The case of the missing platform doors

» Platform screen doors could save lives, reduce trash on the tracks, and improve the customer experience. Yet they’ve been repeatedly pushed back as a solution in cities like New York. At fault: A bureaucracy that isn’t able to plan for technological change and is unresponsive even to its own board members.

Charles Moerdler wants to make the New York City Subway better for its passengers, but he keeps getting blown off. His story is parochial in that it is relevant directly to New York, but it is also generalizable—representative in its own way of how American transit agencies respond to the availability of new technologies, even when those new technologies can save lives and improve operations.

Moerdler may be one of the most prominent, if unrecognized (perhaps even by himself), advocates of what are known as platform screen doors. These glass doors, which line the edge of train platforms and prevent people from jumping, falling, or being pushed onto the tracks, are installed on rapid transit systems all over the world. They are aligned with a train’s own doors and are designed to open when a train pulls up. They can play an important role in improving transit safety, in many cases literally saving lives, and they can prevent people from throwing trash onto the tracks, a typical cause of system-disrupting track fires.

Yet they’re also virtually non-existent on rapid transit systems in the U.S. Why is that?

I’ll return to Moerdler in a second, but suffice it to say that his advocacy has been repeatedly and condescendingly rebuffed—I document the instances below—by leadership at the agency that runs the Subway, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), where he is a board member. Partly as a consequence, like many other systems, the New York City Subway remains dangerously susceptible to people getting hit by trains and service disruptions. No progress, at least in the public eye, has been made on addressing this problem. This public bureaucracy seems incapable of adjusting to technological change.

Platform screen doors: A worldwide phenomenon for rapid transit, except in the U.S.

Platform screen doors may be familiar to anyone who has used an automated people mover at airports from Chicago O’Hare to New York JFK, and they have a number of benefits. They allow platforms to act as insulated rooms, physically stopping people from jumping or falling onto the tracks—a particular plus for blind people. They prevent people from trashing the tracks—a major cause of subway delays. They allow trains to enter stations at higher speeds, and they make it far more feasible to air condition those stops.

Doors can be installed at full heights, completely isolating the platform from the tracks, or they can be installed more cheaply at a lower height. They can be installed at all stations along a line, or just some of them. They can be added on lines that are automated, and on others that are not.

The doors aren’t free. Costs may vary from about €2.6 million per station for a project now underway in Paris to about $10 million per station, according to an estimate for Montréal.

The MTA suggests that platform doors could require platform edge reinforcement, electrical upgrades, and a new interface between trains and signals. So determining the relative importance of lives saved and reduced trash fires resulting from platform doors, compared to other potential investments, is needed for any system considering their implementation.

Clearly, many cities have decided they’re worth the cost. The below map illustrates all of the rapid transit systems around the world—excluding airport people movers—noting in yellow and green those systems with platform screen doors at at least some of their stations (click to expand).

As the map shows, none of the major rapid transit systems in the U.S. include such doors—not New York, but also not Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Washington. Only Las Vegas’ monorail, a tourist attraction, and Honolulu’s line, now under construction, include them.

In Europe and Asia, however, platform screen doors are quite common. They’ve been installed on new systems in cities as disparate as Bangkok, Chengdu, Copenhagen, Dubai, Singapore, Toulouse, and Turin. They’ve been added to existing lines in places from Beijing to London and Paris. And many cities are installing them now.

In South Korea, there have been particularly significant efforts to incorporate platform doors at existing stations. In Japan, the government has recommended their installation at every station with at least 100,000 daily commuters and identified a significant reduction in accidents following their addition. The doors are common on every rail system in China.

In other words, the doors are ubiquitous for new rapid transit lines in the wealthier parts of the world. Except for in the U.S.

Return to New York

One explanation for the difference may be the manner in which American transit agencies approach technological change. Which brings us back to Charles Moerdler.

Don’t feel bad for Chuck. He’s a partner in a major law firm. Despite being yelled at by the current MTA chair, Moerdler feels empowered in his job as an MTA board member.

Yet my examination of MTA board minutes suggests that he’s been given misleading answers to his queries about the possibilities of such doors at least eight times, by a panoply of different officials, over the past five years.

To rehash:

  • In March 2012, then-MTA President Tom Prendergast told Moerdler that platform doors were being considered for installation, and he said they could improve safety, comfort, and timeliness of trains. Then- and now-MTA chairman Joe Lhota said “we will look at” the doors, though he suggested “it’s not something I think we’ll see, quite honestly, in your lifetime or my lifetime.”
  • In January 2013, an MTA Senior Vice President said the agency was considering the possible use of platform door barriers and other mechanisms to check for intrusions on the track.
  • In May 2014, Moerdler generated discussion among board members about the potential for platform doors to address safety and operational issues, to no real response from MTA officials.
  • In June 2014, then-New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco suggested that two initiatives, including intrusion detection and the feasibility of platform doors, “are ongoing.”
  • In November 2016, then-New York City Transit President Veronique Hakim “agreed to look into the feasibility of a pilot program for the installation of platform doors,” according to the minutes. Another board member noted that the agency needed a study to examine the issue.
  • In February 2017, Subways Senior Vice President Wynton Habersham said that the issue of platform doors “is currently under consideration, and agreed to get back to [board] Members with further information at a future date.” He agreed to produce a report on the cost and feasibility of platform doors in New York.
  • In March 2017, Habersham “agreed to consider the use of platform doors,” and the agency suggested a “comprehensive study” was being explored at that moment.
  • In September 2017, Moerdler was again promised by agency officials that platform doors were possible, and the idea had not been abandoned.

