train
An MTA train operator express his feelings about the job as a whole. Is he right?

Hello, I am a train operator for the New York City subway. I am writing to inform you of the way things are going on here at the MTA and how it impacts customer safety. The MTA likes to drill it in our heads about how safety is the number one priority down here, but if it means slowing down service or costing them money, they won’t do it.

There is a major culture of rushing down here and it’s detrimental to the safety of our passengers. We have two types of supervision. First we have the train service supervisors (TSS), who for the most part are assigned to make sure we do things safe and by the book. Every time we see a TSS they’re giving us another scenario in which we should operate slower and safer.

TSSs are also the ones who train us when we first get promoted or hired to the position of train operator. Every day of training they stress so much to take our time, be safe, and that rushing leads to mistakes. On the other hand you have the dispatchers who it seems are only worried about keeping the railroad moving, with little regard to safety.

They’re the ones harassing us about where we “lost our time” (MTA lingo for “why are you late?”), rushing us while we’re making sure no one is on the train before it goes to storage, rushing us in the yards while we’re doing our pre-trip checks to assure that trains are safe for passenger service, and rushing us at the terminal to leave before we can complete our 2-minute cab safety and standing brake tests just so another train can come into the terminal.

There is a huge discrepancy between what we are told by the 2 levels of supervision and it is a major conflict. In 2015, 172 people were hit by trains in the New York City subway system, and 50 of them died. I believe there are a few main problems that dramatically decrease safety conditions down here. In this letter I will specify what they are and provide solutions to reduce the amount of people being killed or maimed by subway trains, and reduce the amount of safety incidents on the railroad.

I would say that the first main problem is that the runtimes to get from terminal to terminal are way too short. If you operate according to rule by its strictest (and safest) interpretation, you will be late on every trip at least 5 to 10 minutes, and that’s without any train traffic. While supervision and management tell us it’s OK to be late, they implicitly incentivize rushing for all train operators.

What I mean by implicitly incentivize is, those of us who rush to get from terminal to terminal are rewarded with (slightly) longer breaks and are not subjected to harassment from dispatchers.

  1.  Supervision tells us how important making safe and proper station stops is, but if you come into stations slowly you will automatically be 5 to 10 minutes late, depending on the length of the route. Generally we come into stations at maximum speed unless there is a speed restriction prior to the station, and as a result there have been thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths caused by subway trains and only 35% of them were suicides (http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-subway-train-deaths-decrease-2013-mta-article-1.1562928). A passenger being struck by a train has become a weekly, if not daily occurrence down here. The union has advised us to come into stations slow but if we did that at every station we would be surely written up for delaying service. Management’s position is that the overcrowding of stations would lead people to fall off the platforms and onto the tracks. But if we’re all coming into the stations at a proper speed, I don’t see a situation where a train operator wouldn’t have time to stop a train only going 20mph or so, even with the overcrowding. They also say that they plan to install a track intrusion system to detect and warn train operators of someone on the tracks, but the installation of these signals systemwide to all 469 stations will take decades; years at best. The system is currently up and running at a total of one (1) station. If we are late more than 5 minutes we are asked why. If we tell them it’s because we are operating safely, they will send train service supervisors on our train to find out why we’re not “operating efficiently”.
  2.  While at stations, trains need to hold a certain amount of brake so as not to roll backward or forward with the passenger doors open, depending on which way the grade is. But unfortunately every station is different and it’s impossible to know what that magic number (in pounds per square inch) is. The union has advised us to hold full brake at all stations until it is safe to leave (passenger doors are closed and locked), but releasing a full brake adds a good 5 seconds to every station, which again would surely lead to a write up.
  3. The brakes on a lot of the SMEE equipment are not that good and are very unpredictable. When you try to report it, they harass you and tell you to just “adjust your operation”. However, if you adjust too much it’s “where did you lose your time?” again, and if you don’t adjust enough and hit a red signal or overrun a station platform (both of which they consider very serious safety violations) they write you up. It’s a very bad situation for the train operator to be in. Another issue is our breaks.

The schedules are so tight that if you are late on your first trip, it’s likely to negatively affect your schedule for the entire day. On average our breaks are about 20 minutes on paper. But if you get to the terminal about 7 minutes late, then have to key open the doors for the passengers on the way to the break room, use the restroom for about 3 minutes, then have to be back on the train for your 2 minute safety pre-check, your actual rest time was about 5 minutes, which by the way wasn’t very relaxing because you had to look at your watch the whole time.

