New Yorkers step up call for safer subways

NEW YORK — After the devastating attacks on London’s mass transit system earlier this month, New York City’s subway workers, riders and city officials have taken the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) to task for failing to create safe conditions for straphangers.

Critics charge that, while the city has made a show of placing police and military personnel with machine guns in major terminals, the MTA, which operates NYC’s trains and buses, has actually undermined rider safety by cutting back on essential personnel and services as part of its overall cost-cutting formula.

As the MTA has cut the number of personnel, fires and malfunctioning trains have become more frequent, sometimes leaving passengers stranded in locked trains for long periods of time.

The MTA has announced the closing of numerous token booths system-wide. While the authority says that there will be at least one booth open in each station and that there will be roving station attendants, critics charge that this makes riders less safe.

Michelle Flores, interviewed in the sprawling 71st-Continental station in Forest Hills, Queens, told the World that there was no possible way to keep the system safe with only a couple of people roaming around. “What if I can’t find them?” she asked.

An example of the system’s vulnerability occurred on Jan. 23, when two homeless people, attempting to keep themselves warm, accidentally set an unwatched relay station on fire. The fire ended up disrupting two train lines, which daily ferry over 500,000 commuters, for nine days.

A few months earlier, passengers on another train were stranded in a terrifying ordeal when a deranged person stood on the tracks, throwing debris onto the electrified third rail and causing a fire. The train was forced to stop in the tunnel, which filled with smoke. After the smoke made its way into the train, the 1,000 passengers onboard had to be evacuated.

“It comes down to who you have there,” said Chris, an MTA conductor, interviewed in Queens, who did not want to use his real name. “[The MTA] says they have no money, and have to cut workers … but we’re there on the scene — we’re the ones who run the subway, and who are first responders in many cases, who make sure that no one sets fire to control centers.”

The MTA recently announced plans to run the trains on the L line without a conductor. Generally, there are two MTA workers on each train, the conductor and the train operator. The conductor opens and closes the doors, while the operator is responsible for moving the train. The job-combination plan is experimental, although the MTA is pushing to make it the norm on all trains.

George McAnanama, a staff representative of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents MTA workers, said that the cutback on the L trains is potentially fatal, adding that past problems could have been much more dangerous had there not been MTA workers on hand. In a situation where the train operator is incapacitated, he said, there’d be nobody to help the passengers. “To me that’s horrific,” he said. “I can’t see how, without a conductor, that’s going to be effectively dealt with. It’s not going to be. There’d be casualties.”

McAnanama also points out that the MTA should have enough money to do what is needed, but squanders what it has. It has recently tried to sell off property to billionaire developers, who are friendly with the city’s Republican mayor, at prices hundreds of millions of dollars below market value.

In addition, according to City Council member John Liu, chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, the MTA has allocated $600 million for safety purposes but has used hardly any of it. According to Liu, money should be spent to “fire-proof and secure critical subway components such as the signal relay station that caught on fire and crippled the A and C lines for several weeks, as well as ventilation shafts, power distribution networks, and passenger communication systems.” He has also said that the MTA should abandon its plans to remove conductors from trains.