What are the MTA’s current crew of station agents? Are they babysitters? Security theater? A poor attempt at public comfort? Cushy jobs? Some mix of the above? In the years since station agents stopped selling the bulk of fares, the positions have been whittled away to whatever they are now. Each station supposedly has one agent on duty at all times, but most station agents can’t see the platforms and provide psychological comfort more so than actual comfort.
Now, if the MTA and TWU can come to terms, the roll of the agents may expand. The Daily News has the story:
The station agent of the future could be dispensing subway directions from a tablet instead of MetroCards from a booth. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its workers union are planning a four-station pilot program where station agents will leave their cramped cubicles to get face time with passengers on the platform.
The workers could be equipped with tablets to help straphangers navigate service disruptions, retrieve cellphones and other items dropped on the tracks, and aid sick or injured passengers. The goal is to have “proactive customer service inside the stations, for all needs of the customers, whatever they need,” said an official familiar with the negotiations. “It’s based on the model of the London Underground, which has multiple customer service agents,” the official said…
No agreement about the scope of the pilot, which could launch as early as next year, has been reached, transit and union officials said. “It’s something we’re exploring in order to improve customer service by providing agents with the opportunity to interact and communicate with customers outside the confines of a booth,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said.
According to the News, the pilot could launch at one station per borough and would likely include high-traffic areas such as Columbus Circle or Jackson Heights where a mix of tourists would require the resources these station agents could offer. Interestingly, as well, the report indicates that the TWU is concerned its station agents will be eliminated following the eventual death of the MetroCard in a few years, and TWU officials believe staffing numbers for these new-look agents could top the number of agents currently employed by the MTA. How the agency will pay for this program is an open question.
Over the years, the TWU has objected to removing station agents from the booths on the grounds of safety, but recently, as the subways have seen a marked decrease in crime and a marked increase in crowding, MTA workers have been stationed on platforms at popular stations to help ease crowding concerns. There have been no reported incidents involving these employees, and the TWU seems more willing to explore job flexibility now. Looking to London where stations are staffed by multiple workers (and, in fact, where station staffing levels have led to disputes over Night Tube service) may provide the union with a boost as well.
As the MTA has a rather tortured history with pilot programs, it’s hard to get too excited one way or another over yet another pilot, but this one may be worth watching as its structure develops over the next few years.