Well over 500 city subway passengers spent a harrowing 90 minutes in train tunnels between stations the night of Aug. 29 when a Con Ed power outage, along with the failure of the MTA's communications system, left managers unable to locate dozens of stranded trains or provide information to those aboard them.
Some straphangers, in a serious breach of safety procedures, self-evacuated between stations onto the tracks, where the electrified third rail may still have been hot.
Case Against 1-Person Crews
Union leaders quickly asserted that the chaotic situation showed that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority needed at least two employees on all subway trains.
Police and firefighters responded while MTA workers walked the length of the stranded trains to inform riders that help was on the way. "It's very dangerous to step out on the tracks, and passengers have to follow the instructions of the train crews and shelter in place in the subway cars," said Deputy Fire Commissioner for Public Information Frank Dwyer.
No injuries were reported.
The outage affected the MTA's numbered lines, as well as the L train. Eighty-three trains were involved, with five stuck between stations.
Governor Hochul the following morning told reporters the confluence of events was "unprecedented."
"This ended up leading to evacuations in the tunnels and two of those evacuations were orderly and directed by the emergency personnel," she said. "In two other cases, the experience was what was known as self-evacuation, where riders decided to leave on their own. We never, ever want riders to do that. It is dangerous and it caused a delay in the restoration of power."
She added, "And I can only imagine how devastating this would have been for thousands of New Yorkers had this occurred during a morning commute like this morning. So, I'm immediately directing a review to find out the root cause of the service issues last night. We need to know why the system broke down and why there's a breakdown of communications between the rail center, the rail control center and the trains."
According to a timeline released by the MTA, Con Edison experienced "a power anomaly" at 8:25 p.m. Sunday that interrupted power to subway signals and communications that serve the MTA's numbered lines.
"An alert system that should have informed subway management of the failures did not provide alerts, resulting in those managers believing that systems were operating properly, when in fact batteries continued to energize the system for approximately 45 minutes," according to the MTA. "At 9:14 p.m. the batteries, which are not designed to provide long-term power, ran out, causing the major service interruption."
11 O'Clock Reprieve
It wasn't until around 11 p.m. that the rail communications center screens came back up, a prelude to resuming service. Ms. Hochul said those passengers who got off trains between stations slowed the resumption of service an additional 90 minutes, until 1:30 a.m.
At his press briefing later that morning, Mayor de Blasio emphasized the importance of subway riders taking instructions from MTA personnel in the event of an emergency
"The train crews are right there, Mr. de Blasio said. "Those are the first voices to listen to."
John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, said the simultaneous power and communications failures underscored the folly of MTA efforts to cut subway crews to one worker as part of the agency's drive to reduce costs using automation.
"The most important takeaway is that even with a two-person train crew in place the panic level was sufficient that riders self-evacuated into the hole, which is the most dangerous thing they possibly could do," he said during a phone interview. "There are those out there, possibly on that train, that just perpetually advocate for the elimination of the two- person train crew. More proof was never needed than this accidental power outage."
Added Peril for All
He warned that one-person train crews would result in the self-evacuation "absolutely becoming the norm" putting passengers, train crews, and first-responders at greater risk of serious injury.
"Every contract I have bargained with the MTA, which is several at this point, they wanted the elimination of the two-person crew," Mr. Samuelsen said. "Every single contract they push for an expansion of the areas in the system where it is permissible for them to have a one-person crew. They are seeking it right now. How ironic is that?"
"Transit workers did a great job during the emergency, demonstrating once again why you need a fully staffed system, and that includes having both a Conductor and a Train Operator on the train," Tony Utano, president of TWU Local 100, said in a statement. "You need all hands on deck during emergencies and we see once again why OPTO (One-Person-Train-Operation) would be a disaster."
Currently, OPTO is limited to the Times Square Shuttle, the G train late night and weekends, the Rockaway Park and Franklin Ave. shuttles, and the M line on weekends and the 5 line on midnights.
Eighteen months ago, Train Operator Garrett Goble, 36 died of injuries he sustained helping to evacuate passengers from his train in Harlem after an arsonist set a shopping cart ablaze. Police made an arrest nine months later.
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