Doors, man’s greatest Invention, may save us yet again
By Isabel Latina-Brown
After months of squabbling, meetings, and horror-story headlines, the MTA has decided to “explore” the idea of installing sliding doors and motion sensors along selected subway platforms in the NYC transit system. Currently, the AirTrain at JFK is equipped with a similar design, as are the considerably older metro systems of Paris, London, and Moscow. Until the train pulls into a station, the doors seal off any access to the tracks from the platform.
Train-related deaths have risen consistently in the past 3 years, peaking at 55 in 2012–and while the majority are suicides, drunken tragedies, and shoving incidents, they remain an increasingly visible problem. The notoriety generated this winter after two men from Queens were thrown to their deaths by strangers, however, sparked uncommon urgency from the city agency. In January, the publication of its latest “Customer Contact Train Incident Report” suggested that sliding doors may be a potential pilot project. Thomas Prendergast, acting executive director of the MTA, addressed the prohibitive cost of outfitting all 431 stations with doors following a meeting on January 21: “If you look at it in terms of order of magnitude costs and what it would compete against in terms of other safety improvements, it’s a difficult argument…what we know we can do is we can focus efforts right now on trying to change customer behavior, and that’s what we’re doing.” Indeed, the projected $1.5 billion cost of the full project is astronomical by any token. And while some of the alternatives appear rather unrealistic, a few ideas drafted by the system might just take root. The need for an efficiently functioning system, Prendergast had noted last year, had finally outweighed the delays. He conceded, “The entire functioning of the Lexington Avenue line depends on smooth boarding at Grand Central Terminal…Cutting down or eliminating platform accidents would help us greatly.” So fear not! There are other options:
The silly: Because drunks, invincible teenagers, and homicidal maniacs tend not to read those “Don’t Be A Statistic” posters plastered on most trains, there’s a simpler approach to public safety PR. One MTA idea suggested producing 2,500 lapel pins for transit workers to wear reading “Stay away from the platform edge.” This, from an agency which ostensibly is too broke to conduct preliminary surveys of stations for actual safety improvements. The shamelessly Manhattan-centric: by 2014, 100 stations will have “Help Points” where riders can report emergencies and contact authorities. Don’t hold your breath, anyone living north of 125th Street.
The reasonable: Our Friend Science has created “intrusion technology,” a cheaper option in which sensors placed in the tunnels well before a train reaches a station could detect anything larger than a rat (some contest) moving farther down the tracks, and alert the conductor and authorities from there. Depending on the distance the sensor could reach, a conductor would at least have time to honk and slow down, granting the victim precious added seconds to escape. It’s not perfectly preventative, but would nevertheless be a fine improvement. The timing and distance-sensing abilities of these motion detectors have yet to be fine-tuned, but testing them out in stations has been discussed for this year.
When it comes down to it, any tactic that could cut even a few of these ill-timed deaths would be a significant help. Perhaps a hybrid of sliding doors in high-volume stations, where crowding alone poses a significant risk, with the cheaper-yet-effective motion sensors in all others, could afford the MTA and its millions of customers a small sigh of relief. Financially and emotionally, the tolls of these accidents cut far deeper than even the sensational Post headlines portray; an initial investment in doors and sensors could pay off in enormously varied long-term benefits. For each of the 147 total train accidents in last year, the city had to pay first responders and for the mental health leave of train conductors who witnessed the accident–many of whom, understandably, are traumatized by it for months and years to come. In addition, commuters lose time at work when their trains are delayed for an hour. Beyond that, of course, the families and friends of accident victims are burdened the most. As the hours and traumas pile higher each year, investing in legitimate safety mechanisms appears to be the wisest choice for creating a measurable difference. Let’s just hope the bureaucrats make it.