Top Attractions

Underground NYC

by staff, 10/09/2012 [Updated 11/11/2015]

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  • Smooth Operator: Behind the Controls of a Subway Train
    "I go to work when most people are going to bed," says a late-night New York City subway train operator who prefers to remain anonymous, "and come home when most are starting their day." The subway system runs 24 hours a day—even on weekends and holidays—and he is among the men and women who make sure that, no matter what the time, New Yorkers can navigate their City.

    The motorman understands how many people rely on him: "If I'm late, that means 3,000 other people will be late to City Hall or wherever they're going." There's considerable pressure to be on time, no matter what challenges come along: different controls ("You're not driving the same vehicle every day. One day you're in a 1992 Golf and the next you're in a 2001 Jetta"), inclement weather, leaves on the track. Details are key: "If you don't go the right speed, you're throwing people out of their seats. You have to make your station stops accurately, otherwise you can't open the doors. People will fall into the tunnel," he says with a laugh. All of these seemingly automatic parts of a subway ride depend on train operators.

    There's a lot to keep track of, too. Operators must keep one hand on the controller constantly, or the "dead-man" feature—which has been needed only a few times, most recently in 2010—will automatically stop the train. And they must know their way around the world's largest public transit system. "You get these multimillion dollar trains in your hand. You're on your own and nobody's there to help you—just this little guy in the cab."

    While some might see the late shift as a burden, this train operator enjoys it. "Most 9-to-5 people rely on their weekends to get things done," he explains, "and don't get to enjoy nice, sunny afternoons like I do."—Jonathan Zeller

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