Inside the Tunnels: A Look at New York City Subway Deaths

Among the many issues that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves approximately 15.1 million people, faces, one problem has become apparent: subway fatalities.

According to Time magazine, there were 53 subway deaths in 2013.

That is the latest data available on the issue, but past trends seem to indicate that casualties were in the dozens in 2014 and will most likely be in that range by the end of 2015 as well.

In 2013, New York magazine released a report stating that subway deaths had risen every year from 2011-2013. Each year, the main causes of deaths were suicides and homicides.

As numbers rise, psychologists continue to study what triggers such violent actions among people, and the MTA, faced with pressure from the public, contemplates what it can do to help avoid future tragedies on its subway platforms.

The Psychology Behind Subway Fatalities

Nuwan Jayawickreme, Ph.D., and assistant professor of psychology at Manhattan College says that psychologists have studied subway deaths for many years, but no definitive answer has been found as to why people either commit suicide or push others onto the tracks.

“Often times, if you decide to kill yourself, the way you do it is going to be dependent on what options are available in your environment,” he says. “So here, because New York City has a subway system, a pretty elaborate subway system, it becomes like an easy option.”

Jayawickreme believes that most people who have suicidal thoughts want to end their lives under whatever means necessary, and because of that, choose to jump in front of a train, since it is almost ensured they will die.

“Often times, when people want to commit suicide, and they really want to do it, they usually pick an option that guarantees that they’re going to get killed and get killed pretty efficiently unfortunately,” Jayawickreme says.

“Do we know who is going to kill themselves and how? Often times it’s Monday morning quarterbacking, like after the fact where you put all the pieces together and try to figure it out,” he adds.

Finding out the psychological reasoning behind a person pushing another onto the tracks can also be difficult, Jayawickreme believes, since the events are so scattered and random.

However, Jayawickreme says that most homicidal perpetrators have a psychosis that distorts their perception of reality and leads to hallucinations and aggressive thoughts.

A Union’s Possible Solution

Due to the unpredictability of subway fatalities, the Transport Workers Union Local 100 has campaigned for years against the MTA, and has pushed to put an end to the unfortunate situations.

“Subway fatalities is a critical safety concern,” Jim Gannon, director of communications for the TWU says. “When you have 150 plus people a year getting hit by trains, and more than 50 of them fatalities, that’s a serious public safety issue.”

The TWU’s major point is to reduce the speeds at which the trains enter the subway stations. The reduced speeds would allow train operators to react quicker to a situation where a person is on the train tracks, the union believes.

“The only way you can address this issue quickly, with absolutely no cost to the MTA, is slowing down trains coming into the station,” Gannon says. “It’s the only way to reduce fatalities and to reduce these terrible accidents, is just to slow down, maybe five miles an hour and the stopping zone decreases dramatically.”

Reducing the speeds of the trains would also prevent people from panicking when they find themselves on the tracks, Jayawickreme believes.

“People tend to freeze,” Jayawickreme says. “They’re in the situation and they’re trying to almost like come to terms with what’s going on, and those are valuable seconds.”

The MTA’s Plan

While the TWU has been adamant in getting the MTA to slow its trains down, the MTA has opted for other solutions.

In an email, Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesperson, stated four systems the authority will implement in the near future.

Among the four systems are the ideas to install CCTV cameras and intelligent video processing software to detect objects crossing from the platform to the tracks, and to set up thermal cameras to detect object crossing from the platform to the tracks.

“We have also awarded a contract to a vendor to design a platform screen door system to pilot at one station,” Ortiz said in the email.

The platform screen door system would provide a barrier in the form of a glass door that would separate passengers from the train tracks. It would only open up when the train arrives at the station, eliminating the possibility of going onto the tracks while a train was incoming.

The system is popular in several European and Asian cities and is used in the JFK AirTrain.

The first platform doors on a NYC subway were almost put into effect in 2007, when the MTA and Jonathan Cohn, the design director of the JFK AirTrain, worked on a proposal to build them in the Second Avenue subway station.

The negotiations ultimately fell through, but ever since, many have asked the MTA to reconsider its stance.

“I think there’s other things some train systems do that are not as expensive perhaps, but not as effective as well,” Cohn, who now works as an associate principal for Perkins Eastman says. “There’s barriers, you can have people watching the edge more, but absolutely, this is the safest for people.”

Cohn believes that building doors in several stations will take much “political will,” but that it can be done.

“That can be done quite quickly,” he says about building the doors. “To figure out the design is going to take a while, and then the construction. It would take a few years, certainly. But, they could do it pretty quickly.”

However, the money concerns seem to be the biggest obstacle in building the doors.

In November 2014, Ortiz told Time magazine that the cost of adding doors to multiple subway platforms would be in the billions.

It is because of the astronomical costs of building the doors that the TWU is hell-bent on simply slowing down train speeds.

“The only thing that we can actually do and control without making a new law or breaking the bank or creating some kind of mechanism or anything, we just slow down the trains,” Noah Rodriguez, art director for the TWU says.

“We can’t get to every customer to tell them to stand back, but if we can slow down the trains at the same time then hopefully we can save more lives, and that’s the bottom line.”

TWU’s Response

Rodriguez has spearheaded several campaigns pushing the TWU’s message, which have not only included slowing down train speeds.

In 2013, he wrote the lyrics and performed a rap song in a video titled “Stand Back,” which urged New Yorkers to stand behind the yellow lines on the subway platform.

Also that year, he designed a Metro Card which contained fake blood stains on the front and on the back, and included a picture of the grim reaper next to the union’s three main points: slower train speeds, agents on crowded platforms, and an emergency power shut-off on all tracks.

Prior to the bloody Metro Card campaign, Rodriguez had designed flyers which read “The MTA Doesn’t Care If You Die,” and which featured a chalk-drawn silhouette of a man laid across the train tracks.

Rodriguez believes that although the flyers did draw some attention, the TWU had to do even more to raise awareness. That is what led him to come up with the ideas to make the video and the bloody Metro Card.

“We just had to go a little bit more extreme,” he says. “Some people might say it’s silly, but you kind of have to go hard or go home with some things like this. This is a serious situation and if we have to kind of get visual on it and a little graphic, that’s going to get people’s attention to stand up.”

The campaigns have been semi-successful for the TWU, as they have led to increased safety announcements and safety posters on the subways.

However, the union’s principal argument has yet to be executed.

The MTA believes that reducing train speeds will create train traffic and lead to platform overcrowding.

“If we would slow trains down we’d have fewer trips, more crowded trains and more crowded platforms,” Charles Seaton, MTA spokesman said in an article in the New York Post in January 2013.

Gannon understands why the MTA has refused to cooperate.

“I don’t think necessarily they’re resistant,” he says. “The MTA recognizes it as an issue. But, as an operating authority, where they have the responsibility of moving on the subways over 6 million people a day, I think they just feel that the schedules are critical.”

The TWU will keep pushing its message, Gannon and Rodriguez say, but it is up to the MTA and the people to deliver.

“We can keep on with our routines,” Rodriguez says. “We’ve done what we can and we just hope that the customers follow through. We don’t have the power the MTA has … For the most part, they have the voice for those things, and they don’t like to admit that we were on to something.”