Home View from Underground A cricket-filled subway car an emergency brake that isn’t for most emergencies

A cricket-filled subway car an emergency brake that isn’t for most emergencies

by Benjamin Kabak

Was your office, like nearly everyone else’s in New York city, chirping over this tale from a Wednesday evening D train? It’s one of those only-in-New York tales that makes people wonder how they cope on a daily basis, and it highlights the absurdity of the subway emergency brake.

For me, the story started with a text message from a good friend of mine shortly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday. “Yay! Someone pulled the emergency brake on my D train!” he said to me. “I’m getting a nice long view of the bridge!” All he knew after were that cops had shown up at De Kalb Ave. to greet the D train and remove an unruly passenger. Here’s how The Post relays events:

A crazed woman trying to sell crickets and worms on a D train suddenly threw them all over the crowded car, sending it into chaos during the evening commute. The woman walked into the train car at about 6 p.m. Wednesday and made a pitch to passengers to try to get them to buy the chirping insects and wrigglers. A group of teenagers pushed her, prompting her to freak out and toss the box of pests into the air, said witnesses. Straphangers then started screaming and crying, and all ran down to one end of the car.

…Someone then pulled the emergency brake and the train skidded to a stop on the Manhattan Bridge. The air conditioning shut off and the screaming passengers were all stuck inside the sweltering car with the woman, who then treated them to antics for half an hour as the crickets jumped on passengers. The worms just wriggled on the floor. [The women started trying to throw up on passengers working to restrain her, and she] then urinated on the floor and everyone again ran to the other side of the car while still trying to avoid the piles of bugs.”

This is certainly a bit of a disaster of a subway ride, to say the least, but it was made all the worse for one thing: Someone pulled the emergency brake. Counterintuitively, the subway emergency brake isn’t really for emergencies, and in a situation like Wednesday’s, it simply meant that passengers were stuck on a D train above the East River in a spot where emergency personnel could not attend to the situation.

The problem is one of messaging (and it’s one I covered all the way back in 2010). The MTA gives no indication on trains regarding when passengers should pull the emergency brake, and the only instructions are buried on a page about safety on the MTA’s website. The short of it is that, in case of emergency, do not pull the brake. Rather, let the train pull into a station and seek immediate help. As the MTA notes, the brake should be used only “when the motion of the subway presents an imminent danger to life and limb. Otherwise, do not activate the emergency brake cord, especially in a tunnel. Once the emergency brake cord is pulled, the brakes have to be reset before the train can move again, which reduces the options for dealing with the emergency.”

But no one knows this! And can you blame someone for pulling the brake amidst a plague of grasshoppers and a woman having an episode? After all, it was an emergency, and the pull-cord is clearly labeled an emergency brake. The MTA doesn’t seem to care to clear this up; they likely face liability if they start telling riders not to pull the brake in an emergency. But savvy riders should know the emergency brake, in the vast majority of cases, causes more trouble than it resolves. Just ask the riders on Wednesday’s night D train.

You may also like


Eric August 26, 2016 - 3:43 am

Not the finest moment for New Yorkers, to say the least. It’s just a cricket, why do 100 people have to panic when they see it?

Berk32 August 26, 2016 - 8:31 am

Hindsight is 20/20… in the moment, would you know what was going on when some crazy woman starting throwing things and peeing in the middle of the subway car?

Berk32 August 26, 2016 - 8:44 am

The damn emergency brake – didn’t anyone learn from ER?

Episode where Carol goes into labor on the L train, they’re less that a stop away from the hospital, and some old guy insists on pulling the emergency brake because it’s an emergency (they yell at him enough and he doesn’t)

Rob August 26, 2016 - 8:45 am

the subway emergency brake isn’t really for emergencies – it is in the sense of creating one.

no need for the brake cords; other systems [e.g. dc metro] don’t have them. there the ’emergency’ brake is an intercom.

BoerumBum August 26, 2016 - 11:31 am

For most emergencies, an intercom is what’s needed.

SEAN August 26, 2016 - 9:46 am

It’s one of those only-in-New York tales that makes people wonder how they cope on a daily basis.

Truth is… they don’t – they just don’t show it.

