City Fields

Train Operator

Train Operator
Credit: Chris Goldberg

The highs and lows of operating a New York City subway train.

The city of New York employs nearly half a million citizens, more than any other municipality in the country. We decided to speak with some of those employees about their work and what it takes to keep the biggest city in America running.

train operator—name withheld—with the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authorty spoke with TMN about his job. This interview has been edited.

I been with the MTA now for 19 years, almost 20. So, I’m in the military, is how I got the job. A guy from New York that was in my unit is coming up to take the exam for the job, and he says, “If you wanna come along and just take the test for the hell of it,” you know? This is 1989, so we take the drive up, which is the only reason I really wanted to come, was to take the drive up, hang out in New York for a couple of days. I had a few people—my uncle for one—who live here. I took the test. I didn’t know anything about New York, period. Just took it for the hell of it. I didn’t want the job because, at that point, I wasn’t gonna come to New York after I got out of the military. I was gonna go home. So, came up, took the test, ended up making like a 90 on it, so that put me pretty high on the list. That was January of 1990, and I was out of the military in June, heading back to Georgia, and I think I got to South Carolina, and I turned around and came to New York instead. But just for a brief visit. I didn’t plan to stay.

So I enrolled at Brooklyn College, and got this job through my aunt working at—this bank no longer exists. Worked there for three years, and the MTA called. They actually called me to be a bus driver first. Driving in the city, I realized, there’s no fucking way I could be a bus driver. So I don’t wanna do that, so I asked, “Keep me on the list for conductor.” All right. So they end up calling me in 1993, November of 1993, for a conductor. Took the job, and one year later I took the exam to become a train operator. And in 1995 they called me for a train operator.

We have three shifts. We have what we call a midnight shift, we have an a.m. shift, and we have a p.m. shift. I come in, I sign in, and I have 15 minutes before I make my first trip, always. Sometimes you have to go to what we call a storage yard, and you have to make sure that train is good for service for that day. We have only one [storage yard] in Brooklyn on the number lines. That’s in East New York. That’s what we call Livonia Yard. They got one Coney Island yard. You probably heard of that. That’s a huge major yard. They have a yard in Queens. They have three in the Bronx—one for the 4, one for the 2, one for the 5.

This [one incident] happened at the Livonia Yard here in Brooklyn out in East New York. All right, so I go into work, and the supervisor in charge—well, first of all, I was curious why so many people were there. Supervisors—why were so many supervisors there? I sign on, and now that I think about it, right after, everyone was quiet. And the first thing the dispatcher said to me was, “Oh, you’re on track 4. Train is OKed already. You don’t have to OK it.” Right? I was like, OK. So, I walk out, and I look back, and they’re all looking out of the tower window, and I thought that was strange. So at that point I said, you know what? Let me—I wasn’t gonna do all that entailed making up a train for service. I was just gonna walk around it, you know. So I climbed up, put my bag in the cab, climbed back down, and as I’m walking to the rear of the train, to the back, I could see that that train—it didn’t look right. And the closer I got I was like, “Oh, this train is off the tracks.” So I immediately turned around, went back to the tower, and told them that, obviously, I’m really upset. Because I knew at that point they knew it. And I was like, “That fucking train is off the tracks. Do what you need to do.” And I was like, “This is fucked up what you guys tried to do to me, you know.”

Now, if I’d boarded that train and I moved it so much as one inch, that’s my derailment. It’s mine. I have no way to prove that I didn’t derail it because I didn’t report the derailment. That means I didn’t do my job. I didn’t walk around the train, so it’s mine and I have no way of proving that I didn’t do it.

So luckily I happened to walk around the train, but they had—there’s one infamous derailment in the Bronx, on the 2 line, where not only did the train come off the track—this storage yard is actually elevated—it came off the tracks and down to the street. This was about four years ago. Off the tracks, part of the train, first car down to the street. They didn’t fire the guy. They only demoted him to a station cleaner, they call it. In the station, you’ve probably seen those guys. Taking the trash and that. So that’s all that happened to him.

I love the job, because of the flexibility, and really no accountability like you guys. You know, you got deadlines, and I don’t have to worry about that. And I’m in my own little microcosm when I’m in that cab. As a train operator it’s, you know, it’s kind of like watching paint dry. Honestly, it is. Again, because it’s very monotonous, and to a degree it’s boring as a fuck. You know, you’re just sitting there, and you’re operating this train, and you’re just basically moving this lever back and forth. And that’s it. But you’re in there with your own thoughts, you know. You don’t have anyone standing over you, over your shoulders, no one saying, You know you gotta get this project done by this time. So that’s the beauty of it. The bad thing about it is, again, it’s monotonous. It’s boring. But it’s satisfying. It’s a public service, and in that sense, it’s great. It’s a great job.

I do have to deal with people. Obviously what people hate are delays. They don’t like when trains go out of service, like, everyone off. They hate when—I’m sure you’ve seen this—when the trains bypass. A train full of people and it passes your station. What they don’t understand about that is, if this happens when they’re … two things. One, if that particular train is so late that it skips stops to make up time. Another reason why it happens is because there’s another train directly behind it. So the train behind it is being delayed by that train. They’ll skip several stops.

