When a 58-year-old subway rider was pushed on the tracks and killed by an oncoming train in New York City on Monday, rail commuters around the country were forced to think about how they would act if they got stuck on train tracks.
Ki-Suck Han, of Queens, N.Y. was arguing with a man on the platform of a midtown Manhattan subway station around noon when the man suddenly shoved him off the platform and onto the tracks. Han tried to scramble to safety, but was hit by an oncoming train.
"He fell down, or got pushed, and I think people's first instinct is, 'I've got to get back up on the platform," said Jim Gannon, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union International, which represents New York transit workers.
"That's not that easy to do unless you're pretty athletic," Gannon said.
Operators of subway systems in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C., all declined to offer safety advice to riders who end up on the tracks.
"There are no generalities when it comes to the subway system," said Charles Seaton, a spokesman for New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority.
Seaton said that each station in New York's system is built differently. If a rider were to lie down on the tracks and hope a train would pass over them, "there might not be enough clearance between the ties," Seaton said.
Standing in between tracks "could pose the problem of hitting the third rail," he said. If you try to run away, "you could trip," he said. "What we try to do, and it's difficult because we have 5.5 million people a day riding, we try to educate people not to end up on the edge of the platform, accidentally or on purpose."
Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group in New York that pushes for better train service, said, "Outrunning a train is not the swiftest advice, but you need expertise. It will depend on the geography of that station."
"We don't have an official stance on if you fall on the tracks what to do," said Philip Stewart, spokesman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington, D.C.
But riders do have some options, according to Gannon, who recommends that riders try to lie flat underneath or to the side of the train, or run to the end of the tunnel, Gannon said.
"If there is clearance in the trough (between tracks), people have survived that way. And there's also, instead of trying to get back up on the platform, if you step a couple of steps to where the girders are, between the express track, the third rail has a cover on it, so you can step on it," Gannon said.
People have even survived after coming in contact with the third rail, as long as they are not touching the running rail and third rail at the same time, he said.
"When people are really smoked down there, it's when you hit a running rail and the third rail at the same time," he said.
"If you're at the end of platform from not where the train is coming in, you run toward the tunnel, past where the train would normally stop. Even in an emergency, there are stairs at the end there where you can get up," Gannon said.
Gannon also said that passengers on the platform should tell a station agent about a person in trouble, if they cannot get to the person on the tracks to help them up.
"The agent can within seconds get a message to transit command, and they'll tell them to not come into the station until they figure out what the emergency situation is," Gannon said.
Several subway systems around the world have safety barriers, such as glass panels, intended to prevent passengers from reaching the tracks. Paris' metro operator, RATP, began installing glass panels along platforms at some stations in 2010 after a string of deaths, some by suicide. In Taiwan, the Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation has platform screen doors at some of its 102 subway stations.
"Some stations have glass walls and doors and you don't have access to the platform, but as far as I can tell that would cost a giant fortune," Russianoff, of the Straphangers Campaign, said.
Gannon and train operators agree that safety in the subway starts with alertness on train platforms and common sense.
"Don't go near the end of the platform," Gannon said. "There is no reason to stick your head out and look for the train. Why would you do that?"