A new intercom system, five years in the making

By · Published in 2010

A rendering of the Help Point intercom system from 2005. (Via Antenna Design)

Earlier this summer, the city’s two free daily newspapers — Metro and amNew York — reported on a new initiative by New York City Transit that would bring high-tech intercoms into the subway system. Billed as a way to improve passenger safety while lending the subways the aura of security found on a college campus, the new Help Point intercom system received its formal unveiling yesterday. While Transit officials promoted it as a brand-new high-tech solution the long-standing problem of unobservable subway stations, it is actually a design five years in the making.

As anyone who has been on a tour of a college campus knows, these blue-light intercoms are exceedingly simple. One button — the red one — will connect passengers to emergency services while the green button will provide a direct line to a 24-hour information hotline. These intercoms are, said the MTA, “reliable, highly visible and easy-to-use.” The emergency calls will be routed to the authority’s Rail Control Center while information inquiries will be fieled by Travel Information personnel or station booth workers.

“We have designed the HPI to be a major step beyond the Customer Assistance Intercoms that passengers may see in stations now,” Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said. “Make no mistake, this device represents impressive 21st century technology and it demonstrates our ability to incorporate it into a system that is more than 100 years old.”

During the presentation to the board on Monday morning, Transit officials stressed the so-called Help Point Intercom system’s unique appearance. These six-foot-tall metal poles feature a blue light on top and will placed on station platforms and mezzanines. The units can be mounted vertically on station walls as the rendering above shows or placed against a platform column as a free-standing device. They will be equipped with loop technology for the hearing impaired and will be “camera capable.”

As with every new technology, the MTA will introduce these intercoms via a pilot program later this year. The futuristic-looking devices will be installed at 23rd St. and Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall along the East Side IRT routes, and while the authority doesn’t know yet how much a system-wide installation would cost, NY1’s John Mancini says the pilot, which will place intercoms every 150 feet, is being funded with $10 million from the capital campaign. The pilot, says The Daily News, will officially launch before the end of 2010.

Now, ostensibly, these new intercoms are designed to make up for the decrease in station agents but also to supplement the existing agents’ ability to monitor their stations. Since the station agents cannot leave their booths, their visibility is limited to the fare control areas and any part of the platform in front of them. At many stations, nearly none of the platform then is visible, and riders are left without recourse in half-empty stations. These Help Point Intercoms are designed to alleviate those concerns, and it’s a project that’s been on the drawing board since the early part of the 2000s.

In fact, these Help Point Intercoms were at point an item of pride for designers and Transit officials. In 2005, Transit first contacted Antenna Designs to develop a Help Point intercom prototype, and the new version is materially similar to the first design. As Antenna Designs said then:

The Help Point Intercom (HPI) is a customer information and emergency intercom system for the New York City Subway stations. In case of an emergency, a customer can directly contact an agent at the emergency dispatch center twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Further, customers can talk to a live customer service agent for real-time transit related information.To further enhance security and discourage tampering, each HPI is equipped with a built-in video camera.

The HPI is a beacon in the station environment, making it easy to spot and instantly recognizable, not only in an emergency, but at any time when information is needed. With its careful mix of easy visibility and non-alarming appearance, it sends the right message about its dual function. Partly designed as an ambient light fixture, the HPI’s calming blue light provides a sense of safety and security during everyday activities, symbolizing the human presence that is always just a touch of a button away. Its clear identity avoids confusion with any other station or platform equipment (such as train related signals.)

The HPI has a modular design which allows it to be configured as a wall mounted, column-mounted or freestanding device. A simple interface makes it easy-to-use. When activated, buttons illuminate to indicate connection, and there is sound feedback. The HPI is ADA compliant and features high contrast, large type labels with Braille. Gesture, proportion and material finish make it an elegant piece of public equipment, yet it is durable, vandal resistant and easy to maintain.

This similar-sounding device won a Bronze medal at the 2006 IDEA Awards and has been a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection since 2006. It was also included in an exhibit at MoMA in 2005 entitled SAFE: Design Takes on Risk.

