Home Subway Security As station agent vote looms, an argument of safety

As station agent vote looms, an argument of safety

by Benjamin Kabak

Could a station agent — barred from leaving the booth — have prevented this robbery? (Photo via Campaign to Take Back Our Transit System)

After engaging in some political theater last week when it hosted court-mandated public hearings, the MTA Board is set to vote on the proposal to axe 240 station agents and shutter dozens of booths throughout the system. As John Mancini at New York 1 reports today, the board is a foregone conclusion, and the authority will also vote to approve a proposal to raise the fares as planned in 2011.

Already, transit activists and union supporters are up in arms over the two developments, and both groups have reason to be. The union is trying to save jobs while transit activists fear that the double whammy of service cuts in June and fare hikes in January will lead to more animosity from a public deeply skeptical of the MTA. “Last month, we had the deepest service cuts in a generation and now we’re being asked to pay more as riders for our subways and buses. It’s just not fair. It’s not mass transit if the masses can’t afford it,” Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives said to NY1.

While we could debate White’s assertion that the masses can’t afford it, his point is a good one. We are being asked to pay more for less. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the debate over station agents. Or at least that’s what the TWU wants subway riders to believe. In an article in this week’s Downtown Express, John Bayles goes in depth into the station agent/subway safety argument. It’s one I’ve rehashed on numerous occasions, but Bayles’ article has some revealing statements from public officials and city politicians.

City Council representative Margaret Chin wants to keep station agents so they can help evacuate Lower Manhattan in the event of another once-a-decade terrorist attack. “In the tragic event of another attack in our community, these workers would be crucial in directing passengers to safety. Closing the booths at the Fulton St./Broadway-Nassau and Wall Street stops is particularly worrisome,” she said at one of the public hearings. “These areas of Lower Manhattan remain prime terror targets, with the subways themselves a likely target. Imagine the grizzly scenario: hundreds of passengers stranded in the subway stops, with no cell phone service — and now no means of communicating with authorities.”

Chin ignores the fact that every station will have at least one worker at all times and that emergency personnel will still be dispatched to the stations in the event of a disaster. It sounds good, though, to play into public fears over personal safety.

John Samuelsen, who makes well over $100,000 a year as president of the TWU with close to another $20,000 in other compensation, chose another approach. He attacked the MTA Board member’s personal wealth and the CEO’s salary. “It is a travesty that Jay Walder and the other fat cats on the board are sitting on this money,” he said, referring to money going toward capital construction and other union jobs. Unfortunately for Samuelsen and the TWU, those jobs aren’t from his union, and so he could care less if the authority needs that money to keep the trains running.

The shuttering of the booths is a foregone conclusion though. The MTA Board is going to vote on it on Wednesday, and in Albany, Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Assembly, said he would not pass the legislation requiring that the MTA keep the booths open for three years. He recognized that such an unfunded mandate would not serve the overall good of straphangers. “I am concerned that this legislation would force the MTA to make up lost savings through deeper service cuts or a higher fare,” he said. “The simple fact is New Yorkers cannot afford another fare hike or more cuts in service.”

So the debate rolls on. Some people think station agents who are barred from leaving their booths serve a safety function. Others recognize that the MTA is up a creek without a paddle. No matter the temporary cost savings, the truth is that the subways will cost more, and straphangers will enjoy more crowded trains that run less frequently with fewer workers in the system. For that, we have only Albany to blame.

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transit rider July 23, 2010 - 1:34 am

I can officially say that things have not change at 347 Madison Avenue. This is still the same MTA from a few year ago, when the fare went up by 25-cents and they wanted us, the riding public, to pay $103 a month for a 30-day MetroCard.

Both the MTA and Albany are at fault for getting this city’s transit system into this mess.

Albany is guilty, because the dysfunctional politicos up there don’t care about the poor and hard working folks down here in the city. They only care about themselves and that will be their downfall when we will remember them at the ballot box.

The MTA is guilty, because the people who are part of the so called “Board of Director” are nothing more than a bunch of money hungry folks who get around in their limos and don’t care about the poor and hard working people in this city. I bet these so called “Board Members” never spend a day in the subway system or rode around the city in packed subway cars.

Another reason I said it’s time to get rid of the MTA and take back our city’s public transit system.

John Paul N. July 23, 2010 - 6:42 am

How do you think the city legislature and executive branch would manage the New York City Subway, New York City Bus, MTA Bus and Staten Island Railway better? While the City can take the organizational burden away from the State, the City becomes responsible for all the debt and liabilities by those divisions, I would imagine. The NYCDOT would bear some responsibility; you can look up their historical track record on public transportation. (No offense to them, because I had a meeting with them on Wednesday and the staff that I met with were nice.) And today’s City legislature may be less dysfunctional than the State, but what happens in the future? I’d have to confirm, but it was the City’s dysfunction that pushed these transit systems into the arms of the State in the first place.