If it’s your trip before lunch and you arrive late, they still expect you to do your next trip regardless of whether you got your entire 40 minutes or if you only got 10 minutes. They have this thing called a “no lunch” (is that legal for hourly employees?) which doesn’t require dispatchers to make sure you have enough time to eat as long as they pay you for it. As hard as it is to maintain schedule when things go right, they almost never do. Trains become delayed many times, especially on weekends and nights, due to necessary track work.

When workers are on the tracks we are required to go through the work zone at 10 mph or less through the work area. You would expect that management give us more runtime for these runs, and many times they do. But more often than not even though they add minutes to the runtime, they still expect you to make the same amount of trips that day, thus only shortening your already short breaks!

Other main reasons for delays include passengers holding doors to get on the train, sick passengers, mechanical issues on the train, broken rails, switch and signal problems, and regular train traffic (trains crossing over from other tracks in front of your train). Anyone with automatic e-mail alerts from the MTA will tell you that these things occur all the time.

When the railroad is especially messed up, we won’t even leave the terminal on time. We will leave 1,2, and sometimes 3 trips behind schedule, but when we get to the other end we still have to leave at our scheduled time, meaning no break at all. The schedules weren’t always this tight. They need to be greatly improved.

Many terminals, if any, do not have “fall back crews”, meaning crews that can be used when the railroad is messed up to give the regular crews a break (especially lunch). I encourage you to sit in terminals and observe how disgusting the crews are treated, and if possible, ride up front with some train operators to see the daily mess that goes on around here and how hard it is to operate according to rule and make schedule. I believe the rushing culture here needs to stop and runtimes for all routes (excluding shuttles) should be extended 10 to 20 minutes depending on the length of the route.

The second main problem is operator fatigue. This is yet another area where the MTA places all the responsibility on us, yet does nothing else to help the problem, and then wonders why safety incidents are up. We are drilled all the time to get sufficient rest, but then they only mandate 8 hours in between jobs for most train operators, 10 hours for those on the extra list, and 12 hours for the floaters just coming in (we call them “extra extra”).

New York City is huge, and most terminals are on the farthest outskirts of their respective borough. We can be assigned to report on either end of the line and we are discouraged from using personal vehicles because we have harsh penalties for being late to work and will not be excused unless the delay to work occurred on the transit system. Many times we have to leave 2-2.5 hours before reporting time not only because the reporting location is very far away, but to give ourselves enough of a cushion to get there without being a minute late.

If you’re commuting 4-5 hours of the day and only have 12 hours between jobs, how can one possibly expect us to get the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night? Don’t people eat when they get home? Shower? Spend time with our families? Or God forbid, relax for an hour or 2? “Fatigue resulting from continuous physical or mental activity is characterized by a diminished capacity to do work and is accompanied by a subjective feeling of tiredness.

Fatigue may also result from inadequate rest, sleep loss, or nonstandard work schedules (e.g., working at night). Whatever its origin, fatigue has predictable effects, such as slowed reaction time, lapses of attention to critical details, errors of omission, compromised problem solving (Van-Griever and Meijman, 1987), reduced motivation, and decreased vigor for successful completion of required tasks (Gravenstein et al., 1990).

Thus, fatigue causes decreased productivity; tired workers accomplish less, especially if their tasks demand accuracy (Krueger, 1994; Rosa and Colligan, 1988)…A person who is not sleep deprived performs tasks more efficiently after prolonged wakefulness and can cope better with nonstandard work hours (nights or rotating shifts) than someone with a sleep deficit (Dinges et al., 1996). Individuals working nights and rotating shifts rarely obtain optimal amounts of quality sleep.

Their sleep is shorter, lighter, more fragmented, and less restorative than sleep at night (Knauth et al., 1980; Lavie et al., 1989; Walsh et al., 1981)…The lack of adequate rest periods between workshifts can also exacerbate fatigue. Sleep loss is likely to occur when there are only short durations between work shifts. Most adults require at least 6–8 hours sleep to function adequately at work (Krueger, 1994). The loss of even 2 hours of sleep affects waking performance and alertness the next day (Dinges et al., 1996). After 5 to 10 days of shortened sleep periods, the sleep debt (sleep loss) is significant enough to impair decision making, initiative, information integration, planning, and plan execution (Krueger, 1994).

The effects of sleep loss are insidious and until severe, usually are not recognized by the sleep-deprived individual (Dinges et al., 1996; Rosekind et al., 1999). Very short off-duty periods (i.e., 8 hours or less) do not allow for commuting time, recovery sleep, or time to take care of domestic responsibilities (Dinges et al., 1996; Rosa, 1995, 2001). Off-duty intervals ranging from 10 to 16 hours are either suggested or already mandated for many transportation workers (Dinges et al., 1996; Gander et al., 1991b; Mitler et al., 1997).

