New York Subways and Terror: What, Us Worry?


Here it is, the obligatory local angle to today’s news of terrorism in London: How safe are New York’s subway riders?

The presence of groups of uniformed cops at the stations this morning might be comforting, but some recent headlines are not. Last month, Newsday reported that the NYPD doesn’t staff most of the booths that were placed in subway stations after 9-11. Earlier this year, the New York Times revealed that the MTA had spent about half of the $591 million it had planned to defend the system against terrorism. The fire that knocked out A and C train service in January occurred in a facility that lacked a smoke detector.

There was a bid in 2003 to create a seven-member subway safety panel, but Governor Pataki vetoed the bill that would have done so. Still, the MTA points to a host of improvements since 9-11:

The MTA Police Department has grown substantially, increasing its patrols of MTA railroad stations and terminals and adding a K-9 unit with bomb-sniffing dogs. MTA Bridges and Tunnels has increased the size of its enforcement division and instituted checkpoints at bridge and tunnel entrances to check for suspicious packages. It has also upgraded its Command and Control Center to allow for faster, more flexible responses to emergencies of all types. And New York City Transit has worked closely with the New York Police Department and various other anti-terrorism agencies to address the needs of the subway system.

But since a terrorist plot against the MTA could consist of nothing fancier than a bomb in a backpack, the safety of the subways is as much about how the system would react to a crisis as whether it could prevent one. As was the case in London this morning, the big job after a terrorist strike is to get people out of the trains and the tunnels.

New York City Transit has had a few real-life emergencies in recent years to test its abilities at evacuation. Results are mixed In the blackout of 2003, some 400,000 passengers were trapped in tunnels but evacuation began in 10 minutes. But in a Brooklyn train fire earlier that summer, a report found lapses in the emergency response.

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