JP July 23, 2010 - 7:39 am

Or was it the State, historically providing a subsidy that dried up unexpectedly?

Benjamin Kabak July 23, 2010 - 8:33 am

The MTA is guilty, because the people who are part of the so called “Board of Director” are nothing more than a bunch of money hungry folks who get around in their limos and don’t care about the poor and hard working people in this city. I bet these so called “Board Members” never spend a day in the subway system or rode around the city in packed subway cars.

You know that, except for Walder and the rest of the Board members who work at the MTA, none of them get paid? That’s a fairly out-there thing to say about the board members. By and large, they’re doing what they can in a very bad time. Getting rid of the MTA and restoring control of the subways to the city just isn’t the answer.

Al D July 23, 2010 - 10:03 am

That may not be the answer, but a complete gutting and overhaul of the organizational structure, starting with the law under which the MTA exists, should be contemplated. Short of that, Walder is our next best bet. Hopefully, he’ll stay on after Paterson leaves office.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 1:00 pm

The deep incompetence and corruption that characterize the MTA is a general American trait. The reason Walder looks like a giant is that he actually has some experience with transit in the somewhat more competent UK. Moving control from one set of Americans to another isn’t going to solve problems that stem from American business culture. Those problems are now enshrined by law, which means that selling the MTA to Tokyo Metro will not by itself fix much.

John Paul N. July 23, 2010 - 4:20 pm

So true. Could one of the solutions be nothing short of hiring recent MBAs or business university professors to study the MTA’s ways in order to reform its institutionalized culture? It has been done in other non-transit settings.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 5:50 pm

I doubt it’ll do much good. Outsider advice is always good, but letting MBAs run the system may be counterproductive. The problem is that the MTA’s weaknesses often come from American business culture, and happen in the private sector as well. Those include a “Think like a manager, not like an engineer” philosophy; a penny-wise, pound-foolish emphasis on short-run profits; and, often, a parochial American attitude.

However, some of the MTA’s problems could be fixed by inviting in consultants with experience in low-cost airlines, with their short-turnaround, high-utilization philosophy.

Kid Twist July 23, 2010 - 10:10 am

There are already six subway stations in Manhattan that are completely unstaffed and have been for many years — on the PATH system. Thousands of people safely use these stations every day.

Paulp July 23, 2010 - 11:21 am

Kid Twists’ statement is not completely true.
While it is true the PATH stations have no agents most of the functions that would be performed by those agents are done by the NYCTA station Agents in the adjoining MTA stations. Things like directions, change, metro card sales, police calls, emt calls etc. are done by the MTA station Agnets for the PATH customers. For a good example of this go to the 23rd st. station on the “F” train. Downtown side where there will be no agent soon enough.The effect of the elimination of station Agents will have thier effect in more than just the particular stations they are removed from.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 6:07 pm

What about 9th and Christoper, which are not shared with NYCT?

Andrew July 25, 2010 - 11:29 pm

The only PATH stations that are shared with NYCT are 33rd, 23rd, and 14th. The other three New York stations (including WTC, which I think is the busiest PATH station of them all) and all of the New Jersey stations get along just fine without agents.

Kid Twist July 23, 2010 - 11:42 am

There are no adjoining subway stations at Ninth or Christopher streets, nor are there any the New Jersey stations, which are also unstaffed.

Even where there is a connection to the subway, I’ve observed that most PATH riders use the card vending machines and passenger assistance phones near the PATH turnstiles for fares and information. They do not go to the toekn booth.

All the PATH stations are monitored by cameras. This strikes me as a much better way to ensure safety than paying somebody to sleep in a booth outside the turnstiles.

Sharon July 23, 2010 - 12:39 pm

I was at the 14th street station on the F last night. The agent was a flight up and a world away looked inside the booth while you feel helpless and alone on the platform at 2am last night. Would be nice to have the agent where it is needed on the platform where riders have no place to turn in an emergency. Transition all station agents to station security monitoring camera’s and providing a human presence to the platforms with DIRECT nypd contact and training. Some station such as my home stations of Kings Highway and Ave U on the brighton do not need a agent during the day at all. Use scarce money where it is needed and enforce the fare at places like canal street where many agents made “racist” comments against the Asian riders who often go through the exit gates without paying. The mta needs a top to bottom reorganization of it’s union rep titles. Go to the TWU 100 website and check out the NEW salary schedule. The most shocking point is the sheer number of titles and how much some titles pay. Many near $30 an hour. Insane vs. what many are making in the private sector. Add in pension and benefits and it is nuts what we are paying some of these folks

Son of Spam July 23, 2010 - 1:05 pm

I agree that the agents in the booths are useless, but an agent on the platform is just as likely to give criminals another target rather than help other passengers. We don’t need more potential victims at subway stations, we need more cops.

