terrified—and tiny. Down in the hole, the subway looks much more intimidating than it does from the platform; my shoulders barely reached the base of its doors. It seemed to take forever for all the subway cars to go by. All I could see was a blur of steel, my orange vest reflected in the side of the cars, and the enormous wheels passing a few inches in front of my body.
The G is a short train, with just four cars, each weighing about 86,400 pounds. It was making its usual stops that Sunday as Marvin and Jeff moved the dolly across the tracks at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. Neither they nor Mike knew Lloyd London, the foreman who was supervising them. If the foreman had been following procedure, he would have made sure there were lanterns set up deep inside the tunnel to warn approaching motormen about the presence of men on the rails. But the workers weren’t planning to be in this area for long, and the lanterns were never set. Instead, the foreman positioned himself between the north- and southbound rails, pointing his flashlight into the tunnel. In this way, he assumed the role of flagman; motormen who saw his light would know they should brake to the required speed of ten miles per hour.
The dolly they were going to get weighs 175 pounds and is almost 64 inches wide. The easiest way to move it is in two pieces. By 4 p.m., an hour into their shift, Marvin and Jeff had retrieved half the dolly and were carrying it across the tracks. To help out, Mike climbed down the stairs and headed over to fetch the other half. The foreman noticed Mike was trying to move the metal cart by himself and turned to help him.