New York City’s subway train operators taking unilateral action to prevent fatalities at stations

By Bill Holloway

Following two widely publicized incidents of waiting passengers being pushed into the path of oncoming subway trains, the Transit Workers Union has directed its subway train operators to slow trains to 10 mph when entering station areas to enable them to stop if riders are on the tracks. The trains normally enter stations at 30-35 mph, and on average, about 140 people are hit each year, with about a third killed in these incidents. While some of these are intentional suicide attempts, many others are the result of intoxicated riders stumbling off the platform into the path of an oncoming train.

The union’s directive has sparked the ire of the transit agency, which worries that slowing the trains as they enter stations could result in longer passenger waits and greater danger as more passengers crowd onto subway platforms. The agency is claiming that the unilateral decision by the union to slow train speeds when entering stations is in violation of the state’s Taylor Law, which makes it illegal for transit workers to negatively impact service.

Barriers or doors between the platforms and trains are another way to prevent falls and jumps to the tracks. Cities around the world, including Paris, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo and others, have installed barriers on subway platforms. In Japan, the government set a goal in 2012 of installing barriers at all stations with over 100,000 passengers per day. The Tokyo Metro has platform barriers at 78 out of 179 stations and expects to have platform barriers in all of its stations by 2015.

Besides improving safety for all passengers, improving accessibility for visually impaired riders is another reason for Japan’s push for platform barriers, since a 2006 law identified the need for the barriers in order to establish universal access for the physically impaired. While stations on new lines are now built with the barriers, retrofitting stations on existing lines—that may run different types of trains with different door sizes and locations—has been much more difficult.

New York would face many of the same problems in installing platform barriers at its existing stations. Differences in door positions and station design could make the project extremely costly, with estimates ranging up to more than a million dollars per station. With 468 stations and New York’s transit system facing severe budget troubles and huge costs to repair damage done by hurricane Sandy, raising funds to pay for platform barriers is not a top priority. However, one possible solution is for barriers to be funded privately in return for the opportunity to use the door space to advertise to waiting passengers.

Bill Holloway is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.