No amount of training, motivation, or professionalism will allow a person to overcome the performance deficits associated with fatigue, sleep loss, and the sleepiness associated with circadian variations in alertness (Dinges et al., 1996; Rosekind et al., 1995).” (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216189/). As stated on the National Institutes of Health website, transit agencies are already mandating 16 hours between jobs, so why not at the largest transit system in the country where many more lives are at stake? The quote also touches on our circadian rhythms.

The majority of us work either evenings or overnights and this only proves to compound the problem. “Since almost all physiological and behavioral functions are affected by circadian rhythms, the time of day when work occurs is important. Overall capacity for physical work is reduced at night (Cabri et al., 1988; Cohen and Muehl, 1977; Rosa, 2001; Wojtczak-Jaroszowa and Banaszkiewicz, 1974).

Reaction times, visual search, perceptual–motor tracking, and short term memory are worse at night than during the daytime (Folkard, 1996; Monk, 1990). On-the-job performance also deteriorates; for example, railroad signal and meter reading errors increase at night, minor errors occur more often in hospitals, and switchboard operators take longer to respond to phone calls (Monk et al., 1996).”

This is an extremely dangerous practice that the MTA has employed, and combined with our minuscule rest periods during the work day that I cited above, it’s rather amazing that nothing serious has happened down here since the disaster of Robert Ray on the number 4 train in 1991, who sped through a 10mph switch due to alcohol intoxication. “Laboratory studies have shown that moderate levels of prolonged wakefulness can produce performance impairments equivalent to or greater than levels of intoxication deemed unacceptable for driving, working, and/or operating dangerous equipment (Dawson and Reid, 1997; Lamond and Dawson, 1998)…

The combination of sustained wakefulness and working at night is particularly hazardous (Gold et al., 1992; Smith et al., 1994). When the Exxon Valdez ran aground around midnight on March 23, 1989, the third mate had been awake 18 hours and anticipated working several more hours (Alaska Oil Spill Commission, 2001). Although the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle occurred during the daytime, the decisions made the night before the launch by mission control staff have been cited as a major factor contributing to the explosion (Mitler et al., 1988).” Combine all this with the fact that the majority of our routes are through very dark tunnels and we are not allowed to listen to radio or music because they are considered a distraction, and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s happened before and unfortunately will happen again. I just hope that when it does, it is nowhere near the New York City subway system.

Lately the MTA has employed yet another dangerous strategy, filling jobs and trips with overtime. “Studies have shown that accident rates increase during overtime hours (Kogi, 1991; Schuster, 1985), with rates rising after 9 hours, doubling after 12 consecutive hours (Hanecke et al., 1998), and tripling by 16 consecutive hours of work (Akerstedt, 1994). Data from aircraft accident investigations of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) also show higher rates of error after 12 hours (NTSB, 1994a).

Finally, night shifts longer than 12 hours and day shifts longer than 16 hours have consistently been found to be associated with reduced productivity and more accidents (Rosa, 1995).” I don’t know the exact numbers, but we have been very short on train operators the past few months. While they are hiring a lot of us every month, many are not making it through the training program due to the new strict requirement that all applicants must now pass two (2) signals exams, both with a score of 100% in order to become a train operator. If you think it’s hard to get 8 hours of sleep after working an 8 hour job, imagine what it must be like after a 10 or 12 hour job. It’s not the train operator’s fault. If they offer it, you have to take it because the cost of living here is so high. We’re all just here to support ourselves and our families. It is also against MTA rules to sleep while on transit property. While this is a great rule while operating the train, it’s one of the dumbest in my opinion to enforce while on break. The benefits of napping have been widely recognized and are great. “BENEFITS:

  • Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%.
  • Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.
  • Scheduled napping has also been prescribed for those who are affected by narcolepsy.
  • Napping has psychological benefits. A nap can be a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation.

Most people are aware that driving while sleepy is extremely dangerous. Still, many drivers press on when they feel drowsy in spite of the risks, putting themselves and others in harm’s way. While getting a full night’s sleep before driving is the ideal, taking a short nap before driving can reduce a person’s risk of having a drowsy driving crash. Sleep experts also recommend that if you feel drowsy when driving, you should immediately pull over to a rest area, drink a caffeinated beverage and take a 20-minute nap.

Shift work , which means working a schedule that deviates from the typical “9 to 5” hours, may cause fatigue and performance impairments, especially for night shift workers. In a 2006 study, researchers at the Sleep Medicine and Research Center affiliated with St. John’s Mercy Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital in suburban St. Louis, MO, looked at the effectiveness of taking naps and consuming caffeine to cope with sleepiness during the night shift. They found that both naps and caffeine improved alertness and performance among night shift workers and that the combination of naps and caffeine had the most beneficial effect.

