In case of emergency, do not pull the emergency brake

By · Published in 2010

To pull the emergency brake in a new subway car today requires some thought and some action. While the picture at right shows the pullcord simply dangling at the end of a subway car, today’s emergency brakes are incased in a box so that people don’t accidentally latch onto them as the subway car lurches forward.

But that’s not the only notable part of the emergency brake, that oh-so-tempting way to stop a train car. Rather, as Michael Grynbaum noted yesterday, in case of emergency, subway riders are not supposed to pull the emergency brake. As Grynbaum notes, the cards — often ignored by most riders — that discuss the emergency brake include Rule No. 1: Do not pull the emergency brake. Reminiscent of Fight Club, this makes little sense.

Grynbaum continues:

So what emergency, exactly, does this emergency brake refer to? The explanation, transit officials say, is simple. If someone gets caught between the train’s closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate, pull the cord. The train will stop, possibly saving a life.

But in case of fire, crime or a sick passenger — in fact, any other situation that could fairly be described as an emergency — the cord should be left alone. Stopping the train between stations will make it harder for help to arrive. The explanation is on the agency’s Web site, albeit accessible only after several clicks.

“We think that it is clear,” said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York City Transit.

The Times transit writer goes on to speak to a few straphangers who have no idea when to use the emergency brake, and he highlights last fall’s Murder on the D Train as a prime example. Sensing an emergency, riders in the car where the murder occurred pulled the brake. Some people say that action helped catch the suspected killer while others say it delayed police response to the scene of the crime and trapped innocent bystanders in a car with a killer. Either way, it made sense even if Transit officials urged riders to eschew pulling the cord.

In the end, the problem, as a psychologist explains, is one of messaging. The MTA expects its passengers to read signs that explain the emergency brake when most people just assume that an emergency brake should be used in case of any emergency. In reality, people should pull the brake only when someone is in danger of getting struck or injured by a moving train car, but that changes the concept of the emergency brake to one with which we the straphanging public are not familiar.

And so we’re left right back where we started: In case of most emergencies, please do not pull the emergency brake.

Above: Emergency Break photo courtesy of flickr user adotmanda.

Categories : MTA Absurdity

12 Responses to “In case of emergency, do not pull the emergency brake”

  1. Joe says:

    I’ve read the New Tech cars won’t even respond to the emergency brake unless part of the train is still in the station. There’s pretty much no case when you’d ever need to pull the brake in a tunnel anyways.

  2. Scott E says:

    What I find even more entertaining is the big red Subway Emergency sign that says to “Look for this decal”, with a reduced-size image of the OTHER sign, the one that tells you, among other things, not to pull the emergency cord. Do we really need a sign directing us to another sign?

  3. John says:

    The problem is what to call it. An “Emergency involving someone trapped by the car brake?” It IS an emergency brake. It’s just not an emergency brake that’s to be used in all emergencies. I’m not sure the best way to briefly state that on a sign.

    Personally, I’ve only ridden the subway a few times, and have read the sign accompanying the emergency brake, and found it to be clear. But if someone never bothers to read the instructions? Tough to handle that scenario.

  4. Ed says:

    Then why put a sign next to it that says “Emergency Brake”? That sign should say “Pull when someone is stuck and dragged or about to be dragged by the train.”

    I realize that bureaucracies speak an Alice-in-Wonderland style of English with different meanings for words and everything, but the signs they put up for the general public should be in normal English. If you put up a sign for normal people saying “Emergency Brake”, people will pull it in, well, emergencies. That is what the sign says. If you don’t want people to pull the cord in emergencies, don’t put a sign up saying, “pull this cord in emergencies”.

    • Andrew says:

      The sign says “Emergency Brake” – not “Emergency Thing.”

      Do you open the emergency exit door on an airplane in any sort of emergency? Of course not – most emergencies don’t call for immediate exiting. So why would you activate an emergency brake if you don’t want to immediately stop the train?

  5. erc says:

    I thought all trains since the Redbirds can’t move unless the doors are closed, so there could never be a problem of someone being caught in the doors and dragged along by the train. I can’t see any use for the emergency brake at all.

    • nycpat says:

      The R-62s can move [roll] with all the doors open if the T/O releases the brakes too early and both he and the C/R space out. I once saw a train move a whole two ft. at 5th ave on the7. I was about to pull the emergency brake when the T/O reapplied enough brake. But normally trains can’t take power with the doors open in passenger service. I can see a use for the brake- suppose you see someone trapped between the platform and the train on the C/Rs offside, say Bowling Green. What are you going to do call on the intercom? No, pull the brake. These things have been around for over a hundred years. Why are people so stupid and helpless all of a sudden?

  6. Peter says:

    I wonder if the same people who think that they should respond to any emergency aboard a train by pulling the emergencey brake would do the same thing in their car.

  7. Scott E says:

    Are there any statistics on how many legitimate applications of the Emergency Brake have been made over the years? I support Erc in saying that they should probably be removed. Amtrak doesn’t have them in passenger-accessible areas.

    The only semi-legitimate use I can really think of is if the doors close at the wrong time, separating a parent from a young child (could be a disobedient child, or a parent struggling with a stroller).

  8. Andrew says:

    The emergency brake cord dangles, boxless, on many B Division cars – everything older than the R143. The IRT got boxes around its cords in the late 90’s (even on the redbirds) to deter pranksters from pulling the cord.

    As Joe points out, the cord on the newest cars isn’t an actual emergency brake. A traditional emergency brake cord physically dumps the air out of the brake system, forcing the train to stop. In the newer cars, a computer decides whether the train should stop (if part of the train is still in the station) or not (if it isn’t).


  1. […] Every subway car has an emergency brake, and yet, Transit’s message has been one of caution. In case of emergency, don’t pull the emergency brake. In that piece, I discussed a sign each car has up with instructions about emergencies. The sign […]

  2. […] break. The dialogue started late last month when we explored how, in case of emergency, riders aren’t supposed to pull the brake and continued with a look at how the emergency instructions don’t say when to pull the […]

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