Why NYC Subway Operators Are Serious Badasses

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Most New Yorkers spend all or part of their subway rides secretly hoping to be the subject of a Craigslist Missed Connection (which will totally happen someday! Maybe. Probably not.). When you aren’t having chance encounters with your future bae, you may wonder how 1.751 billion riders on 656 miles of track keep moving. The trains are driven by dedicated (and badass) subway operators who make sure you arrive at your underground sex party -- or, you know, “dinner” -- on time.

Here are 12 reasons why subway operators deserve your contagious courtesy.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Operators are your first line (not a subway joke) of defense

Riders perk up for but a moment when they hear a conductor’s voice, but once they’ve been instructed to “remain alert and have a safe day,” they immediately return to crucial Candy Crushing or pretending to read. Your train operator (often called "motormen") spends at least an hour prepping trains before moving them onto the tracks for their shift. Train operators check brakes, test doors, walk through all 10 cars, and do an exhaustive safety inspection before meeting you on your morning commute. Once the trains are active, they are looking for smoke, strange smells, and anything that may appear out of place, and then relay that information to MTA dispatch. They look at each face as the train rolls into a station and try to get everyone on before the doors close. As they say, safety is no accident.

Each train is different and the drivers have to get to know new ones quickly

You may have noticed that the numbered trains are different than the lettered trains (you do know how to take the subway, right?), but you probably didn’t know that operators usually stick to one type of line or the other. Still, each train has its own quirks that operators need to learn quickly. How much pressure do you need to apply to the brakes or the throttle? How will the train grip to wet tracks? Are the doors sticking? These are just a few things the operator needs to account for with the trains they are using for their shift. Imagine having to drive a different car every single day... or maybe something more tangible for New Yorkers: having to go to a totally new coffee cart guy every morning.

Flickr/Michael Semensohn

They keep you on time... we promise

The subway runs on an actual, definitely real schedule. To this you say HUH?? But it's true! Look here. Train operators are tasked with keeping the system on schedule so that delays and close, unwanted contact with strangers can be avoided. Next time you think “I'll throw my arm into these closing doors. What’s one more person?!” remember that you are causing the delays, not the train operator.

A small mistake for you in your car is life-threatening for a subway driver

When you run a red light with that Zipcar for your totes-sick-Hamptons-trip-brah you cower behind the wheel and hope there isn’t a Big Brother-y ticket system to nail you. If a train operator misses a light, even after a quick signal change, they need to be ready to explain the blunder. Mistakes happen, but their mistakes are amplified, as they could cause delays and potentially cost lives. In many ways, operators are only as good as their last ride and they have to be sharp the entire shift. You probably understand the challenges of focusing an entire workday as you read this from your cubicle, surrounded by empty cups of bad coffee.

They drive a more expensive car than you

You think your boss went wild when springing for his ergonomic standing/walking/running desk? Subway trains cost upwards of $1 million. That doesn’t include the irreplaceable cargo (aka you, special you).

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Trains need to “stop on a dime” after speeding through stations to be on time

Entering a station and opening the doors for passengers to board isn’t that simple. The operator has to hit an exact spot, and he can't roll in slowly if he plans to keep on schedule. Operators need to be precise with their stop before they can open the doors. They have to be fast between stations to keep everyone happy, but they also need to go slow (but not too slow) so doors are lined up at each station.

Not hitting an exact speed could throw off every other train

Not only do operators need to stop quickly and within a narrow margin of error, there are also times when the train needs to be within a range of speeds to trigger a signal or light change which will cause a chain reaction for other trains. If they miss the speed or misinterpret the light, the other trains can't adjust.

Cole Saladino/Thrillist

They have to deal with your nonsense

You may think it’s a good idea to take a quick train nap at 2am. You have an excellent internal clock! You will wake up WAY before your stop! That is, until you don’t. Sleeping through your stop and ending up at the end of the line may mean you wake up in the train yard because you missed the “last stop” announcement. Once the operator finds you and interrupts your slumber, he has to pull the train back into the last station because it isn’t safe for you to exit through the yard. Operators also have to watch for people who think it’s a good idea to get on the train after it starts moving. If they see someone jump on, they have to put on the emergency brakes immediately and make sure everyone is okay.


They deal with quarantines and bomb scares

You’ve heard these announcements -- and you probably never consider what’s actually going on, other than the fact that you’re going to be late for work. Operators have to take action when responding to sick passengers -- who are often passed out or post-vomiting or bleeding -- by quarantining the specific car and coordinating with EMTs and verifying that the right people are showing up for the right emergency. If it is a police situation, usually it’s the operator who has to work directly with police before a train can leave.

They have to act fast, even when they have little control

Train driving is mentally taxing, not just for the reasons stated above, but also because in so many situations there is so little they can do. They don’t always choose their speed -- like crawling between stations -- and so many things happen because of scheduling issues -- like suddenly going express. An operator’s worst nightmare is when someone jumps or is pushed in front of a train. Usually braking won’t stop the impact, and trains can only go straight, so they often are not able to do anything.

Emergency stops involve hundreds of people's lives and dark tunnels

When a train “goes into emergency” -- or when the train’s emergency brakes are engaged and the train stops -- subway operators are subject to the elements. The train may have stopped in a tunnel where the edges are narrow and only a few inches away from the third rail, there might be loose track to negotiate, or the operator may have hit a patch of garbage -- or something worse. Rats are known for being friendly, right? The operator has to go through a series of checks before the train can be released and put back into action. Dispatch is simultaneously trying to get them to hustle to minimize delays. Walking around the dark, varied terrain of the subway tunnels is a regular hazard for subway operators. If a subway needs to be evacuated, they’re the ones leading the way out of trains and through the tunnels, but since they’re the captains of the ship, they’re also the last ones out.

Flickr/Sharon Terry

Everything is unpredictable

Everyone has their favorite WTF subway story. Imagine a career of those. Operators have had encounters with “the mole people,” fully nude platform dancers, and police looking to apprehend suspected bank robbers who took refuge in the train. For a rider, these make for perfect cocktail conversation boosters. But for the train operators, this is just life.

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Matthew Moll is not a subway performer. You can follow him here.