So as we fast-forward to 2010, the MTA has the need, the will and the money to realize a design that garnered praise five years ago. The current MTA intercoms are seemingly broken more often than not, and with fewer station agents in the system, ensuring customer safety has become a paramount concern for Transit officials. As long as the new technology can work seamlessly, straphangers should be safe. “These HPIs,” MTA Chairman and CEO Jay Walder said, “are another example of how the MTA is using technology to fundamentally change the way that our customers experience the transit system each day.”

After the jump, a picture of the prototype Transit officials unveiled at MTAHQ on Monday morning.

Categories : Subway Security

23 Responses to “A new intercom system, five years in the making”

  1. Pete says:

    So how many people will be answering emergency calls at the command center especially with all the budget cuts?

  2. Christopher says:

    While fine for people with hearing aids and cochlear implants — I suppose — it’s completely inaccessible for the Deaf without an actual monitor. And five years? Really. When every college campus has had something similar since at least the 1980s. (Often rolled out in a matter of weeks?)

  3. AK says:

    I’m also concerned about the cost. Please tell me the $10 million price tag isn’t JUST for a two station pilot…if so, this is a monumental waste. Even with supposed “bulk” rate orders, outfitting the 468 stations would be prohibitively expensive.

    • Right you are, AK. At some point you have to wonder whether the tech stuff is getting more expensive than the manual equivalent. How much would it cost to put a uniformed, badged & armed cop in every station, and on every train. Now THAT would really change the way customers perceive the system. And it would do more to get middle class commuters out of their autos than all the capital construction in the world.

      • Let’s talk about this.

        At some point you have to wonder whether the tech stuff is getting more expensive than the manual equivalent. How much would it cost to put a uniformed, badged & armed cop in every station, and on every train.

        Basically you’re proposing to staff 468 stations and, at peak hours, over 600 trains with a uniformed cop. Let’s pretend that it takes 1.5 police officers per station at a time and there are 21 shifts that we need fill in a 7-day week. Each officer can take 5 shifts so we need to fill 4.2 full-time positions per station. That’s a total of 2948 police officers. The average police officer takes home a base pay of $75,000. Already we’re talking about $225,000,000 and that doesn’t count benefits, overtime and the like. There’s no way an intercom system that costs a few million to install once, a few million to maintain and requires small staffing levels even approaches that cost.

        it would do more to get middle class commuters out of their autos than all the capital construction in the world.

        That’s a strawman argument. As I’ve covered numerous times, middle class commuters in New York City simply do not commute via automobile, and investing in transit expansion and more frequent service would do way more to encourage more transit use than putting police officers in every single station and every train ever would.

        • When someone says every station and every train, it doesn’t necessarily mean EVERY station and EVERY train. It just means every applicable station and train. You know, the ones that at certain times of the day can have the unnerving ambiance of an upstate recreation yard. Complete with captive audiences for ear-splitting gymnastic dancing exhibitions in the aisles at 40 mph. Who’ll pay the lawsuit if some toddler gets accidently kicked in the face one time?

          • That is some back-tracking right there. So you said every train and station, and I proved how ridiculously expensive it would be. Now you’re saying just every train and every station that involves some sort of subjective opinion of what is or isn’t safe according to whom exactly?

            Simply put, there isn’t a security problem underground that’s turning riders away or making it unsafe to ride. The busiest stations are patrolled regularly, and the others aren’t suffering from a crime epidemic. It ain’t the 1970s out there.

            • AK says:

              Yeah, I want to note that my opposition to spending this much on technology does NOT mean I want to spend a comparable amount on police/station agents. Rather, I want to find a cheaper way to erect similar intercoms. I simply refuse to believe that $10 million is the going rate to wire two stations with these things, though admittedly the $10 million figure likely includes staffing/personnel costs in addition to the mechanics of the boxes themselves.

              • The $10 million isn’t the price tag for only this pilot. It’s a grant from the capital program to improve security in the stations. This pilot will involve a handful of the intercoms and some unknown staffing levels.