James K. Walsh, PhD, one of the researchers who conducted the study, explains, “Because of the body’s propensity for sleep at night, being alert and productive on the night shift can be challenging, even if you’ve had enough daytime sleep.” “Napping before work combined with consuming caffeine while on the job is an effective strategy for remaining alert on the night shift.”” (https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/napping)”

The MTA will argue that if train operators know they can sleep at work then they won’t make sure to get enough rest at home. But naps can be defined in three different ways, according to the Sleep Foundation link above:

“Planned napping (also called preparatory napping) involves taking a nap before you actually get sleepy. You may use this technique when you know that you will be up later than your normal bed time or as a mechanism to ward off getting tired earlier.

Emergency napping occurs when you are suddenly very tired and cannot continue with the activity you were originally engaged in. This type of nap can be used to combat drowsy driving or fatigue while using heavy and dangerous machinery.

Habitual napping is practiced when a person takes a nap at the same time each day. Young children may fall asleep at about the same time each afternoon or an adult might take a short nap after lunch each day.”

However, this would only be emergency napping between trips, which by definition is neither planned or habitual. It would only be done as needed. This rule against sleeping on transit property needs to be abolished immediately if the MTA expects us to believe they are actually taking safety seriously. I have heard that other transit agencies actually have special rooms designed for employees to take short naps while on their breaks. The MTA has completely dropped the ball on this one. To make matters worse, there are actually some jobs that not only are longer than 8 hours, but the last trip back to the home terminal begins after the job has completed 8 hours! I understand that we cannot simply leave the train and go home if we’re operating and our 8 hours is up, but to actually schedule a trip after the 8th hour has been completed is absolutely absurd and shows an utter disregard for the safety of our passengers.

The third main problem is depression. Employees in the field of public transportation suffer from the highest rates of depression in any field. “The highest rate of depression was found among those in the public transit system, such as bus drivers. They had a rate of 16.2 percent, with those working in real estate weren’t far behind with about a 15.5 percent rate…Previous research has found that the risk of clinical depression was strongest for those in careers that had the most job strain, defined as “high demand and low decision latitude.” That is, where the job requires a lot of effort and attention and very little decision-making or autonomy.” (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/12/22/most-depressing-jobs-bus-driving-real-estate-social-work/#.VWiHRPqBRcY.twitter) While the article at Psych Central concentrates on the basic aspects of working in public transportation, I believe that the MTA goes above and beyond to make the daily lives of it’s train operators a living nightmare, which would lead anyone into depression. Depression is a medical condition that can be treated with medication. While some train operators are being treated medically, many are not. I believe there are many, many things the MTA could do to treat us with a lot more dignity and respect.

-As mentioned above, dispatchers are not currently required to assure that we have adequate time for lunch. If this isn’t a violation of federal labor law, I highly suggest this problem be addressed as it causes New Yorkers to be transported on trains with operators who are not nourished and may be distracted by hunger.

-The discipline system is way too harsh. I agree that discipline needs to be meted out for major safety violations, but they threaten suspension for time and attendance violations and basically any minor rule violation, without warning. It’s gotten so bad that I believe train operators are being sent to labor relations merely for placing their train’s brakes in emergency. Train operators are in charge of the safety of their trains, yet the one thing they can do (stop the train immediately) to prevent a death or maiming, they are afraid to do because of the unreasonable punishments given out at labor relations. In a split second decision, I believe most train operators would rather just take a full brake and hope they don’t hit the person, rather than put the brakes in emergency because the horrors of labor relations are in the back of all our minds at all times while operating these trains. While the rule states that we must only call in “undesired” applications of the emergency brakes, the conductor won’t know if it was desired or not, and since his/her job is also on the line, they will call it in even if we don’t.

– By rule we are not allowed to sit on a train while commuting when a passenger is standing because of the “free rider” clause. This isn’t the 1990s anymore. We now carry about 6 million passengers a day. All trains now have standing passengers. We are told the reasoning behind this rule is because we have free passes into the transportation system and therefore must allow paying customers to sit. First of all, the fare does not guarantee paying customers a seat in any way, shape, or form. Second of all, high school students also receive free passes and have no such restrictions on seating. This is nothing but an attempt to make the lives of transit workers miserable.

-The MTA has created a department solely to look at employee social media accounts. This is a disgusting attack on privacy and though it may be necessary to see some things from a security standpoint (such as when an employee posted a rant calling for ISIS or al Qaeda to attack the subway in March 2015), having an entire department devoted to this is absolutely outrageous.

-Even though OSHA has ruled that employers must give workers an opportunity to use the toilet as needed, the rail control center keeps track of restroom breaks needed en route for the purpose of discipline and/or termination if the amount of breaks taken is deemed to be too many by the MTA.

