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How to signal to an NYC subway to stop (in case of emergency)

December 4th, 2012 by Comments to this post

As part of our evolving nerd ‘how to’ series, we felt it highly relevant to post this handy insiders guide on how to signal to a subway driver to stop an oncoming, moving the train from the platform.


If you live in the NYC area and haven’t spent the last 24 hours under a rock, you’ve probably heard the horrifying tale of Ki-Suk Han, the man shoved in front of, and killed by a southbound Q train yesterday afternoon. His death was potentially avoidable had the other passengers on the station platform had any clue what to do. Stopping a subway train is possible, if you know the rules. Unfortunately the MTA has never made this information public. If the MTA trusted its passengers enough to educate them of it – perhaps less people would be killed by subways every year. Note that what I’m about to explain is information gathered from observation while riding subways over the past few decades. I actually learned it when I was 5, riding the subways to Coney Island from Queens during the summer. This should not be a secret, and any astute rider who ever watched a train go through a tunnel from the front window already knows it well. This procedure has never changed. Learn it and you could save a life some day.

Step One: What you need
The first step is to carry a small flashlight. Honestly you should be doing this already in case of blackouts and other disasters. (NYC has had plenty such occasions in recent years, fucking do it) We recommend any LED flashlight, though Maglite’s AA lights are awesome, compact, bright, and made in the USA. Do not pay more than 20 bucks for one. REI currently has them for 12. AA batteries are pretty universal and easy to keep a supply of.

Step Two: What to do with it
If you are on a subway platform and see someone fall – and they can’t climb out- your best bet is to run to the end of the platform where a train will be coming into the station from. Pull out your flashlight and as soon as you see one coming, point the light directly at the front of the train and move it across your body in a sweeping sideways motion. The train operator will honk when he sees you. Keep moving that light though until you see him slowing down and stopping. If the train is not honking the train operator has not seen you yet. Stay calm and keep motioning that flashlight – right to left, left to right – across your body pointing the light directly at the front of the train. You will be seen, and the train will stop before entering the station. Train Operators are taught to do this to a point where it’s automatic instinct – like a cop pulling her gun when she sees a perp with one.


(Source: MTA Safety Rulebook, 1986)

This signal is the same one used by MTA track workers to indicate to train operators that there is a need to stop the train until they are signaled to proceed.

If the victim can move, direct them towards the end of the station which the train will not usually be entering from – at the end of each platform there is a ladder up to the ‘track shelf’ (which is a small walkway next to and above the tracks) and back onto the platform. The ladder is usually no more than 40 feet into the tunnel, and is often right off the edge of the platform. Note that in most cases the third rail is located on the other side of the track from the platform, and not near the ladder.

Climbing out from the tracks directly into the platform unassisted is by no means easy. There are usually no footholds – nothing for your feet to step upward on. Subway platforms jut out above the actual ‘roadbed’ – allowing for approximately 1 foot of space under the platform for the third rail shoes (the part of the subway car that connects to third rails) to pass underneath. This creates a lip that is very hard to climb up. Climbing up direct to the platform is entirely based in upper body strength. Unless you are young and in shape it’s not something you want to have to do with 400 ton train bearing down on you, with seconds between you and closed-coffin funeral (Being run over by the train will frankly cut you into pieces and is an extremely grim death – it is nearly always fatal).

With the train safely stopped near but not within the station, the victim can be removed from the tracks – preferably after a wait for the MTA command center to shut down electricity to the tracks and arrival of first responders. In generally it’ll only take 3-5 minutes for the fire department to arrive. Keep whoever you can calm. Try to make sure the victim doesn’t get up and stumble around the tracks. if the train is stopped, it’s best that they lay still & wait for properly trained help.

Never go on the tracks. You cannot help if you are on the tracks and are only putting yourself in needless danger. Your job is to try to signal to the train to stop – that is all. The operator of the train can call the command center for emergency help – or other witnesses can be told to run upstairs and dial 911. Take charge, point at someone and command them to go get help (assigning the task can help eliminate the Bystander, or Genovese syndrome. Assigning the task prompts that person to spring into action. never be afraid to take care – most people will be paralyzed by fear or stupidly taking photos with their phones.

If you want to play hero, this is how you do it. Going on the tracks to try to help a victim up can only complicate the situation and has a high potential to make matters worse. Signal to the train from the end of the platform. Get someone to dial 911. leave the rest to the professionals.

