Platform Controllers Do Their Part to Fix the Subways–But More is Needed

I’m seeing more and more folks in the New York City subways wearing vests that say “Platform Controller.” The people who wear them carry flashlights to signal to the conductors when they can close the doors and sometimes they shout instructions to stand aside to let people off and not block the doors when people are trying to get on. They provide a sense of order to what often feels like chaos, especially during rush hour, but lately they seem to be the only strategy the MTA is applying to address the growing delays that are snarling travel.

On one level, it’s reassuring to be reminded that humans can step in when technology fails. But obviously a system that moves 6 million people a day needs more than a few people in smart vests to solve its problems. Cuomo recently declared a state of emergency in the subways, pledging $1 billion for improvements, but with subway delays jumping to more than 70,000 each month, from about 28,000 per month in 2012, the improvements can’t come fast enough.

 

 

Man on Tracks

The crowd is mesmerized by a man on the subway tracks.

Last night I, my husband and our friends had one of those strange yet eerily familiar moments that seem typical of life in New York City where drama unfolds unexpectedly in front of you and yet at (what feels like) a safe distance.

We’d just stepped onto the subway platform at 34th Street and Broadway when a woman ran to the emergency phone near us and began pressing the call button in a panic. Others began shouting at the clerk in her bulletproof booth, and the rest of the crowd was leaning over the edge of the platform, peering toward the far end of the tracks.

“What happened?” my husband asked the woman on the phone. “There’s a guy on the tracks,” she blurted, panting with panic. I assumed the man must have fallen or was pushed. My next thought was he might be suicidal. As we drifted with the crowd toward him, we realized he must be either drunk and/or mentally ill. Although dressed like an ordinary citizen of New York, only someone whose thinking was impaired would act as he did: as if he were simply going for a stroll on the narrow wooden platform over the deadly third rail.

People screamed when it appeared he might topple and some were offering their hands to help lift him back onto the platform. I wondered why the Transit Authority didn’t shut the power, although I imagined it was probably a complicated process. (A question for officials: shouldn’t a simple on-off switch be accessible in emergencies?) Others were mumbling “Where are the police? What’s taking them so long?” A local train and an express train pulled partly into the station, inching along until they came to full stops.

For 15 minutes, the man was the star of a scary show, the focus of the crowd’s collective panic, voyeurism and agitation. Of course, everyone was snapping pictures and taking video (myself included) which seemed both awful and like a perfectly natural thing to do. When the police finally arrived, I’m told (because I stopped looking, fearing the man’s dance on the 3rd rail could only end in tragedy) that they simply grabbed him and pulled him back onto the platform.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in this, but I’m not sure what it is. (That one man has the power to stop two trains?) At least I was happy that the police took decisive action and encouraged that the crowd, rather than demonstrate indifference, showed concern and offered to help, even as we took out our smart phones and documented this strange sad moment from many angles.