I am growing weary of discussing platform edge doors. As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday, I believe the increased public concern over subway platform safety is a ruse to deflect attention away from the real issues facing our transit system. Politicians can use subway platform system to claim they care about transit issues and are looking out for riders when, in reality, the incident rate was one per 11.3 million subway riders and nearly a quarter of those were suicide attempts. But here we are. Again.
Because of two high-profile homicides that were both a far cry from normal, New York City Transit has been forced to respond to increased calls for, well, anything on subway platform safety, and during yesterday’s MTA Board Committee hearings, officials unveiled a 46-page presentation awkwardly entitled “Customer Contact With Train Incident Report.” In it, the MTA lays bear just how little of a problem this is and presents a few solutions. From public awareness campaigns to the challenges facing any sort of platform edge doors to hope for a next-generation track intrusion detection system, the MTA is clearly paying lip service to all solutions, but its options going forward are limited.
So first things first: How do people get hit by trains? According to Transit, in 2012, 54 customers were struck while in the tracks and another 51 were hit by a train while in the station. The agency says that 33 were suicides or attempted suicides while three customers fell in between cars. Short of locking car doors, the MTA can’t do much more stop people from moving in between cars, and the only solution that will put an end to subway suicides are platform edge doors. The remaining 105 collisions last year fall in that space between avoidable and unavoidable based on the circumstances.
The first step in the MTA’s campaign against collisions involves the public awareness effort. Already, the PA/CIS systems are broadcasting safety messages, and those will soon spread to the backs of MetroCards, the MetroCard Vending Machine screens, the digital ads aboveground at certain train stations and every social media outlet imaginable. At this least, this effort could scare passengers away from standing too close to the platform, but as New York is New York, straphangers won’t budge all that much.
In the realm of technology, the MTA can look to limit access to the tracks, develop a warning system or both. The first part is tricky. Even as some cities retrofit their transit system with platform edge doors, circumstances underground are working against the MTA. First, it’s costly, and the MTA has no money. Second, the rolling stock isn’t standardized and won’t be for at least another decade. Third, station infrastructure — curved, narrow platforms with both little room for required electrical systems and weak platform edges — is lacking for such an effort. Fourth, operations could suffer from extended dwell time and flagging requirements. Even though the MTA received 12 responses to its request for information, yesterday’s presentation contains the seeds of the agency’s argument that platform edge doors are basically a non-starter.
So what can happen? First, the MTA says it will expand its Help Point system which would allow customers to warn train dispatchers of a person in the tracks. This is useful as long as the train isn’t barreling down on a station or potential victim. Help Point, which I’ve mentioned obtusely as a waste of money, could be at 100 stations by the end of next year and system-wide by the end of the decade.
Second, the MTA could look at intrusion detection. Here, the idea is that an advanced imaging system can tell when a human-sized something is in the tracks and sound an alarm that essentially shuts down the system. In theory, it sounds promising, but it’s an early-stage idea. The MTA is going to initiate a Concept of Operations, but it could be years before a solution is ready for any sort of practical pilot testing or implementation.
That leaves the MTA and its customers then with few solutions to something that isn’t a major problem. The agency is going to move forward with some sort of safety pilot program, but doing so is as much about placating the rabbling masses than it is about finding a long-term solution. And while I don’t mean to minimize tragic deaths caused by train collisions, at a certain point, the cost and time spent on the non-problem will detract from Transit’s real issues that impact us all.