                Don’t forget too that a program of this nature will have high initial costs as equipment is installed but lower annual maintenance costs.

                • AK says:

                  You are no doubt correct, Ben, though I’d like to see the cost of the command center before determining whether that up-front cost is necessarily a no-brainer. In other words, we need more data, which I’m sure will be forthcoming.

            • Apparently I’m the only middle class staphanger who finds it harrowing to be in a car where sveral young men are loudly debating the relative merits of the cheese sandwiches served at Rikers vs those available at facilities upstate. Or better yet, whether it’s easier to get away with mischief in C block or D block.

              • Aaron says:

                Harrowing? If I was privy to that conversation I think that’d be the highlight of my commute. Submit it to OINY.

                • It didn’t seem to be intended by them to be a casual conversation. More like they wanted to send a message to everyone else in thate car that no one better mess with them, because the protection normally provided in public places by social pressure to uphold basic civilized deportment could not be counted on to have any deterrent effect on such seasoned veterans of the alternative universe they inhabit.

        • Sharon says:

          “That’s a total of 2948 police officers. The average police officer takes home a base pay of $75,000. ”

          The $75,000 figure is way to low, if you count benefits the average officer makes more than $92,000 per year. Not my numbers but one of the good government groups reported in the daily news over the summer. This technology has been needed for some time in the subway. Station agents just do not provide ANY help for someone on station platforms that are two flights of stairs away such as stations on central park west. A cohesive mix of uniformed patrols connected to monitored CCTV cameras and are the way to go to protect the public.

          If you begin removing conductors from the trains($600 million plus a year) and transform the station agent role into security from sales there is more that enough money to accomplish this task

        • Sharon says:

          “As I’ve covered numerous times, middle class commuters in New York City simply do not commute via automobile, ”

          To work yes but they drive when they are home. As I covered many times the 4 most of the four boroughs outside Manhattan are not set up so you can live your daily life without an AUTO. Even neighborhoods such as my current one where I live 2 blocks from the D line, the train is only useful if you are traveling into the city and only a peak times. Two easy ways to improve service at NO NET NEW COSTs is to run shorter trains a 12 min waits on weekends(when possible) and overnights and to Run all service through stillwell ave coney island as a loop service. this would give Bensonhurst riders A quick ride to sheepshead bay and other brighton line destinations. the tracks are there and used all the time.

          • For the use your describing, the city should have a better bus system. I live a 10-minute walk from the D train and need a car maybe once or twice a year, but I recognize that other neighborhoods are as compact or as service-rich as mine are. That said, to go from Bensonhurst to Sheepshead Bay is a two subway-ride. I’d rather see a bus network that can cover that ground (or the circumferential subway route).

            • Jerrold says:

              That suggestion about running trains THROUGH Stillwell Ave.-Coney Island instead of terminating there reminds me of the NX line back in the days after the big subway changes of 1967.
              The NX experiment was abandoned, either because not enough people were using it or riders found it just too confusing. (If you wanted to take the NX to Manhattan in the morning from Brighton Beach, Ocean Parkway, or West 8th St., you had to wait for it on the Coney Island-bound platform.)

  4. Kid Twist says:

    1. I love the pristine white tile wall in the top photo. What city is that supposed to be?
    2. Given the long tradition of garbled in-car and station announcements, are we even sure that the transit authority knows how to make an intercom work?

  5. herenthere says:

    Big issue still remains:
    How will tourists/those who can’t read English understand the difference between “Emergency” and “Information” ? Despite the color hints, many might still be confused. I hope they add some sort of pictorial sticker; eg: Exclamation Mark for Emergency, Question Mark for Information.

    You’re welcome MTA.


  1. […] fall, in an effort to ensure a safer subway system amidst personnel cuts, the MTA announced a Help Point Intercom pilot program. By the end of 2010, two stations would be outfitted with these intercoms in an effort to determine […]

  2. […] Help Point system, designed by Antenna Design back in 2005, made its debut in early 2011. The intercoms, similar to devices found on college campuses around […]

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>