Subway Collisions With People Are Up Nearly 25% Since 2018. Operator: ‘It Breaks You Down.’
‘We’re just waiting to see if it’s our turn to be the next to hit somebody,’ said one train operator.
A year to the day after he discovered the remains of two men on the subway tracks in Brooklyn, Jose Rodriguez returned to work Thursday to begin retraining for his eventual return to operating trains.
“The first couple of months were really tough mentally,” Rodriguez told THE CITY. “I could barely sleep, I could barely eat, I was withdrawn from my family and friends.
“It shook me to the core.”
Rodriguez’s April 20, 2022, discovery of French graffiti artists Julien Blanc and Pierre Audebert came during an early-morning trip along an elevated stretch of the No. 3 line in Brownsville — serving as a grim illustration of the uptick in incidents of people making contact with trains, a category that includes falls, collisions and suicides.
MTA numbers provided to THE CITY show 234 reported incidents in 2022 of people coming into contact with trains — up from 200 one year earlier — and a nearly 25% increase from 2018, when there were 189. In all, there were 88 fatalities and 1,364 instances of track trespassing last year.
“It breaks you down,” said Rodriguez, 46, who has worked as a train operator for six years after spending more than a dozen as a subway conductor. “It breaks you down, no matter how strong you think you are, how tough you might think you are.”
While MTA officials last month said that the number of track-trespassing incidents decreased 30% this winter from the previous one, they have also acknowledged that the 928 reports of subway surfing in 2022 nearly doubled from 2019.
According to the transit agency, in the first two months of this year, there were nearly twice as many reported cases of people riding outside of trains as in the same timeframe in 2022.
“These concerning, escalating and deadly trends [have] to stop,” said Shanifah Rieara, the MTA’s chief customer officer, at the agency’s March board meeting.
Transit officials outlined a series of steps being taken to cut down on track intrusions, and the potential for trains striking people.
They include testing platform barriers designed to make people in stations feel safe, using video analytics to help predict erratic and dangerous behavior on platforms, placing front-facing cameras on trains and installing track-intrusion detection systems that alert train crews and the rail control center when a person or object goes onto the tracks. The MTA also plans to begin testing platform doors at three stations next year, while acknowledging such pricey systems are not feasible at about 75% of the 472 subway stations.
“In the long term, that includes physical and technological interventions, improvements that we can make in our stations and in our system to help us manage this problem,” said Jamie Torres-Springer, president of MTA Construction and Development.
MTA officials said there have been some gains, citing statistics that show there were 329 track-trespassing incidents between December and February — down from 469 in the same months one year earlier.
A Transport Workers Union Local 100 leader told THE CITY the transit agency has been moving too slowly on a longstanding problem.
“This is a complex problem, but the MTA — under Chairman [Janno] Lieber and the many previous chairmen who came before him — has been addressing it with the speed of a stalled local train,” said John Chiarello, safety director and secretary-treasurer for TWU Local 100. “Meanwhile, tragic incidents of injury and death and the emotional trauma inflicted on subway train crews continue unabated, year after year after year.”
Chiarello pointed to a 2013 pilot program on the tracks at a Lower Manhattan station that used sensors, thermal imagery and track intrusion detection-and-alert technology, adding, “It’s about time the MTA picks up the pace.”
‘It Has an Effect’
Multiple train operators told THE CITY they regularly receive reports of trains coming into contact with a person on the tracks.
On Friday, April 14, within the space of a half hour, two people were struck by trains on different lines during the evening rush, according to internal alerts shared with THE CITY.
Shortly after 5:30 p.m., police said a 30-year-old woman was struck by a No. 1 train at the WTC-Cortlandt station in Manhattan. Just before 6 p.m., police said a 56-year-old man was found with his left arm severed at the Hoyt Street stop on the 2/3 line in Brooklyn.
“It’s horrifying,” said Stanley Lawson, a train operator for nine years. “To see the job turning into this, it’s awful.”
Lawson, 37, knows the trauma all too well. In February 2019, he was involved in his first “12-9” — the radio code for a person under a train — when the No. 3 train he was operating between 86th and 96th Streets in Manhattan struck a person on the tracks.
Lawson said he needed a little more than a year off to recover from the shock. The MTA’s collective bargaining agreement provides three days of paid leave for workers involved in fatalities, though employees can also file a worker’s compensation claim and remain out longer if needed.
In January 2021, THE CITY reported on a train operator who said he was left feeling “like a killer” after his train fatally struck two women at the same Upper West Side station in the same week.
“It has an effect,” Lawson told THE CITY. “Some of us are taking a year or more, some of us are not coming back to the job.
“We’re just waiting to see if it’s our turn to be the next to hit somebody,” he added.
As for Rodriguez, he said he’s eager to return to a job that he acknowledged “can make you question whether you want to continue.
“We’re human, we’re not just crews who love to operate trains,” he said. “But behind that is a family, friends, kids and when something like this happens, it’s absolutely devastating.”