Subway platform barriers are being tested at 3 NYC stations

For years, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had resisted calls to install platform barriers, which are used on subway systems around the world to block access to tracks, citing the “particular complexity” such technology involves century-old system that wasn’t designed for it.

But on Wednesday, more than a month after a woman was pushed to death in front of a train at the Times Square subway station, transit officials reversed course and said they were moving to test such barriers.

While the pilot program will be limited to three stations, it includes some platforms at the Times Square station, one of the system’s busiest stations, and officials say it could lay the groundwork for eventual expansion elsewhere.

More than a quarter of the system’s stations have layouts that could accommodate platform barriers, according to analysis commissioned by the MTA, which operates the subway.

The announcement comes as many New Yorkers have worried about safety on the subway, where the rate of violent crime per million weekday riders has risen during the pandemic even as ridership has fallen, and where the number of people landing on the tracks, most of them on purpose, rises.

The subway system is seen as the city’s lifeblood and key to its economic recovery, and making passengers feel safe is crucial to lure back the millions of commuters who have yet to return to trains.

State and city officials have launched a sweeping plan to get homeless people sheltering on subways off trains and off platforms; Some of them have been accused of committing crimes and engaging in unruly behavior.

Installing the barriers, known as platform edge doors or platform screen doors, could be another step in restoring confidence. The program at the three stations will cost more than $100 million, said Janno Lieber, chairman and chief executive officer of the transportation agency.

The work probably won’t be completed until 2024, he added, “assuming we can sort out the financial issues and everything else,” such as technical challenges.

The safety gates that form a barrier blocking the track area from platforms until the trains arrive are Used in many newer subway systems, railway lines and stations in Europe and Asia, including London, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo. They are far less common in the United States, although they are used on some airport shuttle train systems, including the AirTrain at Kennedy International Airport.

A 2015 study that looked at whether platform screen doors in Japan discouraging people from walking on train tracks proved to be highly effective, particularly in preventing accidents.

Platform screen doors could also improve service because train operators wouldn’t have to slow down when approaching crowded platforms, and they could reduce debris on the tracks that can start fires and cause delays, said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at Urban Institute in the areas of transport and urban planning.

“It’s a win-win-win situation,” he said.

The addition of platform screen doors at the three stations – the #7 train platform at the Times Square station; the E Line platform at Sutphin Boulevard-Archer Avenue – JFK Airport station in Queens; and the Third Avenue station on the L line in Manhattan — would mark a marked change in a sprawling system of 472 stations where nothing separates riders from the tracks.

“I find it strange that the train is open the way it is,” said Roxann Valdes, 32, a paralegal who traveled on the 7 train from Manhattan to Queens on Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s safe. people might fall. People might push you.”

Although the Transport Authority has repeatedly investigated the implementation of barriers in recent years, previous executives have concluded that they were too expensive or that the technical requirements in aging stations made them unsuitable. In 2018, the transit authority postponed a similar pilot project also planned for the Third Avenue station on the L line, shifting the money to installing elevators.

As recently as last month, Mr. Lieber said that installing the doors was not feasible given the “special complexities” in the New York subway. However, as pressure mounted, he signaled openness to the idea, noting that he had formed a task force in December to address the surge in the number of people ending up on the tracks.

Last year, the transport authority reported 1,267 track incursions — that is, a person on the tracks — a 19 percent increase from 2019, even as subway ridership fell by more than half. In 200 of these incidents, people were hit by a train and 68 died.

Transit officials say most people on the tracks, including those hit by trains, chose to be there. Of the 200 collisions last year, about a quarter, or 47, involved suicide attempts.

Another significant number are people jumping off platforms to retrieve something they dropped. Others cross the tracks to get from one platform to another. Some are mentally ill people whose motives are unclear.

But the subway system has also seen an increase in people being pushed onto the tracks. According to the police department, 30 people were pushed onto the line in 2021, up from 20 in 2019 when ridership was far higher. The police had no information on how many shoves resulted in injuries or deaths.

Criminal offenses have also increased in the system: they increased by almost 25 percent last year compared to 2019.

The subway safety issue drew widespread attention after a 40-year-old woman, Michelle Alyssa Go, was pushed to death in front of a moving R train at Times Square station. A homeless man who confessed to pushing Ms Go has been charged with her murder, a shocking crime that prompted Mayor Eric Adams to step up police patrols in the system.

The mayor last week went a step further, announcing a subway safety plan focused on removing homeless people from the system and using social workers to connect them with mental health resources and other support services.

But Ms Go’s death also prompted calls from drivers and elected officials for a technical solution. Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine and 10 City Council members sent Mr. Lieber a letter urging him to install platform screen doors.

“It’s long overdue,” Mr Levine said on Wednesday. “We lag behind other cities around the world by decades. And I’m sorry that it took the tragic death of Michelle Go to make that better, but there’s no doubt that this was truly a game changer.”

Governor Kathy Hochul, who controls the MTA, supported the initiative, calling it an innovative approach to improving security.

The drivers also welcomed the news.

“I’ve seen a lot of attacks on passengers on the news,” said Rosa Velazquez, 40, who has a cleaning job and commutes from Queens to Manhattan every day. “I get scared when I’m standing at the bus stops and I don’t know if I’m going to get home safely or not.”

Last month, as calls for the doors grew louder, the Transport Authority released a detailed 3,900-page report from 2019, which found that the doors could only reasonably be installed at 128 stations due to the station layout, the design of the subway cars and the need for wheelchair access, leaving passengers unprotected at most stations in the system .

On Wednesday, Mr. Lieber acknowledged that technical challenges remain in most of the system. But he said he hoped testing the platform screen doors at three stations could help clear the way for others.

However, expanding the pilot project would pose significant financial and logistical challenges. The price of installing barriers at the 128 stations would be about $7 billion, according to the 2019 report.

Platform screen doors are just one tool available to deal with passengers who are knocked onto the tracks, fall or are trespassed on, transit officials said. The agency hopes the city’s increased police presence could help prevent some people from falling or jumping onto the tracks.

Another pilot program also installed cameras at the front of L trains to avoid collisions with drivers by giving train drivers more time to brake.

The agency is studying detection systems that could use heat or laser technology to signal when a person lands on the tracks.

It will also work with mental health experts on public service announcements and other methods to deter suicide attempts, and launch a new campaign to warn drivers of the dangers of the racetrack.

Andy Neuman contributed reporting.

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