For the second time this month, a gruesome death in the subway occurred when one rider pushed another into the tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. The latest incident happened at 40th St. along the 7 line, and the suspect, with a history of mental problems, said she was targeting Hindus and Muslims as revenge for the 9/11 attacks. After an early December incident was caught on camera, this weekend’s attack was no less disturbing.
After the horror of the incident fades away, the reaction to these deaths focuses around platform doors. In various other cities across the world (but not all of them), platform doors are a common sight. They keep people and debris off the tracks while providing the option to air condition underground platforms. With the MTA focusing on the number of people who were hit by trains — usually around 150 per year — the agency has seemingly brought this response on itself.
But should we be so focused on platform doors? Can we? Those are the two questions that require a rigorous answer before anyone moves forward with the idea. Already, though, forces are building. While some at the MTA have called the doors a non-starter and two capital projects — Second Ave. and the 7 line — have seen them axed from initial plans, a new faction within Transit will at least entertain the idea. “We’ll have to revisit it,” Transit President Tom Prendergast said to The Daily News this weekend. Pete Donohue had a bit more:
The MTA has had on-and-off discussions about placing protective barriers along at least some platform edges, as other cities like London and Paris have done. In 2010, the MTA released a Request for Information for a pilot program, but nothing ever came of it. A New York-based company called Crown Infrastructure submitted a response to install the doors for free, as long as it could collect revenue from LED video advertising on the barriers.
“We haven’t made a conscious decision to table it and not do it at all, but we haven’t made a decision to keep it going either,” Prendergast said. “It’s suspended animation.”
MTA officials also said in 2007 platform doors would be installed on the 7 train extension, and that they were considering doing the same for the new Second Ave. subway. While both projects are under construction, platform doors will not be installed, said an MTA spokesman Friday, calling them “cost-prohibitive.” It would cost an estimated $1.5 million to install sliding doors along two platform edges in a new station, and more to retrofit an existing station. The MTA has 468 station, although many are too narrow for doors.
In an official statement released to Ravi Somaiya of The Times, the MTA said: “Based on the MTA’s preliminary analysis, the challenge of installing platform edge barriers in the New York City subway system would be both expensive and extremely challenging given the varied station designs and differences in door positions among some subway car classes. But in light of recent tragic events, we will consider the options for testing such equipment on a limited basis. Of course, we remind customers of the overall safety of the subway system but urge them to stand well back from the platform edge and remain watchful of their surroundings.”
I’ve written on the aspect of costs before, and the equation remains similar. These accidents happen about once every 12.5 million passengers. Very few are caused by another’s push while many happen due to the carelessness of someone on the platform and others simply as accidents. The cost of the doors vs. the cost of saving a life is a delicate balancing act.
That’s the answer to “should we,” and the answer to “can we” is far more difficult. Outside of the factors mentioned in the MTA’s statement — station design, variable door placement on rolling stock models — there is one overarching problem. Platform edge doors generally benefit from automatic train operations systems to ensure the doors lineup properly. Not every platform door system needs ATO, but those with ATO work better and faster. The MTA is countless years, dollars and union fights away from an ATO solution.
So with politicians and the architect of the JFK AirTrain all angling for platform edge doors, Transit will take a look at the technology. I doubt we’ll see much movement over the next few years though as the organizational and financial challenges are too great to overcome for a systemwide implementation.