- Published: 18 April 2017
- Written by John Bobsin
A train crashes through the bumper in Hoboken, killing a bystander. A packed NJT commuter train sideswipes a derailed Amtrak streamliner, paralyzing New York Penn. An NJT train gets stuck under the Hudson River, stranding a thousand people for three hours without fresh air. Afterwards, a distraught passenger is Tasered by cops and hundreds of people panic, running for their lives and abandoning "a sea of luggage." All of this has happened in recent months, and in each case there was a serious disruption of transit service, affecting thousands of riders for hours. And in almost every case, nobody is happy with the response of the transit agencies responsible for the safe operation of a complex transportation system.
What should the response of those in authority be when things go wrong? We don't have any insight into how top officials act when faced with a crisis; we can only rely on published reports of what the public experiences and has to say about it. But it seems that there is a lack of direct management by top officials; a lack of information flow to confused and stranded customers; and an inability to anticipate consequences, such as the near-riot at New York Penn on Good Friday, April 14.
When people are stuck in a train for a long period, they need and deserve direct support from top management. They need to know what caused their dilemma, and what is being done about it. Almost always, this is lacking. It appears that the crew of a stranded train is often not informed of the "big picture," and so passengers remain in the dark -- figuratively at least, and sometimes literally if power has failed. On April 14, the riders stuck under the Hudson -- one rider said it was "just inside the tunnel entrance" -- were alternately told that they would be evacuated, then that the train would be towed out. There was only emergency lighting, and no fresh air; one passenger took the initiative to break out an escape window, and another fainted. This didn't happen in an instant: the train was stuck for almost three hours.
Is it too much to require that when a train becomes disabled a senior railroad official be dispatched to the scene, to join the hapless passengers and keep them informed as to what is being done? This may result in a more rapid resolution of the crisis, but even if it does not, it would do a lot to calm down the riders and reassure them. It also might give management some practical experience in the operation of their enterprise. If a train is stuck for twenty minutes, it would not be practical for management to reach the scene. But once an incident exceeds this time, it's overdue for someone to hit the road and take charge at the site.
Another type of crisis occurs at terminals when operations are disrupted. This was the aftermath on April 14 at New York Penn when thousands crowded the terminal areas, hoping to catch trains delayed by the one that was stuck in the tunnel. Any sort of crowd poses a dangerous situation, particularly in an underground location with limited exits. Whenever crowding gets intense, it's the responsibility of management to anticipate panic and have on-site personnel on duty before a tragedy occurs. In places like New York Penn, this is complicated by a balkanized management structure. Whose crowd is it? NJ Transit! Whose station is it? Amtrak! Who's responsible? Both of them! (Or maybe no one.) The problem of crowding is getting more and more frequent even when there is no service disruption; and now service disruptions are becoming regular events, too. And don't even ask about terrorism, or even the imagined terrorist threat. All of this can cause panic, and panic can cause massive injury and death.
The metropolitan area gets more crowded every year; passenger loads increase; the infrastructure, instead of being fortified, instead is crumbling. We need better emergency response now, before it's too late.