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Liu says MTA not prepped for conductor-free L train

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It's the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's OPTO (One Person Train Operation) system, long criticized by elected officials and the Transit Worker's Union as a risk to passengers' safety.The MTA, which inaugurated OPTO this past weekend, said it hoped to put the no-conductor system into operation 24-7 by late autumn.The MTA will save $4.2 million a year by removing just over 70 conductors. It means that the driver of each train now has additional duties, such as seeing to it that doors are closed and nobody is caught in any of them. As for making station announcements, which was performed by conductors, the L trains are now equipped with recorded voice announcements.Conductors are also supposed to supervise evacuation of passengers in emergencies and make emergency announcements.The transit union was not happy with the change nor were some elected officials, including City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the Council's Transportation Committee."It borders on insanity for the MTA to start up this scheme without having conducted even one successful emergency drill," Liu said. "I pray that none of us will say in the coming months, 'we told you so.' "Liu was referring to a drill the MTA conducted April 16 with 100 simulated passengers on an OPTO train. Although the MTA pronounced the drill -- a simulated smoke condition - a success, it was aborted before it was completed.Kenneth Brown, MTA director of Risk Assessment and Fire Safety told a Council Transportation Committee public hearing last month that his agency was confident the OPTO trains could be evacuated safely.Several council members questioned whether Brown might be over confident.Liu pointed out that the 100 simulated straphangers in the MTA practice drill were far from the 1,000 or more passengers on many rush hour subway trains.Although the MTA has used the OPTO system on short run trains like the Grand Central-Times Square shuttle, it has never instituted it on a route as lengthy as the Canarsie line, the route of the L trains, nearly 11 miles and 24 stations from Chelsea in Manhattan to Rockaway Parkway in Brooklyn.Although the MTA claims the OPTO trains were a success, a City Council Transportation Committee briefing paper mentioned an incident on a G train in 1998."A 21-year-old woman was raped and robbed on the train at the Smith-Ninth Street station in Brooklyn," the briefing paper said. "The attacker got off the train five stops later at Fulton Street. The woman and the attacker were the only passengers on the train."The briefing paper said, "lone train operators have, themselves, been the target of crime."The report said in that in November 2001, a train operator had to flee his train and run into a subway tunnel to escape perhaps 200 rampaging youths who smashed windows of subway cars and tried to break into the operator's cab."Transit workers union officials handed out leaflets on the opening day of the OPTO operation of the L line, warning passengers the new system left them in possible peril.Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 136

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