Home New York City Transit Transit considering more conductor-less trains

Transit considering more conductor-less trains

by Benjamin Kabak

Hot on the heels of Friday’s rather controversial post about the funding and benefits issues facing the MTA, today we have a pair of stories about the dicey fate of MTA employees. We’ll start with the one about conductor-less trains right now and end in a few hours with another tale about the station agents.

Over the weekend, the Daily News reported that, in an effort to save on staffing costs, the MTA is considering cutting train conductors on numerous routes throughout the city. These so-called One Person Train Operations would reduce on-board staffing figures by 50 percent as only the driver would remain. This practice has been in place on lines, such as the G and shuttles, that run smaller cars, and if Transit is to implement this on a wider range, it would be the first reduction of on-board personnel in some time.

As with any publicized personnel cuts, transit advocates and union officials are none too pleased. “Axing the conductor may save the MTA money, but it comes at the expense of the safety and security of the rider,” Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign, said to News reporter Pete Donohue.

Donohue reminds us of another time during which the MTA tried to pull conductors out of trains:

The MTA took conductors off the L line in 2005, but had to put them back after an arbitrator ruled that its contract with Transport Workers Union Local 100 required approval by the union. The following year, the same arbitrator stopped the MTA from taking conductors off G trains on weekdays.

After the second ruling, the MTA stopped putting OPTO plans in its annual budgets and four-year fiscal plans. Sources told The News that the MTA is again seeking the staffing change as a way to save money.

Transit officials have argued in the past that trains can run safely with just a motorman, as police and firefighters quickly respond to track fires and other emergencies. Officials also have argued that train evacuations between stations are infrequent and have been conducted without passengers suffering injuries.

I let those official statements speak for themselves. The cuts are well and good if they save money and eliminate redundant personnel, but the one time Transit needs to run an evacuation, the lack of a conductor will become an issue. Of course, it’s easy to train one person to handle a subway full of panicking passengers, but advocates will always argue for safety in numbers.

The TWU has already begun its defense of the conductors. “Of course, this is one of management’s demands. This is something the MTA has been pursuing the last two or three bargaining rounds and we continue to completely disagree with them,” a Local 100 spokesman said to the News.

In addition to the G and L lines, in the past, the MTA has pegged the J, M and 7 as candidates for conductor-less trains. I say, “Why not?” The safety concerns, while reasonable, seem overblown, and the L line has the technology to run completely unmanned trains. The driverless trains along the Paris Metro’s Line 14 have been a success, and if the MTA can reduce costs by cutting, it is at least a plan to consider.

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rhywun May 18, 2009 - 12:40 am

Call me a pessimist, but I’m not sure that the MTA can carry off OPTO let alone some fanciful notion of “driverless trains” that I hear those other operators are playing with. On new equipment, I suppose it’s possible, but some of those lines are still operating crappy old equipment if I’m not mistaken.

Alon Levy May 18, 2009 - 1:26 am

What do you mean, they can’t? The subway ran driverless trains on the IRT shuttle for years, until a fire at the Times Square station spilled over to the trains and made people paranoid about the safety. The fire had nothing to do with automation or even with the shuttle trains, but it made people think that there might be a time in the future when they would need drivers. Decades later, this time has yet to come.

Kris Datta May 18, 2009 - 1:03 am

The J and M can operate using OPTO, but the CCTVs would have to be moved to the T/O section of the platform rather than the C/R section. The 7 would last 11 minutes without a C/R.

Sam May 18, 2009 - 4:47 am

The entire WMATA is OPTO. And it works wonderfully (even when computer self driving mode is down).

Conductors provide no safety function (judge and MTA agree). What on earth is a conductor going to do? Arrest someone?

I’d rather see them get rid of the conductor, and have a cop sitting in the conductor cab during non-rush hour times (late night especially) or be required to patrol the train like a railroad conductor collecting tickets. A cop that is required to act (or else by fired by the media, although not legally required to intervene unless he caused something to make the situation worse), and is armed.

Having the T/O or Conductor radio a cop take 10-15 minutes for the cops to show up at the next station, unless he says “men in arab clothing with guns”, is useless. The choice is meet the police many stations away, to give a safety margin that the cops will be there in 15 minutes, or stop the train at the next station and keep the doors closed for 15 mins until the cops show up. The criminal will escape from the subway train through the end door and walk out of the station before the cops show up in that case.

