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August 14, 2009

MTA-TWU contract: The tale of one-person train operation

Nicole Gelinas

As the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority launched negotiations with the Transport Workers Union last year for a new three-year labor agreement, one of the authority’s biggest goals was to win the right to run “one-person trains” — that is, trains with an engineer rather than an engineer and a conductor — on two lines, the L and the #7 trains.

One-person train operation — Opto — has been a goal for years.

By late last year, the TWU had tentatively agreed to this deal, for a few things in return — like a $2 premium for engineers on the trains — that the MTA considered reasonable.

Yet as negotiations turned to arbitration and as arbitration neared its end, the MTA unilaterally yanked its request for Opto, seemingly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


The MTA’s argument, in a 6/19 memo from its lawyers to arbitrators and then later in the press, is two-fold.

First, months before sending its contract to state arbitration, the authority had agreed to cap workers’ healthcare contributions to 1.5 percent of straight 40-hour wages, rather than continue to apply the levy to 40 hours plus overtime.

But earlier this year, the MTA seemed to have had a change of heart, deciding it wanted to keep the higher healthcare charge. It clumsily tried to give up Opto in return (and ended up losing on both counts).

Second, the MTA’s lawyers said in the memo that with respect to Opto, that there was no understanding between the parties as to the details of the deal, with regard, in particular, to the union possibly objecting to safety conditions after signing the deal, and throwing it into limbo.

Later, the MTA argued that Opto had become a cost rather than a savings, because the union had upped its premium wage required for engineers riding solo to $4 rather than $2, and because Opto required the MTA to hire 40 new supervisors (supervisors that the arbitrators, strangely, awarded even without Opto).

Do these arguments add up?

The safety argument seems tenuous. For decades, the TWU has had the right to throw any matter into emergency arbitration if it sees a risk to health or safety, and such arbitration is supposed to result in a quick decision.

So, sure, it’s possible that the TWU could have thrown Opto into safety arbitration after agreeing to it — and then the union would have either won, or lost.

If the union lost, the MTA would have had Opto. If the union won, the MTA would have lost Opto … so instead, to prevent this outcome, the MTA unilaterally gave Opto up … ???

As for the cost: purely in terms of Opto being a short-term cost rather than a savings, the MTA may be correct.

But this shows not good management but shortsightedness, an MTA specialty.

Consider: during phase-in, the MTA could have been in a situation where it was paying engineers $4 more while still having a surplus of conductors.

But over time, paying engineers $4 more outweighs paying conductors $21 an hour, and having to fund 40 supervisors vs. employ potentially hundreds of conductors should do so, too.

There’s a reason why right now was the best time for the MTA to incur this short-term cost.

For various strange political reasons, the TWU is likely more willing than it ever will be to do something that hurts conductors.

In a few years, that may not be the case.

The MTA could have used this window of opportunity to show engineers – and conductors who want to become engineers – that this change was a good thing for them, because it would have created desired jobs that paid a little bit more — thus encouraging the TWU to want to expand the deal a few years hence.

It could have used this time to see how Opto actually works in practice when deployed beyond its previous experiment on the L line — working out what kind of safety provisions it needs to make, for example, in whether it can use Opto at rush hours without sacrificing the ability to evacuate trains quickly, and using some resources for new police patrols to replace the conductor’s passive safety presence with an active one.

Eventually, if Opto worked well and with more investment in technology, the MTA could have won permission to expand Opto to all lines, at least during some hours of the day, potentially, gradually cutting train-operation costs nearly in half.

Now, the opportunity to put a foot in the door here is gone.

At best, killing Opto may show that the MTA head office, especially without clear leadership, is suffering under a conventional-wisdom tyranny — fearful of change unless the results are guaranteed.

This hurts, when the authority’s biggest challenge is labor flexibility.

The State Senate will soon hold hearings on Paterson’s pick to be the next MTA chairman and chief executive, Jay Walder.

If it emerges from its corrupt torpor, the Senate should extensively question Walder on his views on labor flexibility — and ask him to bone up on the details of this episode in advance, so that he can offer an opinion here, too.

Filed under: Labor unions, New York City, The MTA

1 Comment »

  1. “The MTA could have used this window of opportunity to show engineers – and conductors who want to become engineers – that this change was a good thing for them, because it would have created desired jobs that paid a little bit more — thus encouraging the TWU to want to expand the deal a few years hence.”

    As a current NYCT employee, former Conductor, and future Train Operator, I can tell you from an insider’s perspective that OPTO is not wanted by the rank and file. What OPTO boils down to is a Train Operator doing two jobs at once with all the inherent responsibilities therein, but only getting paid a measly $2 more an hour. OPTO is currently only in effect on short trains, such as the 4-car (G) on weekends, the 5-car (5) during late-nights as a shuttle, and the 4-car Rockaway Park (S) Shuttle. OPTO requires the T/O to do everything on his own. Operate the train from station to station, open and close the doors at every station, and make announcements. Should something go wrong, the T/O alone would be responsible for investigating the matter, fixing it, or if necessary, discharging the train at the next station to take the train to the yard. With no assistance from a Conductor, this will all take twice as long, as will basic operation of the train, as, unlike a Conductor, the Train Operator won’t be standing by the window, ready to open the doors when the train comes to a stop.