The MTA has never produced a comprehensive analysis of the potential for such doors, nor has it committed seriously to installing them. The way in which Moerdler has been treated is indicative of the agency’s unwillingness to invest in new technologies. For years, the agency has been responding to him as if the public is on the cusp of learning about the potential for platform doors, and yet responses over the years collectively indicate little progress.

Perhaps the MTA does, in fact, have something forthcoming. And the fact is that there has been repeated evidence that the MTA is at least minimally interested in investing in such technologies. In 2007, agency officials suggested that the Second Avenue Subway could include such doors. Board members designated $2.4 million in funds for platform doors in the 2010-to-2014 capital plan; this expenditure was delayed and supposed to be completed in December 2016 (it wasn’t). The agency complained about the difficulty of implementation in early 2013, noting that door installation would be costly, have to respond to varying train lengths, door placements, and differences in station designs. In February 2016, the MTA suggested it would put platform doors at the L train’s 6th Avenue station. By November last year, the agency noted that the S shuttle from Times Square to Grand Central might be a better option.*

All along, people kept getting hurt and, in some cases, dying. Just last year 102 people were accidentally hit by trains at stations, and another 51 allegedly or definitely attempted suicide by jumping in front of trains.

The agency’s response to Moerdler isn’t just evidence of an embarrassingly inappropriate relationship with board members. It’s also a disappointment for riders.

To be fair, I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the challenges the MTA would face if it were to attempt the installation of platform screen doors. The doors generally require several basic features to work: Trains that stop in the almost-exact same place every time; level and even platforms; and train doors that are always located in the same place.**

Stopping trains in the same place each time they arrive at stations typically requires advanced signaling, a feature that New York’s Subway is notoriously lacking. Level platforms require renovations. Train doors being located in the same place is difficult to achieve with a mixed fleet of trains featuring doors in different locations. Achieving any of these features would not be simple, and it would require MTA dedicate new funds to be accomplished.

Yet there are MTA services that are already practically ready for the installation of such doors. The L train has advanced, CBTC signaling that is similar to automation and can guarantee reliable stopping. It also has a train fleet whose doors are all located in the same place. Once the 7 train’s CBTC renovation is completed, it too will have those two features. So, interestingly, does the Q train’s just-opened portion under Second Avenue in Manhattan. The first two feature congested platforms where the dangers of falling in front of a train are real. And all three need to keep the tracks clear of trash to maintain appropriate operations.

But, at least as of now, the MTA has no plans to add platform doors to any of the lines. One explanation may be that the agency wants to hold off for a future in which it changes the location of train doors.

Promoting technological change

It’s hard to understand why, exactly, the management of American transit agencies act in the manner that they do. While they could use more funds in many cases, the biggest agencies work with billions of dollars of capital and operating funds, more than most agencies in Europe or Asia. While they’re public sector bureaucracies, so is virtually every other transit agency in the world. While agency leadership keeps changing, many staff members have remained there for years. While boards aren’t particularly responsive from a democratic perspective, neither are the heads of transit agencies in most other countries—and, even if they were, it’s hard to believe that issues like platform screen doors will ever rise to the top of issues relating to popular protest.

The best explanation I have is that management is simply uninterested in making the decisions necessary to bring their technologies up to speed. Given their (real or imagined) sense of being constantly under siege, transit agency leadership would prefer to just keep the existing system working as it does today: Better safe than sorry. And the repeated complaints of one board member, not backed by others and not likely to raise the concerns of the political official who appointed him (the governor), simply doesn’t matter enough.

It is also undoubtedly true that the fact that platform doors can, for now, only be installed at some stations, on some lines, poses a political challenge to doing it anywhere. Yet that hasn’t prevented the improvement of service in some places over others. And in the places where it is possible, the primary problem is a lack of foresight and coordination. If, when the MTA had begun renovations on the L or the 7, it had committed to platform doors, it could have simply incorporated their installation into the overall renovation plan, as have other cities. Including them now wouldn’t represent such a struggle. Comprehensive planning about multiple elements of a project clearly is not the agency’s high point.

There are reasons for hope, however. About two years ago, I wrote about the complete failure of American transit agencies to purchase open-gangway trains, which increase capacity by allowing people to walk between cars—a failure that could not be attributable to technology or cost and that was degrading customer service. Agencies offered surface-level, unreasonable excuses for their approach.

But in January 2016 (surely not just, if at all, as a consequence of my article), the MTA announced it would purchase an open-gangway train, and a portion of a prototype has been built.

It will take decades for the full fleet to be converted, but the decision signals that there is a willingness, somewhere deep in the heart of American transit bureaucracy, for change.

* Philadelphia, among other cities, has also considered platform doors.

** There are some inventive approaches to handling situations with doors in different locations using ropes, but these seem unlikely to be feasible in a rapid-transit context.

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