stand clear of the closing doors

The MTA Could Prevent More Subway Deaths, If It Only Had the Cash

A man waits for the subway at a stop in Brooklyn two days after a man was pushed to his death in front of a train on December 5, 2012 in New York City. The incident was caught by a photographer and has since raised questions as to why someone didn't help the man before the train struck him. The New York City subway system, with 468 stations in operation, is the most extensive public transportation system in the world. It is also one of the world's oldest public transit systems, with the first underground line of the subway opening on October 27, 1904.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Tuesday, a man was found dead in a subway tunnel after being hit by an L train, kicking off another week of subway horrors. Earlier this month, a Queens father was pushed in front of the Q train, a young man jumped onto the L train tracks and was seriously injured, and a drunk homeless man was saved at Bowling Green station after stumbling onto the rails. People wind up on the subway tracks all the time — 146 people were hit by trains in 2011 and 47 were killed — but the recent incidents left New Yorkers pondering their worst subway fear even more than usual.

Slate offered some survival tips: In the absence of a good Samaritan who’ll hoist you onto the platform, you could stand between the two sets of tracks, crouch in the space under the platform, or lie down between the rails. The MTA’s advice was much less satisfying. A spokesman told Capital New York that they don’t have any recommendations for riders who find themselves on the tracks, since each station is constructed differently. The official policy: “Customers should stand well back from the edge of the platform.” Transit officials in other cities have managed to come up with strategies to prevent subway deaths that go beyond “don’t fall in,” but there are few that the perpetually cash-strapped MTA can afford.

The most effective solution by far is the installation of platform screen doors, which are common in European and Asian cities and are used in New York on the AirTrain. Aside from preventing people from falling or jumping onto the tracks, having a barrier between the platform and the tracks keeps stations cleaner, reduces fires caused by garbage on the tracks, and allows for air-conditioned platforms.

Four years ago, the MTA considered putting platform doors in the new 7 train extension and Second Avenue Subway, but the idea was ultimately scrapped. When it was reported in 2011 that the MTA was seeking proposals for installing the sliding glass doors in existing subway stations, there was a quick backlash. According to Transportation Nation, State Senator Diane Savino said in a letter to the MTA chairman that while 90 people fell on the subway tracks in 2009, it wasn’t worth installing an expensive system to protect .00005 percent of subway riders. “To even contemplate this nonsense is self-evidently a waste of time, effort, energy and yes — money; money the MTA does not have,” she said. It’s been estimated that installing the doors throughout the system could cost between $1 billion and $2 billion and take 25 years. When Joe Lhota was asked about the barriers in April, he said, “They’re quite expensive and given the 496 stations, I think that’s the number, it’d be quite prohibitive.”

Some underground stations have built-in hiding spots that are a bit more consistent than in New York’s system. There’s a crawl space under the platform in the Washington Metro, and about half of the stations in the London Underground feature “suicide pits,” which were installed to prevent flooding but have also been proven to save lives. Other safety efforts don’t entail drastically remodeling stations, but they still aren’t cheap. Following a spike in suicides on the Metro, D.C. spent years implementing a program that features an awareness campaign and training for transit employees to help them spot suicidal behavior (similar training reduced suicides on Britain’s rail network by 11 percent). In the Toronto subway, pay phones on all platforms have a button that connects directly to a suicide prevention hotline. Calls from the phones led to counselors slowing or stopping trains seventeen times in the program’s first year. There’s also a button on each platform that lets riders cut power to the tracks.

The MTA is in the process of implementing its own technology upgrade. In 2010, the state Public Transportation Safety Board suggested providing subway drivers with wireless video feeds of the next station so they could make sure the tracks were clear. Transit officials weren’t thrilled about the costs of the project, and instead they went with a plan to install Help Point intercoms, which connect to a Rail Control Center operator who can alert police or other emergency services. The intercoms are scheduled to be in all stations by the end of 2014, and the MTA won’t comment on the price tag.

How the MTA Could Prevent Subway Deaths