What we usually don’t tell the passengers—we don’t give them details about, like, if someone’s been hit by a train. Right? We don’t usually tell them about police investigations. We may say, “There’s a police investigation taking place at 14th Street,” but we won’t say exactly what’s going on. We never ever say “bomb threats.” Never ever say bomb threats, and we get a lot of those, actually. A lot of times, when you hear “police investigation,” it’s a bomb threat. So that we withhold.

A bomb threat is often what we would call an “unattended bag.” Someone may leave the train; someone reports the bag. We don’t say that. Usually a bomb threat—sometimes that is the case, where someone has called in a bomb threat, but most of the time it’s an unattended bag on a train or a station. And you know, most times it turns out to be just someone left a bag on the train.

We also don’t tell them if, like, someone has been robbed on a train, or—“police investigation” can mean a shitload of things, you know. There’s been cases where people have been shot on the train: “police investigation.” Robbed; there’s been fights on trains. So yeah, those things, we’ll just say, “police investigation.”

The worst are robberies, right, because they delay service, and usually you’re not gonna catch the person that took, you know, the property. So now, what the protocol is is to, say, tell that customer to go to the token booth clerk, to leave the train. They also do this for sick customers. Matter of fact, that’s really the No. 1 thing. It’s an everyday thing. Sick customers create a lot, a lot of delays. I hate ’em. If you’re on the train, and you’re sick, and you’re traveling alone—and this is another thing that customers hate—that train, now the conductor has to wait on the platform with the sick passenger, and the train is out of service. Customers hate that shit. They do.

Do you wanna know about, uh, we call ’em “12-9s”? A 12-9 is someone has been hit by the train. So most of these deaths, or injuries, are suicides. Most of them are. I’ve only had one incident in 20 years. I’ve had some close calls, but only once have I hit a person with the train. Guy was drunk, fell to the tracks, yeah, I took off both his legs. But most of them are suicides. Some of them are just people climbing down on the tracks to retrieve property, a cellphone or a bag or what have you.

Was your guy trying to kill himself?

No, he was drunk. He was drunk as a fuck. Didn’t even know that he had been hit by a train. Didn’t even know that his legs were off. Yeah. I don’t know what his deal was, but anyway, he was lying there on the tracks, and when I saw him it was too late. Because number one, he was dressed in mostly black, so it was kinda hard—and the tunnel was black, so I couldn’t see him. When I finally did see him, it was too late.

So yeah, a 12-9 is someone being run over by the train, but we don’t say 12-9 when we … “Police investigation.” That’s the best way to go. Pretty basic.

[Guy in next room:] Do you get hit on a lot?

Yeah, I do. Because, believe it or not, women love men in uniform. Yeah, they love men in uniform. When I worked a job for several years in a row, you get to know your customers. You talk to them, you know, and then, sometimes you end up hanging out with them. So yeah, you get to talk to people, and you know, a couple weeks ago I was working, and talked to this old couple that’d been married, like, 47 years.

So you get to hear some interesting stories, especially from the homeless. You get to hear their stories and how they ended up homeless. And what I find—what I’ve found is that most of them, they don’t mind being homeless. They’ve adapted to being homeless. I’ll give you—one guy in particular I had started to see a lot and talk to this guy, like, three nights out of the week on my way to work I would see him, and I thought he was maybe in his fifties, but he turned out to be like 32. So I asked him, Well, how did you become homeless? And he had a drug problem. He also has mental problems. So, he stopped taking his meds and he just spiraled out of control, and you end up homeless, you know. He was, like, he was telling me how he knows who to ask for money and who not to ask for money.

Always people—always women first that are in, like, medical uniforms. They tend to be the nicest and the most giving, according to him. If there are—this is kind of funny—white women are easily, according to him, are easier to intimidate into giving him money. You know, so he knows his targets. White men in suits, no. African Americans in general—unless of course a nurse or whatever or medical uniform—no. He found that it’s better not to walk through the train, like, with a cup. Like, he found it’s better to speak to people directly. And white women are, apparently, they’re intimidated by that, and so, yeah. So I asked him, I’m like, “How much money can you accumulate in a day, you know?” And he was like, “Well, on a good day, maybe 50 bucks, but I have to put in a lot of hours.” They don’t—he doesn’t panhandle during rush hour, because you can’t walk through the cars. He’s like, “Usually I come out after 10 o’clock in the morning.”

So yeah, he was one guy. I talked to another who lost his job, wife ended up leaving him, took the kids, and he just ended up homeless. And he was like, I just gave up, and now this is what I do. I just panhandle. So, yeah. Again, I’ve talked to a lot of them, and some of them—some of their stories are sad and believable, and some of them are just not, you know.

It’s part of riding the train.

Know a New York City employee who’d be interested in talking about the job? Contact Erik Bryan.


TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan