The Difference Between Could and Would

The acquittal of a man who shoved another man to his death onto the subway tracks at a platform near Times Square in December 2012 has once again raised the question of what to do to prevent further incidents of this kind. Horrifying as it was, it was by no means isolated. In that same year, 2012, 139 people were hit by New York City trains, and 54 died. Some were pushed, some fell or jumped onto the tracks; some managed to climb out in time, some were rescued by courageous bystanders, some were not.

But in each instance, we ask the same question: Could these deaths and near-deaths have been prevented by the installation of new safety measures?

After a series of other fatal track incidents that followed the 2012 killing, the question of prevention was in fact raised. What happened?

The answer is, basically, nothing. The matter was looked into, and it was decided that while something could be done, nothing would be done.

It was acknowledged that a technical solution does exist. It’s called platform screen doors, which have been installed on at least some lines of the subways of London, Paris, Seoul, Shanghai and other cities. It’s rare in the U.S., but the AirTrain at JFK has it.

It’s not an advanced technology, either. Platform screen doors are glass walls between passengers and the tracks. When a train enters the station, it lines up with the glass doors, which open to let passengers in and out.

They are also said to offer significant amenities, such as quieter, more comfortable platform areas. Temperature control in the station is more viable when the area is sealed off from the tracks and becomes its own environment. Trains can vent into the tunnels without blasting hot air onto the platforms.

Another possibility is something called Intrusion Detection Technology (IDT). The MTA did experiments with lasers and thermal imaging to detect when large objects (like people) enter the tracks. The system alerts dispatchers, who can then slow or stop trains. The drawback is the need for lag time from the moment the intrusion occurs and the train pulls in; but theoretically it could save lives. It never got past the pilot phase, and there is little public information about its effectiveness.

The main proposal was for platform doors, though, and there we know what happened. The answer given by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is that a 110-year-old system like ours with 468 different stations and 10 different types of subway cars make retrofitting a difficult and costly affair.

True, around the world, it’s the new systems that usually are fitted with the safety doors, not the older ones. That doesn’t explain, however, why the MTA rejected the option for new lines like the Second Ave. subway and the No. 7 extension.

Cost is always a factor. Part of the answer may lie also in a comment from then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg after a death on the tracks in 2012: “I don’t know that there is a way to prevent things. There is always going to be somebody, a deranged person,” he said.

Statistically, the chances of anyone being directly involved in a track incident is small. There are, after all, approximately six million riders on the system in a given year. Most of us, fortunately, have never even witnessed such a thing.

But justifiable feelings of insecurity are not easily dispelled by statistics; and statistics won’t protect anyone from harm who finds himself alone on a subway platform.

The question hangs in the dim tunnel air, enters with us through the turnstiles, gnaws at the back of our minds, every time we stand on a New York City subway platform: What drunkard or psychopath might be lurking nearby, ready to commit the unthinkable for some imagined slight or for no reason whatsoever?

The truth is, New Yorkers don’t have to live with these fears day in and day out. We can reduce the danger, even if, as Mr. Bloomberg said, we can’t seal ourselves off completely from every harm doer.

But he was wrong about not knowing if there’s a means of prevention. There is a means. The MTA knows it too. But it’s saying that it’s just too hard and too costly.

Is that an adequate answer? It may be, in fact, that the safety measures implemented elsewhere are not practical for New York. But we are not convinced that that has been established. Solutions should be explored again, this time with a real resolve to improve the situation, for the safety and peace of mind of the millions of people who ride the subways of this city every day.

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