Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer at GOVERNING.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the day after Christmas 2010, as a walloping blizzard hit New York City, 400 passengers were riding the Manhattan-bound A train from Queens. Around 10 p.m., the train ground to a halt. It wouldn’t move again for eight hours. Although the train was above ground, the conductor allegedly refused to let passengers out. With no heat, riders were packed into a single car to stay warm. They were stuck without food or water, and forced to relieve themselves in the train or between cars. Passengers who called 911 reportedly were told to contact the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; calls to MTA were directed to 911. Once the train did get moving again, the passengers were offloaded and told to wait another 45 minutes for the next train. As one passenger recently told reporters, “It was a nightmare.”
That harrowing ordeal is now the subject of a lawsuit from about two dozen of the riders, filed against the city’s transit agency. The passengers’ attorney, Aymen Aboushi, has taken the case pro bono. Aboushi says he’s seeking a nominal payment from the city -- about $25,000 for passengers’ medical expenses -- but the real goal is to ensure something like this never happens again. All the plaintiffs want, Aboushi says, is for the agency to create a responsible policy. Passengers stuck for at least four hours should have access to water and blankets, he says, and the agency needs a better way to communicate with trapped passengers and provide medical services once they’re offloaded.
The agency hasn’t responded to the suit, and officials declined to discuss the case. But during testimony before the City Council in December, New York City Transit President Thomas Prendergast admitted the agency messed up. “We forgot about that train,” he said. “That’s inexcusable.”
Prendergast has announced plans to scale back transit service as dangerous weather approaches, as when the city canceled all transit before Hurricane Irene last year. An MTA spokeswoman says the agency also has a new policy to ensure someone is named the “customer advocate” during emergencies. That person would be exclusively tasked with monitoring the safety and comfort of passengers.
But Aboushi says the city needs more of a comprehensive approach for dealing with a similar crisis in the future. “What if it happens again?”