– When you call out sick it is assumed you are lying and defrauding the system. They want to write you up if you have a pattern of sick leave instances. This sounds reasonable until you hear what they consider a pattern. 1 or 2 day instances, or taking the day before or after your regular days off (RDOs). So basically the only way you won’t get written up is if you happen to get sick on a Tuesday and take 3 days until Thursday (assuming a regular Monday through Friday work schedule).

– System Safety runs operational safety tests on us. One of these tests involves darkening a signal and seeing what the train operator does. By rule the train operator is to stop his/her train and report the dark signal. These are black signals in dark tunnels and we are expected to see one of these flying by at speeds upwards of 35mph, and be able to stop before it and report the signal number to the rail control center. This is nothing but a setup to take train operators out of service, take money out of our pockets, and advance the charges on our discipline progression.

– With all their talk about how important safety is, the MTA doesn’t even care about our safety. We walk on rail structures high above the streets of New York with the distance between rail ties large enough to fall through and in all types of slippery weather, yet with no harness or safety nets. We are required to walk over live 600 volt 3rd rails without any protection to keep us grounded other than our safety shoes, yet NYPD and FDNY will not conduct operations on the tracks until power is shut off in the area. If you’re storing a train underground you must safely get back to your work location without flagging protection, only a flashlight, where trains can come flying around corners at top speed leaving you with few options to clear up in time. Finally, what I consider to be the most outrageous one, when a passenger reports a suspicious bag or a crime taking place on the train, rail control center will advise the train operator to go and check out the situation. Usually it’s nothing but one day a bag may blow up on someone or someone may get shot or killed in an armed robbery on the subway, all because control center didn’t want to slow down service to wait for police to arrive.

I understand you are a safety board and these issues need to be dealt with by the union and management. However they are not and someone needs to bring these things up if you are going to battle the depression issue among our workforce. Depression is tied deeply to safety. “Beyond productivity issues, studies suggest that depressed workers may be more prone to accidents. Stephen Heidel, M.D., MBA, an occupational psychiatrist in San Diego, notes a lack of concentration, fatigue, failing memory and slow reaction time as reasons that workers who are depressed may not work safely. If you’re a word processor, you’ll just turn out fewer documents, but if you’re operating machinery, you could lose a finger,” says Heidel, president and chief executive officer of Integrated Insights, a firm that offers behavioral health services and employee assistance programs (EAPs). “If you address [depression] problems, accident rates go down.”” (http://ehstoday.com/news/ehs_imp_35375). This problem is only getting worse as the MTA gets more and more strict with the way they want to run the railroad these days. It needs to stop, and it needs to stop now, if not for us then for the safety of our passengers.

We also have a few safety issues with the R46 class of subway cars. On all 75 foot equipment we are required to lock all end doors to prevent passengers from walking from car to car because the gap between cars is too large to walk across safely. However the locks on the end doors are not strong enough. Anyone with a very strong grip can open the end doors without a key on many of these cars when they’re locked. We have had many instances where people have been injured and killed by walking between cars and falling through on equipment that has been deemed safe enough to leave the end doors unlocked (cars that are less than 75 feet in length), so imagine how bad things will go when people realize they can essentially just rip the doors open themselves on 75 ft cars.

Another problem with the R46 is that in the operating cab you have a very distracting glare from the window that divides the train operator from the public. This window is supposed to be opaque so as no light can get through to distract the operator, but I would say that in more than 75% of the cabs, you have a very distracting glare coming in. This also holds true for R68, R68A, R143, and R160 car classes. We are not allowed to cover up these windows with newspaper or anything else, so these windows should be blackened out until the glare is completely eliminated.

The third problem with the R46 is actually a conductor problem. All subway cars are equipped with a buzzer system for quick communication between the train operator and the conductor. Conductors are required to open the doors on either the left side or the right side of the train, depending on which side the platform is on. If there is a passenger caught in the doors, the conductor will send a buzzer signal to the train operator, telling him/her not to move the train. However on the R46 there is only a buzzer on one side of the cab. If the conductor has the doors open on the left side and needs to signal to the train operator, he/she must run over to the opposite side of the cab to buzz the train operator. This is a major design flaw which needs to be addressed.