    NYCT’s own overbearing safety features on the trains will force the Train Operator to walk across his cab TWICE before being able to open the doors on the left side of the train. Dwell time will increase at every station on the line, and the doors of the train will have to be fully closed at the terminal so that the door controls at the T/O’s cab can be turned “off”. The “Partial Close” feature on our new-technology trains will be rendered useless. Along the route, door holding will increase, as all doors will have to be closed at once, and all doors reopened should somebody be stuck in one; unlike now, where the Conductor closes down the doors for only half the train at a time, and can reopen only half should the need arise. It will become more difficult to close the doors safely without striking entering customers.

    OPTO has worked in limited use only because it’s used on short trains running on shuttles. These routes are short, and the physical toll on the T/O is small. Once you begin expanding OPTO onto longer lines, with full-length trains, the toll will be much stronger, as the T/O will have to stand up and sit down at every single station to operate the doors. If there’s a report of a sick customer in the last car of the train, the T/O will have to walk the length of ten cars to investigate, whereas a Conductor will only walk five cars, and while the Conductor is doing so, the T/O is free to answer questions to nearby customers or communicate with the Rail Control Center via radio.

    In an emergency, the passengers in the rear half of the train would be unable to proceed forward toward the front because of the locked Conductor’s cabs at the middle of the train. The T/O would have to walk to the middle of the train to unlock the doors before an evacuation could begin. Policy and safety standards dictate that should an evacuation take place in a tunnel, one employee will stay on the train with the customers to provide instructions and to be a reassuring presence, while the other climbs down to the tracks to ascertain the location of the nearest emergency exit, and to make sure that exit isn’t blocked. Only then will that employee return, and then the two together may begin leading passengers off the train. Under OPTO, will the T/O simply leave the passengers all alone on the train while he finds and unlocks the exit? Or will he lead a crush-loaded, rush hour train of more than 2,000 people on a long walk through a dangerous, dark tunnel in search of the exit? In an ideal situation, emergency assistance will arrive and locate the train to assist. But we live in an era where the “ideal” situation often never comes. Should we ever have another 9/11, or another city-wide blackout, you can’t expect outside assistance to reach every train in the system quickly.

    People always make comparisons to how OPTO works on other transit systems around the world, but there simply is no comparison. Those other systems are considerably newer, run smaller trains, and carry significantly less people than ours. Their trains were also built specifically for OPTO, and often feature camera screens inside the operator’s cab, which allow him to operate the doors without having to stand up. None of our trains have provisions for this, and NYCT’s answer for increased visibility on curved platforms is to install a few monitors outside the T/O’s cab window on the platform. The ones in use now for Conductors at some stations are easily vandalized, resulting in decreased platform visibility.

    Of course, our union’s chief interest is to protect its members’ interests. Expanded OPTO would result in a heavy loss of Conductor jobs, which will only grow worse as expansion continues. Many of our Conductors stay as Conductors through their careers, rather than move up to Train Operator, because they don’t want the added responsiblity or risk of the Train Operator position. They’re comfortable where they are, doing a job that’s very important on many levels. A sharp decline in available Conductor jobs would kill a very popular entry position into the NYCT workforce, which will hurt citywide civil service employment as a whole, as a job that features great turnaround as people join and retire will stop hiring, resulting in more unemployment. Conductors are seen as a source of information for tourists and locals alike. I was a Conductor for two and a half years, and during the late-night hours, my presence in the middle of the train made those two cars nearest to me the most crowded. With the Train Operator alone, more people will congregate toward the front of the train only, and a long line could form outside his window for assistance. Should he sit in the station and answer everybody’s questions? Who should he leave hanging before deciding it’s time to go? At least the Conductor is able to move freely in his cars and answer questions between stations. The Train Operator certainly can’t do that either.

    There are certainly a lot of opinions out there from the disgruntled riding public, and members of the press, as to how the system should be run, but these people only hear what they want to hear, and not what’s best for running the largest transit system in the world. Tell a group of people that you could fire every Conductor in the system tomorrow, and guarantee no fare increases for the next ten years, and they’ll tell you to do it. That’s how they think. But these people don’t spend eight to ten hours a day in the subway system, and their knowledge and experience is limited to their brief subway commute each day from point A to point B.

    They see us as the bad guys. They blame us, yell at us, curse us out, and spit at us because a planned weekend diversion has us bypassing their stop. They hate us, and buy into the media hype that we’re overpaid and do nothing to earn it. But we work under “needs of the service”. And when service demands it, I work a ten hour shift in steamy hot environments, breathing steel dust, often with no Lunch break, go all over the city wherever the MTA needs me that day, work different hours everyday and have varying days off, which makes it nearly impossible plan a personal life in advance. The subway is my life, and will be for many, many years to come. I love my job, and love what I do, but I wouldn’t be working here if I couldn’t make a good living while suffering through these inconveniences.

    Nor would I want to operate a train without a Conductor. We’re a team.

    Comment by Transit Guy — August 15, 2009 @ 6:03 am

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