When the MTA dismissed an arbitrator who has often sided with the TWU in resolving disputes, an old issue reared its head. In discussing Richard Adelman’s past rulings, I noted that he had stopped one-person train operation on the L train back in 2005. It was but one story in the MTA’s never-ending saga to see through some form of OPTO in the New York City subway system.
As is often the case when OPTO comes out, a debate over its future arose in the comments. I’ve long believed that OPTO is a necessity in some form or another if the MTA is to realize significant cost savings on the labor front. Although the initial capital costs at readying the system for OPTO may be challenging, the year over year savings would more than justify the initial outlay. The trick in implementing such a system would be in identifying the proper form. Does OPTO make sense on the Lexington Ave. trains at rush hour? Does it make sense on the Brighton Line during the weekend? The answer may not be the same to both questions.
The opponents of OPTO — union workers who stand to lose their jobs — are strong though, and they’ve run the table on this argument for years. On the one hand, OPTO is a tough sell from the MTA. They’re basically telling everyone that there will be fewer employees on train cars, and the psychology of such a stick without a corresponding carrot is a tough one to swallow. On the other, those who oppose OPTO have made their case and stick to it.
Essentially, the opposition breaks down as follows:
- New York City’s subway system is older than other systems that use OPTO, and its platforms are too curvy. It’s trains are longer; it wasn’t built for OPTO.
- It’s not safe for passengers and leads to delays. Imagine how long it would a T.O./conductor to walk from the first car to the last in the event of a problem.
- It’s not safe for the T.O./Conductor and puts too much stress on them.
The first argument is New York exceptionalism at its finest. If it wasn’t invented in New York, then we can’t have it, and clearly, we’ll never be able to have it. It’s also the weakest of the arguments. There are automated lines in the Paris Metro and OPTO in place in similar systems to ours. It’s simply a matter of will and ingenuity, and it wouldn’t even take much to see it through. New York is exceptional in some ways but not in this regard.
The other two are legitimate concerns that prevent the public from getting behind OPTO, and this is where implementation would have to be done delicately and properly. An in-car intercom system would have to be developed; better security responses would have to be created. Again, it’s a challenge, but it’s not insurmountable. Meanwhile, moving conductors out of the train cars would allow the MTA to place some on platforms for crowd control purposes or others in stations as agents. Not all would have to be dismissed.
In this safety argument lies the delicate balancing act the MTA needs to execute to see through OPTO. It’s not right for every train line at every moment in time. It likely wouldn’t be a smart move for peak-hour trains along the most crowded of routes but certainly could be effective nearly everywhere on the weekends. It wouldn’t have to lead to more delays or more problems and could help the MTA free up operating money for other purposes.
Ultimately, this is hardly a scientific study on the costs and benefits for OPTO. I’m almost thinking off the cuff here, but it’s a conversation worth revisiting. Ultimately, the MTA should be working toward automation where possible, and OPTO is a good first step. If anything, it can cut down on unnecessary labor costs. But we’re stuck in this rut. It didn’t happen first in New York City so it can’t happen here.