We have a very flawed signal system. We as train operators are guided solely by the signals ahead of us. There are many curves in the system so our range of vision isn’t usually that high underground. We depend on conventional railroad signals (similar to traffic lights on the road) and miscellaneous signs to guide us through the system. Many miscellaneous signs are very dirty or are not well lit in the dark tunnels (including station car markers in stations, despite the fact that the stations are well lit). Outside, some signs are covered by tress and bushes, especially in the spring and summer months. When the sun goes down many signs are very difficult to see because they are not lit as they are underground. As for the conventional signals, underground many are being covered up by track workers with their banker lights. This becomes very problematic when you think the last signal you passed was green (proceed) and there’s a train right in front of you; there is potential for a collision there. The banker lights are also a problem when they are turned on because they are very distracting to the train operator due to their brightness, and should only be on when people are doing work on the tracks anyway. On the outdoor tracks, some signals are very hard to see when the sun is shining directly onto them. Even when the sun isn’t directly on the signal, the aspects (colors) of the signals still don’t pop out as well as they do underground and sometimes have to be very close to be seen. Again, if you can’t see a signal and you’re going too fast, it may result in a collision if you can’t stop the train in time.

We also have signals that don’t operate as designed. There are signals that are timed (yellow over illuminated ‘S’) so that if you pass them at a certain speed, they are supposed to turn green, to ensure that the train operator goes slow through a curve or downgrade. But some of them never clear and the train operator is left guessing as to whether or not the next signal is clear. There are other signals that are timed as well, that should be displayed as red over lunar white but are only displaying red. These signals may not directly lead to a collision but any time a train operator has to guess the condition of the track in front of him/her, it is not the safest thing in the world. Then there are timed areas that are just simply not designated as such, and the train operator, if new, won’t know until they have reached the first timed signal at an unsafe speed. Miscellaneous signs are also being misused, namely the “S” station car marker, which is supposed to tell the train operator to stop his or her train of any length at this sign for a proper station stop. However it is sometimes used in conjunction with the 4,6, and 8 car markers, which only leads to confusion.

The entering signal at many stations is being misused. For some stations it will be yellow and at some it will be green. A yellow signal is supposed to signify that there is a red signal behind it, however the MTA uses it at some stations to signify that you have to make a station stop. Of course we know to make a station stop, that is the whole point of transportation; to allow passengers on and off the trains. This yellow at the entering end of the station tells us nothing whatsoever about the condition of the road ahead of us and is not even consistent since many entering signals are green also. All entering signals should be green when conditions allow (no train ahead), otherwise the train operator has no idea if the yellow entering signal is because a train is ahead or because he/she has to make a station stop. If the train operator assumes it’s for a station stop when there really is a train ahead, there could be disastrous consequences.

We also have a very flawed radio communication system. There are many dead spots in the system. We had an incident a while back where a train operator was told something by the rail control center and she didn’t hear it. As a result, she took her train in the reverse direction when she wasn’t supposed to, and was headed in a collision course with an oncoming train. To make a long story short, had she heard the message, she would have known that this move required first going into a relay track before changing ends and then going in the reverse direction. We have recently changed over our radio frequencies from wide band to narrow band. I’m not technologically astute enough to know if this will help our situation; only time will tell. Another problem we have with the radio is the rail control center insisting on “radio checks” at every station. Sometimes at the beginning of their shift, the rail control center dispatchers will get on the radio and ask a particular train operator to give radio checks at every station for a good portion of the route. This is very distracting, as this has also caused a deadly accident on Amtrak in 2015. The locomotive engineer was found to have been distracted by radio transmission and losing his “situational awareness”, which caused his train to derail at a speed of over twice the limit for the area, killing 8 people and injuring over 200. Not only is talking on the radio distracting, but on certain equipment the master controller is separate from the brake handle, meaning we must operate with both hands. When we talk on the radio while operating, we must let go of the brake handle to operate the radio, meaning less reaction time if we have to make a sudden stop!

Last but not least, I came across another conductor issue, while online. Here is the main part of it:

“Stations that are curved, have blind spots and or the ones that may experience heavy ridership, cctv’s are very important.  In most cases, they serve as the only line of sight for conductors. When the CCTV’S are not operating at their optimal potential, it presents a definite safety hazard. In order to provide the best and safest possible service, these screens need to have the best clarity and positioning.

When you are being considered to be hired by Transit especially in a safety sensitive position, you are throughly examined to make sure you are first fit for the job. Your heart, ears and eyes are checked and must pass a certain criteria in order to get hired or you will be placed on a medical hold. With the cctv’s acting as a primary/secondary line of vision for crews, depending on the station type, the screens should be held to the same criteria as the employees when they are first screened.

CCTV ISSUES

  • Light glare from the sun and station lights which can make screens difficult to view.
  • Poor quality screens and cameras.
  • Screens that are not fit for every car class. For example… North bound on the “C” train at 125th street 2 track, the cctv’s line up perfectly for the train car class 32, but not for the train car class 68 used on the “Bravo”.
  • Conductor indication boards blocking screens.
  • Screens that flicker and go in and out.
  • Split screens.
  • Camera’s out of position due to the being moved or tampered with.

