One reason that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority spends too much to run the subways may soon become harder to fix. The MTA’s agreement with the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway and bus workers, requires two employees on most subway trains: a driver and a conductor, who opens and closes the doors. Only the weekend G and M trains and a few shuttles use just a driver. The L and 7 trains are equipped for one-person train operation (OPTO) but have had conductors since 2005, when the MTA ended an OPTO experiment after losing an arbitration fight with the TWU.
In 2017, the MTA employed 3,155 train conductors and paid them wages and overtime totaling $176 million; including benefits, the tally comes to about $300 million. Transit activists have long argued that this money has better uses. TWU leaders, though, are promoting a bill that would make the MTA keep conductors on every train, and even restore them to current OPTO lines. Union leaders argue that conductors keep passengers safe. “Safety first!!” tweeted Michele Gilliam, TWU Local 100’s political director. Eric Loegel, who leads the union’s Rail Transit Operators division, chimed in, “A two[-]person crew on a subway train has proven itself over decades to be the safest[,] most effective way of running a train.” Tony Utano, TWU Local 100’s president, has argued that the subway needs conductors for “ensuring no one is caught between a train’s closing doors and dragged down a platform—not to mention evacuating riders in a critical emergency.” The bill even calls conductors “the front line defense to potentially save lives and limit casualties in the event of a terrorist attack.”
Subway conductors, though, are rare outside of New York City. Several busy subway lines in Tokyo—such as the Marunouchi Line, a 17-mile route with 2.2 million riders per day, almost half as many as the entire New York subway—operate with only a driver. The London Underground Washington Metro, Chicago L, and Boston T have no conductors. The Paris Métro operates without conductors and has completely automated two lines.
The safety benefits of conductors are also questionable. Conductors in New York do not always prevent passengers from being trapped in train doors: the last few years have seen several such accidents. Federal safety data, furthermore, do not show the New York subway to be consistently safer than OPTO systems. Since 2012, when the Boston subway was fully converted to OPTO, New York’s subway has averaged 1.54 injuries or deaths per 1 million passenger trips—better than Chicago’s rate of 2.20 casualties but worse than Boston’s (1.44) and Washington’s (1.36).
Conductors, who sit in opaque booths and see platforms only briefly, have limited ability to act proactively. The TWU’s Utano himself demonstrated this when he argued for keeping conductors by listing three who saved passengers’ lives. “Conductor Kevin Bartsch performed CPR on a rider who went into cardiac arrest, saving his life,” he wrote. “Conductor Warren Cox prevented a distraught woman, who was holding a child, from jumping in front of a train. Conductor Benjamin Schaeffer evacuated his train after a deranged man poured gasoline on the floor.” But two of the three conductors acted outside an on-board conductor’s official duties: Cox was stationed on a platform, not on a train, and Bartsch broke MTA rules that tell conductors—only 10 percent of whom have CPR training—to wait for paramedics rather than helping ill passengers themselves. Schaeffer, for his part, realized the danger only when passengers came up to tell him; he was lucky that the car doused with gasoline was close to him, rather than at the end of the train. If anything, their examples are an argument for giving conductors more useful roles.
If the TWU and the MTA cooperated on a move to an OPTO system, they could make the subway safer and more efficient without putting anyone out of work. As with token-booth clerks—whose jobs were made redundant through the introduction of farecards, and who became station-greeters or information agents—some conductors could become platform controllers or roving customer-service agents who assist ill passengers, or they could be trained to drive the additional trains that should come online as the outdated signal system is replaced. Inexpensive technology—such as closed-circuit television to let drivers monitor station platforms without opening the cab window and making themselves vulnerable to aggressive passengers—could then take over conductors’ roles.
Instead, TWU leaders are protecting a labor-wasting practice that the rest of the world has left behind. A statutory OPTO ban may return to haunt the TWU, should it ever decide, as it did briefly a decade ago, that it would accept OPTO in return for higher wages. An OPTO ban would also lock the MTA into money-wasting subway service, while it drowns in debt and loses tens of millions of passengers each year. State legislators should reject the TWU’s effort to keep the MTA locked in the past.
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