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Death on the Tracks


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The City

Published: May 6, 2007


The deaths of two subways workers, each hit by trains in separate accidents in the last two weeks, reminds us that maintaining New York’s subway tracks is necessary and dangerous work. The system is vital to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, requiring expeditious repair when things break down; it is also a century old, with many original and near-original components that need constant attention or replacement.


Regrettably, safety mechanisms are also out-of-date, forcing workmen to rely largely on their senses to avoid accidents. Even though the two deaths may well have resulted from plain old human error, and not any technological shortcoming, the system’s horse-and-buggy procedures need to be brought into the 21st century.


On April 24, Daniel Boggs, a 41-year-old veteran track worker, may simply not have looked for an oncoming train when he stepped in the path of a No. 3 express train at Columbus Circle. Mr. Boggs was in the process of “flagging” — setting up a warning lantern — to signal that crews were at work up ahead. Days later, another worker, 55-year-old Marvin Franklin, may have been killed when he tried to carry equipment across the tracks instead of taking a longer way around.


The response from the new transit leadership was a reassuring departure from years of management by confrontation. Elliot Sander, the chief executive of the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and his municipal counterpart, Howard Roberts, of the New York City Transit Authority, moved quickly to consult with the transport workers union and to halt temporarily all but emergency repair work on the system’s more than 600 miles of tracks. They also ordered refresher safety courses for all of the more than 6,000 maintenance workers.


The safety course is emphasizing that workers cannot take short cuts, and that’s a good start. There have been six transit worker deaths since 2002, and hundreds of accidents every year, and human error has obviously played a role. But so, too, have the trying work conditions — employees must often do heavy lifting in dimly lit environments — and the absence of all but the most rudimentary forms of communication.


The system is clearly due for a top-to-bottom review of safety procedures and equipment. Two other back-to-back track worker deaths in 2002 resulted in a tightening of safety rules, including a requirement for more flagging to warn train operators of work being done ahead. But as Mr. Boggs’s death demonstrated, even flagging can be hazardous. And as officials pointed out, improvements that greatly enhance the communiting experience — including quieter trains running on smoother tracks — have had the unintended consequence of removing an element of warning for maintenance crews.


The gap could be filled with newer technologies, perhaps sensors like those being developed for automobiles that could automatically slam the brakes when they detect large objects — humans or machinery — on the tracks ahead. In the meantime, officials should consider upgrading basic equipment, providing workers with radios and walkie-talkies and improving lighting.


Track workers clearly deserve more protection than they get now.

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