 

CCTV’s are capable of preventing drags, people getting hit with doors, train surfing and many other dangers that conductors may encounter on any given day in the subway system.  When these type of incidents happen and a passenger gets injured, the first person who is held responsible is the train crew, no exceptions asked.” (sic) (https://progressiveaction.info/2016/06/24/how-much-does-the-mta-really-care-about-passenger-safety-just-take-a-look-at-the-nearest-cctv-monitor-to-find-out-why-your-rto-union-reps-should-ultimately-be-held-responsible/). We recently had a passenger dragged to his death at a curved station in Queens. I’m not sure if the CCTV issue had anything to do with it, but I wouldn’t doubt it. While on the topic of drags, though the conductor must observe the platform for 75 feet as the train pulls out of the station to ensure no one is being dragged, a train operator operating in One Person Train Operation (OPTO) is not required to do so because it is impossible to both operate and observe the platform at the same time. We have also had a number of incidents recently where a train operator operating in OPTO has opened the passenger doors on the wrong side (no platform). This is highly unlikely to happen in a two-person operation because when the conductor opens the doors, he or she must first be “enabled” on the correct side by the train operator. If safety actually was the MTA’s number one priority, wouldn’t they forgo the cost savings of OPTO and provide conductors on all trains?

In conclusion, I think a number of recommendations need to be made to the MTA to make the subways safer:

1. Dispatchers need to be written up when they are found to be rushing a train operator through his/her duties (safety inspections, making sure nobody is on a train going to storage, operating safely on the main line, etc.). We actually have terminals where the dispatchers will not allow the train operator to fulfill his/her mandatory duties to walk through the train and make sure no one is still on it before it goes to storage. They will have someone look into your train as it’s leaving the station to make sure no one is left on the train, but you can’t always see people in the corner seats who are slouching, laying down, hiding under the seats, etc. unless you physically walk through the train yourself. Others will allow you to walk through but rush you over the radio, all in the name of “making service”. To have one group of supervision (TSSs) always telling you to take your time and another group (dispatchers) always rushing you is highly disingenuous. Also, a bulletin needs to be put out requiring dispatchers to ensure that crews get at least 30 minutes for lunch. I have read New York State’s requirement, and the paragraph regarding lunch in our contract, and while it says we are to be paid 30 minutes if we don’t get at least 20 minutes for lunch between our 3rd and 6th hour, it says nothing to take away our guarantee of lunch some time during the work day. Right now dispatchers are treating the wording of the rule to mean that if we get paid a “no lunch”, we must eat no lunch. This appears to be incorrect.

2. All one-way trips need an additional 10-20 minutes of runtime added to them (depending on the length of the route)  to ensure safe operation into stations, thus eliminating hundreds of needless deaths and serious injuries of people who are either pushed, drunk or dizzy and fall to the roadbed, or those who went to the roadbed voluntarily to pick up a dropped item such as a cell phone. Cellular phones have become such an integral part of life these days and that, coupled with the enormous expense of most of these devices will always give people the incentive to take that risk to go down to the roadbed and try to retrieve it themselves. Unfortunately the suicides will likely still occur. The speed limit I would suggest entering all stations would be 20mph, as I feel one has enough control of the train at that speed to be able to make a quick enough stop to prevent a tragedy. This speed limit however, would have to be enforced strictly by supervision at random locations. The way it’s done now, everybody knows where they do the radar checks so it’s not very effective at deterring speeding. The additional runtime would also be needed to allow all SMEE equipment to hold a full break at all stations to prevent trains from rolling back while the passenger doors are still open. An additional 20 minutes to one’s commute won’t kill anybody, but the status quo actually will continue to kill people. Runtimes should be determined by how long it takes to operate from terminal to terminal according to rule, not by how fast one could make the trip despite the rules. I am under the impression that it is currently done by the latter procedure. They worry about trains coming in too early if the runtime is too long, but who cares? It’s better than having super tight schedules and operators rushing all the time. I believe the tight schedules are proof that the MTA cares very little, if at all, about passenger safety, as they place all these rules on us but then don’t give realistic timetables to actually operate safely.

3. Extend the amount of hours required between jobs for all train operators to 16 hours (from 8-12), reduce the maximum allowed hours worked in a day to 12 hours (from 16), and eliminate the rule prohibiting employees from sleeping on transit property (during breaks only, and not on trains), due to the overwhelming amount of evidence that links fatigue to accidents. People who work typical “9 to 5” jobs get 16 hours between shifts and they have nowhere near the responsibility as we do.

