New signal technology installed on the 7 line allows trains to run more frequently.
It is also allows most train operations to be automated, and that's causing both hope and hand-wringing that the MTA will be able to run more trains with one crew member instead of two.
“It's sort of like autopilot on a plane or cruise control on a car," Steven Higashide, director of research for Transit Center, said. "Because a train operator no longer needs to focus as much on driving, he or she is freed up to operate the doors, to scope out the platform to interact with customers.”
One person trains can save the cash-strapped transit agency precious money by eliminating union jobs.
Andy Byford, the MTA official who oversees the system, expanded one-person train operations when he ran Toronto’s subways, saying safety was not compromised.
But Tramell Thompson, an MTA conductor who heads a labor activist group called Progressive Action, says having a second crew member prevents accidents that one train operator alone cannot catch.
“Once the train gets moving, a train operator can't do a platform observation, which is very critical," Thompson said.
The MTA already uses one-person crews on some shuttles and on some shorter lines, like the G and M lines on weekends.
Officials with the Transport Workers Union were in Albany lobbying for a bill that would largely stop the practice.
Assemblyman Nick Perry, a Brooklyn lawmaker, first introduced the legislation in 1995.
While his proposal has languished, its gaining new attention as the MTA's steady effort to upgrade its signal systems makes the expansion of one-person trains more feasible.
Perry admits he first introduced the bill to protect jobs. Now he says it's about safety.
“9/11 was an awakening, I think, that you need to have conductors on board," Perry said.
But Higashide, the Transit Center research director, says the benefits of one-person trains are clear, without any added risk.
"It means lower costs, which means that it could be financially viable to run more trains," he said. "There's no reason why it couldn't exist here in New York."
The MTA declined to comment on the legislation. Transit officials however said that the goal of new signal technology is not to make the conductor obsolete, but to let trains run closer together.