As station agents vanish from the subways, riders struggle to adapt to replacement intercoms

It’s not as simple as a push of a button.

The subway intercoms that straphangers must increasingly rely on for help have left many riders stumped about how to use them — if they can find them at all.

“I’ve never noticed it,” said Queens rider Maryanne Bannon, 58. “Most New Yorkers are not trained for this.”

With the MTA poised to lay off 450 station agents by May, the agency has advised riders needing help to use the “customer assistance intercoms” located in many stations. The metal boxes have a red button to contact emergency personnel and another one to call the on-duty station clerk.

The agency started installing the boxes when it reduced token clerks several years ago, NYC Transit spokesman Paul Fleuranges said, with at least 160 stations rigged with them at entrances and platforms.

In a small survey of straphangers by amNewYork, no one was familiar with the rather cryptic-looking boxes.

“They have to come up with a better design. It’s not consumer friendly,” said Karl Kronebusch, 54, a Park Slope rider.

Even MTA CEO Jay Walder recently admitted that he had a hard time finding the intercom in a station he frequents, saying he was “disappointed” by the obscure system.
“We’ve almost hidden them away,” Walder said last week.

The calls can take awhile to get to token clerk, and if the worker is busy it has to be rerouted to transit’s command center, said Maurice Jenkins, the head of the union’s stations department. The boxes are mounted so low that it’s awkward to speak into them in general, let alone when there’s a crisis, he said.

“It takes awhile just to go through, and meanwhile someone is beating you to death,” Jenkins said.

The boxes also periodically break, with an entire bank of them out recently, union officials said. Furthermore, many stations where the station agents are being removed don’t have the safety devices installed yet, said MTA board member Andrew Albert. “Before we remove booth agents, we should have a method of contacting the police,” Albert said.

NYC Transit will be installing 42 more intercoms at entrances that lack them, and is coming up with a more pronounced sign for the boxes, Fleuranges said. The intercoms are regularly maintained and inspected, he said.

“They really have to keep an eye on that and they do,” Fleuranges said.

Julia Borovskaya contributed to this story.

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Station agents in 2007: 3,450
Station agents being laid off: 450
Station agents that will remain: 2,650
Money it will save: $21 million a year

Tags: new york city , mta , transit

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