Why isn’t Homeland Security money being used for more police presence? MTA saves by getting rid of the useless agents, the “threat to security” argument is squashed, and Samuelsson shuts his mammoth pie hole.

No losers in that scenario.

Andrew July 25, 2010 - 11:32 pm

I agree, but I’ll add that most subway riders also use the vending machines.

I agree that cameras, along with passenger assistance phones, are the way to go. Cameras can be placed throughout the station, not just in front of the turnstiles, and they can be monitored from anywhere the MTA finds convenient, with multiple locations monitored by a single person. That would be both safer and cheaper than multiple agents, or even a single agent, in each and every station.

Paulp July 27, 2010 - 3:33 pm

Please….the Christopher st. PATH station is near by the Christopher #1 train and the WTC has dozens of NYCTA stations near it. Just because they are not right next to each other does not mean people don’t use NYCTA personnel on their way or to get directions to the PATH trains. Again do you guys actually ride the subways or just read the MTA propaganda?
I find it hard to believe that you actually stand around observing habits of PATH riders. As for Cameras, you can get really nice pictures of assaults and in London’s case people getting blown up. Even someone asleep can call a cop for you, the cameras sure can’t. AND you forget to mention 40% of MTA cameras do not even work. Good luck to you all.

Andrew July 29, 2010 - 10:49 pm

The Christopher St. subway station is midway between two PATH stations!

An agent can’t see what’s going on the station anywhere away from the booth; cameras can be placed wherever they’re needed.

London has much more station coverage than New York ever did.

Paulp521 August 1, 2010 - 9:35 pm

Hey Andrew do you know where the camera feeds go to in many stations? To the station agent inside the booth!!! Do a little homework sometimes it can bring clarity….

Andrew August 2, 2010 - 12:41 am

Once you’re willing to rely on cameras, it doesn’t matter if the person watching is on the platform itself or across the street or at a central office.

On July 27, you seemed to have something against cameras. Now you seem to have changed your mind.

Phil July 23, 2010 - 4:40 pm

Walder should implement what London did: CCTV. I’m not normally a fan of it, but it seems to work on transport systems. If there is CCTV on the subway (apart from that used for conductors about to close the doors), I’d be shocked. Then again, maybe we need to go for some Singapore-style draconian fines: $100 fine for standing on the yellow line, $500 for eating, $200 for littering. That will only work if it’s shown that the police and MTA have the nerve to implement it and give out those fines. Think of how much money that’d rake in.

Alon Levy July 23, 2010 - 6:09 pm

The draconian fines aren’t always enforced. People in Singapore routinely overstep the yellow line and get no fine. There’s some litter on the street – as I recall, not much less than in the nicer-looking parts of Manhattan – and I’ve never heard of the $1,000 fine on littering being enforced.

Singapore likes to talk up how tough its law enforcement is on quality-of-life crimes, but most of this toughness is on more serious crimes, such as graffiti.

nycpat July 24, 2010 - 2:20 am

How about working 9 years as a Train Operator and still not being able to get part of the weekend off? How insane is that? T/O and Bus Operators are paid about right; similar to garbage men. Only garbage men get sundays off.
How much should a trackworker make? It can’t be that difficult to weld rail together or operate those mini-cranes in the middle of the night.. Near $30 too much?
I’ll give you one thing though. I’ve always felt cleaners and S/A make too much.

Andrew July 25, 2010 - 11:33 pm

What’s insane about it? If having weekends off is important to you, then you probably shouldn’t be operating a train on a 24/7 subway system.

nycpat July 26, 2010 - 2:12 am

I neglected to link my post to another which said that $30ph was “insane”. My point being that the work and conditions make $30ph an equitable wage. At the induction orientation there were a lot of questions about hours and conditions. Many people declined appointment. More dropped out in school car.
I have no problem working weekends or holidays. I’m just posting to try to lessen and ameliorate the hostility and disinformation directed to and about transit workers.

John July 24, 2010 - 11:31 pm

I’m not sure where I stand on this. My reasoning is that if a station agent makes $50,000 per year, and prevents 50 people from losing their job by being late because they couldn’t understand the service changes and got lost, they saved the MTA money because if those people are unemployed, they aren’t spending $1,000 per year in transportation costs. Whether the other station agent on the other side of the station will be able to cover for the one that was laid off will determine if this is a good or bad decision.

Clint Guyon July 27, 2010 - 2:27 pm

I have been noticing several token booth demolitions going on these past few weeks. I guess these clerks are NEVER coming back!


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