Footnote 1:
I half expect to get some angry comments from subway fanatics and/or law enforcement type people worried about terrorism and kids goofing off using this procedure to fuck around – so to anyone that thinks I’m wrong for posting this: grow the fuck up. It’s not 1978 anymore. There aren’t hordes of youth gangs on the subways pulling the emergency brake and mugging people. The MTA should get over it and make this information available in a public education campaign. Other cities educate commuters on transit safety basics. It’s long overdue that more people in NYC understand what to do in these sorts of situations. Maybe if they did so many people wouldn’t get killed by subway trains every year.

Footnote 2: The photographer who’s photo graced the cover of the NY Post (tasteless rag that it is), claims he thought his camera flash would help get the train operator’s attention – that’s the lamest excuse for the best composed pre-death photo I’ve seen in a long time. The photographer in me can understand wanting the shot, and there may not have been time to help, but come on… Enjoy those 500 bucks the post gave you for that photo. You can spend the rest of your life wondering if it was worth soiling your name forever for.

9 Responses to “How to signal to an NYC subway to stop (in case of emergency)”

  1. chrisfyb says:

    Awesome post. The more you know!

  2. Franklyn says:

    If you want someone to take you seriously, why would you say:

    “NYC has had plenty such occasions in recent years, fucking do it)” Somehow inappropriate amidst a host of really good and valuable information.

  3. Control says:

    Because it amazes me how absolutely unprepared most people are for something that is extremely common. Boo fucking hoo if that hurts anyone’s feelings.

    If you want to see this information in a nicey nicey polished format with no curse words go ask the MTA and NYC Media outlits why they act like flagging a train is some state department secret.

  4. nailhed says:

    from what i heard, there were 22 seconds btwn the time the guy fell on the tracks and the time the train arrived.

    sounds to me like a bunch of people just said “fuck this guy, i’d rather watch him die than lift a finger to help a fellow human being.”

    hopefully someday they will be put in danger and have the opportunity to experience firsthand what its like to be in need of help and have a bunch of people staring at you thinking “fuck this guy.”

    hard to stand here and say “well if I was there, then…”, but i mean 22 seconds? come the fuck on. thats long enough to take a piss break or light up a smoke before waltzing over to the platform to grab this guys arms. after which i’d probably swipe photographer guy’s camera and smash it for him. fuckin worthless prick.

  5. Yaggy says:

    Learn something new every day, thanks Control.

  6. Control says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    I don’t blame the idiots on the platform so much as I blame the MTA for not trusting it’s riders with valuable safety information. If the victim knew to not try to get onto the platform – and instead stepped over the third rail to the space between the tracks, he would have been fine. Terrified, but fine.

    If the MTA taught people about this very universal train flagging procedure (pretty sure it’s used by other transit and railroads), someone could have warned the train operator before he even got into the station.

    There are no posters, no public education about this. Only recently did they start trying to educate people to stand away from the platform edges. They should have ads out there explaining exactly what the fuck you do if you end up on the tracks.

  7. Carlos R. Edwards says:

    This is indeed timely information and as such, it should be posted on every station platform in the system. You never know when it might mean the difference between life and death.

  8. railman says:

    FYI that is the same stop signal for all railroads in the US. If anyone is waving anything in the motion shown in the drawing, we are required to stop. (I’m a freight engineer)

    So if something happens on a normal railroad, you can get that engineers attention too. Just be aware a loaded 80 car freight at 40mph takes 1-1.5 miles to stop…

    Also remember if you use this signal to stop a frieght and it isn’t an emergancy, you better hope you don’t get caught because it is a federal offense.

  9. Control says:

    Thanks for the FYI – I wasn’t sure if it was universal to other RRs, and had no idea about the law. Makes total sense though. So far as I know NYC has no law covering this directly related to subways, though they don’t need one at the moment since public awareness about it is minimal at best. Stopping a subway for a minute wouldn’t be a big deal – stopping a long freight train is a problem. Makes 100% sense that it would be illegal.

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    Control
    Control knows more about the NYC underground than anyone else on or below the surface of this planet. He has spent nearly 30 years sneaking into NYC's more forbidden locations. When not underground, he's probably bitching about politicians or building something digital. 
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