The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NYC subway trains kill dozens of people a year. Other countries have paid for safety.

Commuters are reflected on a door panel of a subway train in Hong Kong in 2019. (Vincent Thian/AP)
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In just a matter of days in New York City this month, two people were pushed onto subway tracks in what police said were unprovoked assaults.

One of the victims, 40-year-old Michelle Alyssa Go, was shoved into the path of a train at the Times Square station Jan. 15. A homeless man was charged in her death. The other victim, a 62-year-old man, was pushed onto the tracks Sunday at the Fulton Street station but survived with minor injuries.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recorded 169 collisions between trains and people in 2020 — 63 of them fatal, according to The City, a nonprofit news outlet. In the previous year there were 62 deadly collisions. Sarah Feinberg, then the interim president of New York City Transit, told the news outlet that 12-9s — radio code for a person under a train — are not only “absolutely devastating” for the victim but also “traumatic” for train operators.

Hundreds of people gathered in Times Square on Jan. 18 to remember Michelle Go, who was killed after being pushed in front of a subway train on Jan. 15. (Video: Reuters)

This month’s shoving incidents have spurred fears among the city’s millions of daily riders and galvanized calls for authorities to better protect passengers. But while episodes like these are rare, they also appear to be an outsize problem in New York and the United States at large. No major U.S. public transit rail systems have installed platform screen doors onto existing stations, according to Bay Area Rapid Transit in California.

In many other major cities around the world, governments have installed barriers — ranging from basic railings to high-tech sliding glass doors — to prevent accidents, suicides and crimes committed on the tracks.

Here are several countries that have implemented or experimented with added safety measures for train riders.

Another person shoved onto New York’s subway tracks days after Michelle Go’s death

Japan

Japan’s metro system, consisting of several major train providers, is known for fastidious punctuality.

But after the death of a visually impaired person who fell onto tracks in Machida, the Japanese government in 2011 called on railway companies to install doors along platforms on stations that had more than 100,000 riders per day, according to Japan’s Mainichi newspaper.

Over time, more stations began putting up protective barriers. Some installed full-length glass platform doors that automatically open and close when the train arrives. Others used sturdy half-length automatic platform barriers. Others experimented with new methods, including a barrier made with a long, ropelike steel-wire screen programmed to rise and fall with an oncoming train.

According to a 2015 report by planning officials from the West Japan Railway Co., the “wire style” gates were a successful experiment — with 90 percent of passengers welcoming the increased safety level they experienced and supporting further installations.

To overcome the difficulties of having different providers’ trains with different door configurations using the same tracks, train doors have QR codes that QR readers on the platform scan to open train and platform doors simultaneously.

Tokyo Metro, a subway operator in Japan, was the first company in the nation to adopt platform doors, in 1991. The company added doors to its newly opening lines and found a way to retrofit doors onto platforms of entire lines — and completed the work at night to avoid disrupting service, according to Japan Times columnist Alice Gordenker. A 2016 Mainichi report found that two-thirds of Japan’s busiest stations still lacked barriers.

Brazil

Brazil has had platform screen doors at the São Paulo Metro for over a decade. Many of the newer stations feature full-length automatic glass doors, taller than the trains themselves.

In 2019 the government announced a further expansion of platform door installation at 36 stations, with the added challenge of being retrofitted onto older stations. Each new door must be at least 2.1 meters (nearly seven feet) in height, be mostly transparent and have a sensor scanning for the presence of people in the gaps between the doors.

“Platform screen doors increase the efficiency of the metro because it makes it almost impossible for the passenger to cause any interference on the track — from trash thrown on the track to an accident with people falling, being pushed or attempting suicide,” João Octaviano Machado Neto, then municipal secretary of mobility, said in 2018, according to Rail Journal.

France

Paris has also launched initiatives to get platform doors installed on its stations, part of a massive automation overhaul of some of the oldest Paris Metro routes. Some of the system is driverless and completely automated.

In October, Clearsy, a prime contractor for parts of the platform door deployment, announced the operation of the doors across several Paris Metro lines, including curved stations.

Why not New York?

The New York City subway is among the world’s oldest, serving over 1.5 billion passengers annually. (In 2020, the number was closer to 600 million). The first subway station opened in 1904.

Given the sprawling size of the network — serving more than 470 stations — and idiosyncratic design of hundreds of old platforms, New York officials have long said that putting up safety barriers would be impractical and astronomically expensive.

The political will also seems to be absent, despite a spike in interest every few years after a death by shoving gains national attention. “It is such a rare occurrence that no matter how tragic it is, it shouldn’t change our lifestyle,” Mike Bloomberg said in 2013 when he was mayor, the Atlantic reported.

“The MTA has looked at this issue and identified a number of hurdles to outfitting the system with platform-edge doors, including train door misalignment, column placement, platform construction and the need to maintain or create accessibility in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a statement. “Last month, the MTA established a Track Intrusion Task Force to aggressively find solutions for the detection and prevention of incidents of trains striking people on tracks. That work is underway.”

Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.

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