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Boro officials question safety of computerized subway

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What apparently concerned many at a hearing of the Council Transportation Committee on last Thursday was not only the dependability of computers but the resulting removal of conductors from automated trains. Operators would remain but computers would drive the trains."Can a computer lead people to safety in a smoke or fire condition?" asked Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), chairman of the Transportation Committee about the duties of a subway conductor. "Having computers drive our subway trains is a huge step forward and we need to take a careful look before we leap."Kevin O'Connell, chief transportation officer of the city Transit Department of Subways, and Fred Smith, deputy chief engineer of the Transit Authority, told the hearing that L trains on the Canarsie line would be the first subways to be computerized in a system known as Communication Based Train Control. Such trains would be controlled by radio frequencies, they said.O'Connell and Smith were peppered with questions for more than an hour. One of their most incisive questioners was Councilman Lewis Fidler (D-Brooklyn), through whose Council district the L subway line runs."I am not a happy camper," Fidler told the Transit officials after they described their plans for computerizing the L line. "As a lawyer, I can only imagine the damages from the first lawsuit filed as result of a tragic accident on a train run by a computer."Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union, said even if conductors did not have long-established duties on subway trains, "taking conductors off the trains would be foolhardy.""Only in the imagination of technocrats can an operator on a full-length train who is overseeing the operation of the train from the head car also successfully perform a conductor's duties." Toussaint said.Subway trains with no conductors are not unprecedented in the New York City subway system. But of the few such conductorless lines, most are without conductors only at certain hours of the day, certain parts of their routes or on weekends.Safety was of leading concern to most speakers at the hearing."As chairperson of the Council Civil Service and Labor Committee, I have a concern for the safety and future employment of the employees, namely the conductors," said Councilman Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach.) " I am a proponent of progress and modernization of our subways, but it should not be synonymous with a decrease in safety and security for our riders."Some speakers questioned whether a technology nearly 100 years old can successfully be retrofitted with a computerized system. All other such systems throughout the world were computerized from scratch."The MTA is proposing to graft 21st century technology onto a rail system that dates back over 100 years," said Dr. Elliott Sclar, professor of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at Columbia University. "Furthermore, we are placing this new technology into a system in which derailments, track fires and other forms of mechanical delay are not extraordinary events."Beverly Dolinsky, executive director of the New York City Transit Riders Council, said computerized trains would increase productivity in the MTA, which she said was imperative.Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300 Ext. 136.

Updated 10:25 am, October 12, 2011
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