4. As for the depression issue there really isn’t anything you can do as a transportation agency. They run this place like it’s the military with no regard for their employees as human beings and other agencies will have to be involved to change this. If you could begin a dialogue with the MTA about this, it would be a great move in the right direction. However, one safety related issue-train operators being allowed to put their brakes in emergency without fear of being disciplined-could be resolved immediately, with a bulletin telling conductors that they don’t have to call in all instances of a train with brakes in emergency, just the undesired ones. Train operators must NOT be afraid to place the brakes in emergency, as that is a MAJOR safety mechanism of the train which can save the lives of hundreds who go onto the roadbed unauthorized. Another issue that could be resolved immediately is the inspection of suspicious packages on our trains. A new bulletin has been issued stating that we are to move away from any suspicious package and the train must be evacuated immediately. However I don’t believe the console dispatchers at Rail Control are going to obey this, as this will “delay service” in their eyes. Again, dispatchers must be punished swiftly and severely for obstruction train crews from fulfilling their duties to ensure a safe ride for everyone.

5. The R46 subway cars need a few tweaks to ensure that they are operating at maximum safety.

6. The signal system needs a major overhaul and it shouldn’t be our responsibility as train operators to write up every signal that needs to be fixed. Our schedules are tight enough as it is, and to stop and record every deficiency in the system would be overwhelming to say the least.

7. The radio system also needs a major overhaul and the constant “radio checks” at every station need to be stopped.

8. The elimination of One Person Train Operation (OPTO), restoring conductors to all trains.

Yes, money will have to be spent and trips will have to be missed. It happens on the airlines and commuter railroads when crews don’t have sufficient rest. I think things will be OK if the MTA misses a few trips. If they are as serious about safety as they claim to be, they will comply.

As this is a whistle blowing letter, I do wish to remain anonymous to my employer. As noted above, this is a very hostile work environment and I do not need to make any enemies at my place of employment. These people are very vindictive and will likely attempt to retaliate in some way, shape or form and will try to make things unnecessarily difficult for me throughout my career wherever the whistle blower protections may not apply. Thank you for reading this letter. I do hope you take these matters very seriously. I am sending this letter to the FTA Office of System Safety, the FTA regional office in New York, the NTSB and New York’s PTSB as I am not sure who directly deals with the MTA. We’re getting so many new train operators and someone is bound to make a mistake sooner or later. Whether it be a train operator opening the doors on the wrong side again and people falling to their deaths-or a passenger being hit and killed after being pushed by a deranged person again-or someone being left on a train in a storage yard overnight again, possibly during a major heat wave; I just hope that the media doesn’t have any reason to blame you for it because you ignored this letter.

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9 Comments »

  1. Finally someone tells the It like it is. I went trough all of that and was finally terminated wrongfully. With no recourse. The Feds need to come down and clean house !!

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  2. This is a good read and very true. Probably by someone who is ‘new’ because us old timers are so use to the abuse that it becomes the norm for us. I hope the culture does change down here because it is very hazardous in more ways than one. Like I said this is a good read that exposes the culture of NYCTA. My time is short but not short enough. When it’s time to leave for me I will not hesitate to escape it while I’m able. Thanks to the writer.

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  3. Not to mention, the mandatory union dues paid to an organization that does nothing for their members and the belief of the MTA that their train operators are not entitled to have any sort of live outside of work. Try requesting days off…there’s a billion hoops to jump through only to find out a day before that your request was denied. This MTA organization must be run by the most low level individuals with no education or common sense. Something definitely needs to be done because without the train operators, the MTA will not be making any money at all. Therefore they certainly need to be treated with respect.

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  4. Let’s not forget the no work avail for those who becomes sick( and that usually happens from working in nycta and in tunnels with asbestos and lord knows what else we breathing )because they didn’t come down here sick are being punished for becoming sick. Now they are being told they will be laid off. I mean there’s an employee with lupus who was denied disability wow. You can come to America didn’t pay into social security but get a check yet u pay into it and denied it wow. Also what people don’t know is that Mta keeps you on the books so if you need public assistance or disability insurance so they can help their families until they get better it’s a crime

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  5. Sorry hit enter before I finished my sentence like I was saying they can’t get no help for their families they are denied public assistance and disability cause Mta keeps them on the payroll but they are not getting a check cause they have them on out of work no pay status so they keep u on the payroll so you are denied other means of help getting a pay check that should be illegal. Let not get into the bathroom filthy nasty and only one toilet per ladies room and you have a lot of ladies so if the toilet is occupied we have no place else to relieve herself

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  6. This is a very well written and factual article! I was a Train operator for 22 years! Anyone the uses the subway as a passenger should take time to read this!
    Happily Retired

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