By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City transit officials have begun testing new technology that aims to guard against a rare but terrifying prospect for subway riders - tumbling into the path of an oncoming train.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials are installing four different "intrusion detection" systems at undisclosed locations along the city's roughly 660 miles of subway tracks, said MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz.
The four systems being tested are all designed to detect a person on the tracks and alert approaching train conductors to hit the brakes, Ortiz said.
The different systems employ a variety of technologies ranging from thermal-imaging cameras and cameras equipped with "intelligent video" software to webs of laser beams or radio frequencies.
For the city's 5.3 million weekday subway riders - many of whom brave shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on packed platforms during rush hours - the fear of falling or being pushed into the path of an oncoming train is ever present.
"I stand in the center of the platform until the train has pulled in," said Christal Smith, 31, a Bronx nursing home supervisor. "Who wants to die like that?"
The odds of being hit by a city subway train are slim. Last year, 141 commuters were hit by trains, with 52 resulting in fatalities, Ortiz said. About one-third of those who are struck each year are attempted suicides, he said. The city subway system has an annual ridership of 1.7 billion, according to its website.
Still, the fear is pervasive.
"This, along with the terrorism, is something that the riding public worries about," said Gene Russianoff, chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, a rider advocacy group.
Brooklyn commuter Jesse James, 20, said he was riding in the front car, next to the subway conductor's booth last year when he saw a passenger fall onto the tracks at a 34th Street station.
"The conductor was honking and pulling on the brakes," James said, as fellow riders helped pull the fallen passenger back onto the platform - just in time.
If any of the four systems are approved for use, the installation would be paid for out of the MTA's capital budget, as opposed to a fare hike, Ortiz said.
The pilot program was first reported by the New York Daily News.
(Reporting By Chris Francescani; editing by Gunna Dickson)