JEG August 26, 2016 - 10:17 am

There is a belief that the MTA fails to inform the public about the proper uses of the emergency brake because it would lead to legal liability, however, I skeptical of that belief. Currently, the MTA is on notice that riders are highly misinformed about the proper use of the emergency brake, and are further on notice that the emergency brake is likely to be used by a member of the public at a time when the train is between stations, making the train inaccessible to emergency workers. Consequently, the MTA is aware that a member of the public needing emergency assistant could, due to a well-meaning rider, be trapped in a tunnel far from emergency workers. That doesn’t sound like a strategy to avoid liability. Of course, I’m not sure what legal shields to liability the MTA might otherwise have.

Bgriff August 26, 2016 - 10:50 am

Most cars do have a placard as shown in the linked page saying don’t pull the brake for a few listed situations so the MTA kinda does communicate it. But rarely do they say (and your article doesn’t even say!) the reason which you would pull it, which is if someone is caught in a door and getting dragged by the train, or possibly if a parent and child are separated between train and platform.

Benjamin Kabak August 26, 2016 - 10:54 am

Second-to-last paragraph! It’s not quite as direct, but that’s the MTA’s official take.

Brooklynite August 26, 2016 - 11:04 am

The newer cars fixed this problem – when the train is moving, pulling the emergency lever won’t stop the train. On the older equipment, even a sticker like “unless stopping the train immediately is the solution, don’tpull the cord” would do the job. Of course, panicking people will ignore that too…

nb8 August 26, 2016 - 11:17 am

Will the new subway cars have an easier way to reset the brakes after someone pulls the emergency cord? There should be a simple button the train operator/conductor can press to let the train start moving again.

mfs August 26, 2016 - 11:38 am

This is such a clear design failure. It’s a big red handle- why wouldn’t you pull it in an emergency? Also, why wouldn’t you have a sign next to it that explains that it stops the train in an emergency in several languages?

SEAN August 26, 2016 - 3:55 pm

The best answer I can think of comes from the 1999 film “Men in Black.” Watch & you’ll understand.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAXKzJzHSGg&w=560&h=315%5D

Chris C August 26, 2016 - 2:37 pm

most trains (including the tube) in the UK have signs that say only to pull them once part of the train is in a platform ‘where assistance may more easily be given’

A solution could be to remove the connection between the emergency cord / handle and the brakes and instead link it to an alarm in the driverand condictor cabs who can then stop at the next station (even if not scheduled. The driver / condictor could then make an announcement about what is goign to happen.

Ed P from Victoria BC August 26, 2016 - 4:15 pm

Why on earth is there an emergency brake in the first place? It’s hard to fathom a circumstance that would justify its use that the train crew sould not also be aware of.

In Vancouver, their fully automated trains have no emergency brake, so there’s nothing the train passengers can do except use the intercom or alarm strip. To my knowledge, the lack of emergency brake hasn’t caused any issues. To be sure, Vancouver has a lot more CCTV surveillance of platforms and tracks than New York.

TimK August 26, 2016 - 4:25 pm

In 2003, in Stockholm (where I was living and working as a train operator at the time), your (and Vancouver’s) mentality killed somebody.

A train stopped at Rådmansgatan northbound. That platform is curved, so the T/O has to spot the rear portion of the train on CCTV.

A man exited the train and stopped immediately outside the doors. When the doors closed, they closed on his coat. The T/O could not see this in the CCTV display (its resolution isn’t high enough).

As the train was departing, dragging the man, passengers on the train realized what was happening and used the intercom to contact the T/O. By the time the T/O had realized the situation and stopped the train, the man had already been dragged to his death.

I was in Stockholm last month for a visit, and the advice that was added to the scrolling displays on the newer rolling stock at the time (“If someone gets caught, pull the emergency brake”) is still there.

Eric August 27, 2016 - 3:50 pm

So the emergency brake should prevent acceleration, but not force deceleration?

TimK August 29, 2016 - 6:17 pm


Max Roberte August 26, 2016 - 4:53 pm

Two levers; emergency alert; emergency brake. Too confusing? Might get people thinking, and more importantly, get them used to the options.

Alan Miles August 28, 2016 - 12:02 am

I think emergency brake is pretty straightforward. It means you pull it if you need the train to stop. It used to be called “emergency cord” which was truly confusing since that sounds like an alarm not a brake. I don;t know why anyone would pull a brake unless they wanted to stop the train for some reason.

SteveB August 29, 2016 - 3:07 pm

Really, why does the MTA have to do more? Or are people just stupid? As you say, it’s labeled an Emergency BRAKE. Do people really not know that a brake stops the train? How hard is it to understand that you only pull the brake when you want to STOP THE TRAIN! P.S., decades ago, it was only labeled “Emergency.” Now that was misleading.


Leave a Comment