Assaults on Metro-North conductors prompt call for more cops on trains
One female conductor was forced to lock herself in a conductor compartment and call for help after being threatened by a passenger
- A pumpkin stem cut open one conductor's face when attacked by a passenger.
- MTA police say there have been 28 felony assaults on Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad
Vicious assaults on Metro-North Railroad conductors by unruly customers are spurring calls for an increased police presence on the commuter rails.
Since last year, nine conductors have been attacked by passengers in rail car confrontations that have turned increasingly violent over the course of the pandemic, union officials say.
Conductors have been physically assaulted, spit on, threatened and verbally attacked with racially derogatory words.
In January, a female conductor on a Harlem Line train was forced to lock herself in a conductor compartment and call for help after being threatened by a passenger when she told him the train would not be making any more stops.
And on Oct. 11, a 62-year-old female conductor was attacked when she told a passenger who boarded the train in Tuckahoe that she’d have to get off the train because she did not have a ticket. The veteran conductor needed 20 stitches to close a gash to her face caused by being struck repeatedly by a pumpkin stem and has not returned to work.
“I haven’t seen anything like this in 20 years,” said Edward Valente, who heads the conductors union for the Association of Commuter Rail Employees.
MTA police say there have been 28 felony assaults on Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad since the start of the year. Eleven of those were on Metro-North.
Half of those 28 attacks were on police officers (10) and conductors (4).
But they don’t include lesser confrontations like spitting and verbal attacks that may not lead to injury.
“I don’t know where this became commonplace but it’s a disgusting, despicable thing to do to another human and in a day and age where you’re not even supposed to be breathing in the same space as anyone else, imagine expelling their bodily fluids on them,” said Michael O’Meara, the president of the MTA Police’s Police Benevolent Association.
A union-led effort to pass a measure that would increase penalties for spitting on transit workers failed in the state legislature earlier this year.
O’Meara has joined Valente in calling on the MTA to increase police presence on Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road. The NYPD increased its profile in city subways earlier this year after a surge in crime.
O'Meara said the MTA's efforts to get riders to return to regular commuting habits will suffer if the crime issue isn't addressed.
“We’ve taken a hyper focus on New York City Transit, and rightfully so, because the subways are a cesspool,” O’Meara said. “However we need to focus more of our attention on the commuter railroads."
On Monday, Metro-North President Catherine Rinaldi told a meeting of MTA board members that she will be working with the MTA police to increase police presence on the rails. And, Rinaldi said, she will "beef up" de-escalation training for conductors.
“It's a critical issue for us," Rinaldi said. "We are calling upon our conductors and our frontline personnel to do more than ever before. And they need to know, and all of you need to know, that we are absolutely committed to making the environment out there as safe as possible.”
“It’s a very tense environment out there because of mask compliance and vaccinations and all that stuff,” she added. “Why should the railroad be different from the rest of the world.”
This year’s 11 felony assaults on Metro-North through September represent an increase of five from the same point last year. In 2019 there were 14 felony assaults and in 2018 16, years when ridership was at its traditional levels.
But this year, with many commuters continuing to work from home, Metro-North ridership is down to roughly 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
"It's actually a spike," O'Meara said.
In the current climate, conductors say they are being thrust into desperate confrontations with combative passengers, while trying to protect the safety of other passengers.
Valente welcomed Rinaldi’s support but suggested the railroad’s focus should be on deterring crime, not de-escalation efforts.
“We’re the victims in all this so I think there needs to be more focus on the criminals,” Valente said. “That starts with hiring additional police and putting them on the trains.”
Of particular concern to Valente is six of the nine assaults have been on female conductors.
“They’re concerned for their safety, concerned for the treatment they’re receiving on the trains,” he said.
The 62-year-old conductor attacked last week is considering retirement after 28 years in the job, Valente said. Her assailant got off the train at Mount Vernon West and has not been found. But, Valente said, she left her purse behind on the train with her identification.
“I need a buy-in from the MTA…because we all know if you have a police officer who is visible all the studies have shown that it acts as a deterrent and there’s less criminal activity," he said.