Throughout the world, major transit systems operate with just one person in charge of each train. In London and Hong Kong, Moscow and Paris, one-person train operation has become the norm. Using CCTVs and modern-day technology, one person is in charge of driving the trains, opening and closing the doors, making announcements and generally overseeing the trains. These systems run smoothly and have realized significant cost savings by cutting out a generally unnecessary employee from every train.
In New York, though, OPTO has had a tortured history defined by tensions between the MTA and the TWU. For years, the MTA has had the capacity to run OPTO routes. The L line has been OPTO-compliant since 2005, and with wider train control booths now in every train, nearly every other line could be converted into a one-person route. Yet, at every turn, it has become a major labor battle.
In 2008, Roger Toussaint nearly agreed to allow the MTA to move ahead with OPTO plans, and as late as May, Transit was moving ahead with OPTO plans. But two events put this off the table. First, the TWU’s rank-and-file nearly revolted. As a TWU Contract Bulletin from last year notes, many union members believed allowing OPTO to be the equivalent of “sell[ing] us all out.” Next, when the MTA and the TWU had to go to arbitration, the MTA withdrew its OPTO proposals. Much ink has been spilled over the “why” of it, but many consider that to be a mistake.
Now, the agency is going to try to eliminate conductors in order to save money. According to Pete Donohue of the Daily News, MTA officials have “quietly” asked transit leaders to reconsider their stance on one-person train operations. Neither the MTA nor the TWU heads commented for the article, but as the agency faces a potential $750 million shortfall, OPTO is clearly an idea whose time has come.
In an oversimplified world, OPTO, if implemented tomorrow and if the agency could fire all of its conductors, would save the authority approximately $170 million. I arrived at that figure by pulling the 2008 salaries from the Public Employees Payroll Database the state has established. The agency employees 3024 conductors, and all but 157 operate trains in revenue service.
That is, of course, not a completely accurate calculation. The MTA would have to pay its train drivers a few dollars more per hour to serve as the lone conductor/driver, and Transit would have to outfit it stations by moving the CCTVs currently in place in the center of platforms to the front of the trains. The one-time costs might be substantial, but the savings would be realized on an annual basis.
Even still, union members would object, and the MTA would probably have to overhaul their work rules. A very thorough comment left by a Transit employee on an August post about OPTO delves into the various problems with the current system and implementing one-person train control. Still, it authority owes it to its customers to try to cut costs via this path.
In the end, OPTO would simply give the MTA more flexibility. It could run shorter trains every ten minutes overnight at nearly cost to the agency as it now runs longer trains every twenty minutes, and this proposal would truly help spread the pain. In an editorial accompanying Donohue’s piece, the Daily News argued that the TWU should either give up its pay hike to save jobs or enjoy its raises while suffering through layoffs. It’s a devil’s choice for union leaders hellbent on saving every single job, but as the MTA sees its precariously financial state decline even further, it might be time once again for a push toward OPTO.