AlexB May 18, 2009 - 9:59 am

I agree 100% with Sam. Most systems in the world operate with OPTO as the standard, not the exception. If they need someone on board to maintain safety, I would prefer a police officer who goes from car to car, not a conductor. It would be infinitely more effective at maintaining safety and yes, preventing terrorism. Now, if only we could get those pesky underground radios to work…

If it takes time for the equipment and contractual changes necessary to remove the conductor, fine, but it should happen eventually. Why should we maintain a system with no intention to update it? It is proven to be outdated by examples all over the world.

Scott E May 18, 2009 - 8:22 am

If I understand Kris Datta’s statement, he’s got a very valid point here. Right now, many (if not all) stations have cameras along the platform edge feeding monitors at the center of the platform. This way, the conductor can (in theory) see if the doors are clear before closing them, without sticking his head out the window. It also helps with curved or crowded platforms.

If One-Person-Train-Operation (OPTO) were to go into effect, that would require moving or adding monitors to the ends of the platform. And we can all guess how long, and at what cost, it would take for something like that to happen.

It’s a good idea, but not something that can be implemented overnight. And I haven’t begun to address the labor union issues.

Josh Karpoff May 18, 2009 - 9:07 am

Something that people forget is that a number of train incidents involve injuries or death of the motorman, from when the front end of the train slams into the back end of another train.

If the only MTA employee on the train is incapacitated from the incident that they are supposed to call in for help, let alone lead an evacuation, how are people going to get out? What percentage of subway riders know which rail is the third rail? Do they know where the tunnel emergency exits are? What about an evacuation on an elevated line?

In my opinion the one position that can’t be cut is the conductor. The motorman could possibly be replaced by computer control, but that would also require the MTA to have funds to maintain that system.

Almost the entire subway system is set up around the assumption of two employees on the train: motorman and conductor. If the MTA wants to change that, they’re going to need to re-evaluate how they run their system. Re-locate or add CCTV monitors, change station arrival and departure procedures, re-work the safety manuals and re-train the personnel to work around only one crew member during an emergency.

This is a giant bureaucracy, with 100 years of inertia along one path, to change that would be harder than getting money out of Albany.

Benjamin Kabak May 18, 2009 - 10:02 am

Just out of curiosity, Josh, and to play devil’s advocate a bit: When was the last time the MTA suffered through an incident that involved an incapacitated train driver?

herenthere May 18, 2009 - 2:39 pm

With Communications Based Train Control (CBTC), currently successfully in use on the L line, even if the driver were incapacitated, the train would still be able to run safely by itself. This type of Automated Train Operation is already in place in numerous cities around the world.

The safety issue would of course be helped by having articulated train cars (connected like the double-length buses) but as The Transport Politic reported, US transit systems just don’t get it.

Scott E May 18, 2009 - 10:29 am

Here is a list of subway accidents (it’s cleaned up, not too morbid!).

According to memory and reports I can dig up, the most recent one was in November 2007 and involved an M train at Chambers St which overshot the end of the track and hit the bumper-block. I don’t think there were passengers on-board, but the operator was trapped in the cab for awhile.

Benjamin Kabak May 18, 2009 - 10:34 am

So it basically looks as though the June 5, 1995 accident on the Williamsburg Bridge was the last Transit accident in which passengers were hurt and the motorman was incapacitated or killed. Considering the number of train rides since then, the cost/benefit analysis in that regard clearly favors eliminating the conductor.

Veritas May 18, 2009 - 12:46 pm

I wonder if a driverless train could in some instances be safer. In Boston last week, there was a crash on the Green Line when the driver of the train was texting and missed a red light. By the time he looked up, he was too close to the train in front of him to stop. If that driver didn’t have control of the train, the crash would have been avoided.

Rhywun May 18, 2009 - 6:16 pm

Even if the trains were fully automated, computers–and the people who operate them–do fail and there is just as much chance for an accident as ever.

Alon Levy May 18, 2009 - 9:10 pm

They’re less likely to fail than humans who text message on the job, though.

anonymouse May 18, 2009 - 8:11 pm

On the London Underground, all trains are OPTO. This didn’t seem to pose too much of a problem for the evacuations after the 7/7 bombings. Likewise, Moscow has OPTO on almost all the metro lines, and this was not a problem in the terrorist attacks there either.

With money tight, has OPTO’s time come? :: Second Ave. Sagas February 26, 2010 - 1:21 am

[…] nearly agreed to allow the MTA to move ahead with OPTO plans, and as late as May, Transit was moving ahead with OPTO plans. But two events put this off the table. First, the TWU’s rank-and-file nearly revolted. As a […]


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