Oct
17

A deeper dive into train deaths

By · Published in 2013

At a certain point earlier this year, the media hullabaloo over passenger/train collisions reached a crescendo. The TWU began to agitate for a costly slowdown; politicians began to wonder about platform edge doors; and the MTA had to defend itself on an issue that isn’t actually a problem as 48 of over 1.6 billion rides ended in an accidental death. These incidents are tragedies with ramifications for families and train operators alike, but the outcry seemed to overshadow the problems.

Today, Adam Martin at New York Magazine takes a closer look at the MTA’s deadly year, and while the numbers show a slight uptick in train deaths this year, overall the picture shouldn’t worry New York’s subway riders. In pure numbers, this year has not been a kind one for the MTA as, through August, the agency reported 65 deaths caused by subway, LIRR or Metro-North trains. If this pace continues throughout the year, the 98 projected deaths would blow past last year’s record total of 84.

But in a sense, the tide has turned a bit. While the incidents earlier this year focused around homicides, the number of non-suicides has dropped significantly. Of the 65 deaths, 40 of them were suicides and only 25 were accidental or other. Last year, those numbers were flipped with nearly 60 percent of subway deaths not suicides. The numbers are fairly de minimus considering overall MTA ridership, but maybe the aggressive public awareness campaign warning of the dangers of subways and other trains has paid off.

Why, then, have suicide numbers spiked? Martin offers up some theories:

One possibility is that the increase has been driven by intense media attention given to two incidents late last year in which people were pushed onto subway tracks and died. The New York Post splashed a dramatic photo of one victim seconds before death across its front page. A 2008 Columbia study found decreasing media coverage was an effective way to bring down the number of subway suicides. If the reverse is also true, then a barrage of coverage might spur them.

In the end, it’s hard to read much into these numbers. As an MTA spokesman said to New York Magazine, “So far, this year seems to be falling within the range of normal year-to-year variability. I would hesitate to call it a trend.” On a day-to-day basis then, the rails are safe.



11 Responses to “A deeper dive into train deaths”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    Why the difference between Metro-North and the LIRR? Is it just that more of the busier parts of Metro-North are grade-separated?

    • Jeff says:

      Westchester is an overall less depressing place.

      • Lady Feliz says:

        Hate to admit it, but you have a point there. Long Island is very post-war depressing. Every time I take the train or drive out there, I can’t wait to get leave. Westchester and the other northern counties are much hillier, greener and have numerous small towns that are very inviting and date back to the Dutch and English. Long Island always seems like a 1960s suburb gone to seed.

    • BenW says:

      Totally uninformed speculation, but possibly the all-night lines of the LIRR have a higher accident rate? There was also a lot of noise about the dangerous platform gaps on LIRR a few years ago, but I don’t know how much of that was owing to statistically measurable danger, and how much to anecdotal freak-outs.

      • MNCR runs trains overnight as well…they may not be revenue trains but there are still equipment moves and work trains that make their way up and down the lines after service has stopped.

        • SEAN says:

          There’s only about a 2.5-hour – 4-hour window where there’s no revenue train opperating on the three main MNR branches. Esentially a 1AM inbound & a 4AM outbound train on each line would mirror the main routes of the LIRR, even if they were complete locals.

    • The vast majority of MNCR is grade-separated. There isn’t a single grade crossing on the entire NH Mainline, there’s only two on the very upper Hudson (just north of Peekskill and just north of Manitou), the upper Harlem and the branches have a good few, but there’s none on the Lower Harlem.

      On the other hand, the LIRR probably hundreds of crossings. Only the Atlantic Branch is entirely grade-separated. Plus the LIRR has a lot of tracks which run straight through towns which makes it very tempting for locals to take a shortcut via the LIRR tracks. This is especially prevalent Patchouge, Riverhead, and the Deer Park/Brentwood/Central Islip section of the Mainline, which are trespasser incident-hotspots.

      The LIRR also has a lot of grade crossings immediately next to stations, so there are those cases where a tired commuter wanting to get home goes under the gates to get to the parking lot on the other side and inadvertently gets wholloped by another train on the oppoiste track. Plus Long Island drivers are pretty impatient too, there are a lot of incidents of impatient drivers going around the gates.

  2. Chris C says:

    Would be useful to have the data broken down to reflect length in miles of the systsms, the number of deaths per mile and number of deaths per total number of passengers, deaths per total number of journeys.

    And how do these figures compare with deaths on the road, above ground suicides etc?

    Are there any places on the network that have more deaths than others or are they evenly spread out? If there is a particular station or length of track then some targeted prevention work might be helpful.

    And how long before someone mentions that screen doors would prevent these deaths when the case for them has not, in my mind, been made?

    (though I see someone just has on the face book page!)

  3. David Brown says:

    Interest Groups and the TWU is certainly one, look for opportunities to strengthen their position/point of view, it does not matter if it is real or imagined. This slow train tactic should surprise no one., that this is happening. For example: One of the most notorious examples of this involved Columbia University, where a bunch of opponents actually said Science Labs endanger local residents. This is also what is going on at Greenpoint where they are using the Environment as a reason to oppose Greenpoint Landing and 77 Commercial Ave (ignoring the fast there are cleaning up Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal). Frankly I would rather see people fight for an issue on its merits than on something bogus. Should the TWU and all other Municipal Unions get pay raises including retroactive pay? Maybe maybe not. But let’s debate that and if the politicians decide to give them 100% of everything they want than SO BE IT. There is nothing wrong with paying them, if that is what people vote for. But there is with slowing down trains for style points. I wish those tactics would end but they will not .

  4. llqbtt says:

    I still remember the thud of the head of a suicide act against the side of the train as it raced into the Ave M early 1 morning many years ago. We (on the train) were told that the person was sitting on the platform edge…

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