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Crews Stall Trains Over Shopping Cart Worries as New Rule Goes Unheeded

The death of a motorman in 2020 led the MTA to ban large carts from the subway after fire investigators said a man ignited one, causing a train to burst into flames.

But the union that represents subway workers says enforcement of the ban on the carts often associated with homelessness has been next to nonexistent — while the NYPD would not say how many have been removed from trains or stations when asked by THE CITY.

“If MTA management can’t make the NYPD and the transit police enforce the ban, there’s nothing in the world that can make them enforce it,” said Canella Gomez, a Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president.

“It’s not even about all the fires that have happened — for our train crews, it’s mostly about one of our brothers dying from a shopping-cart fire.”

Train operator Garrett Goble, 36, died in March 2020, when his No. 2 train caught fire at the Central Park North-110th Street station. Authorities charged a man with murder nine months after Goble’s death, accusing him of igniting a cart.

“The whole thing is very upsetting,” his mother, Vicki Goble, recently told THE CITY. “My son had such a bright future and in a flash, he was gone because of someone’s cruel act.”

Gomez, who represents train operators and conductors, last week appeared in a selfie-video shot at the No. 2 line’s Bronx terminal, where he repeatedly flagged riders who had supermarket carts on trains.

He called for “safety over service.”

“We’re not letting no train go down the road with you and that shopping cart,” he told one man pushing a cart stuffed with plastic garbage bags. “It’s not happening.”

The NYPD repeatedly declined to answer questions on how often its transit bureau officers have enforced the ban on “wheeled carts” that measure more than 30 inches in width or length — a New York City Transit code of conduct violation since 2020 that now carries a $75 fine.

The union’s push for stronger enforcement comes after recent fires in the subway, including a Feb. 2 outburst that FDNY officials said started in a smaller, collapsible cart at the 181st Street station on the No. 1 line.

A subway car caught fire at the 181 Street Station after this shopping cart burst into flames , officials said. Feb. 2, 2022.
Marc A. Hermann/MTA

THE CITY reported last week that there were 1,006 fires in the subway in 2021 — up 12% from 2020 and a 40% increase from the previous year.

“It’s up to us to work with our partners at NYPD to make sure that the rules of conduct are followed in the system,” Craig Cipriano, interim president of New York City Transit, told THE CITY Friday.

Several recent fires have come as the transit system struggles with what MTA Chairperson and CEO Janno Lieber has called “a crisis of rider confidence” driven by “conditions in the subway,” including homelessness, crime and the horrific Jan. 15 killing of Michelle Go, who was pushed in front of a train by a man at the Times Square-42nd Street station.

The MTA and the FDNY could not provide figures for how many subway fires have involved shopping carts.

According to the transit agency, more than 90% of the subway fires last year did not disrupt service, damage property or require an FDNY response.

An internal incident report obtained by THE CITY shows that a cart on the tracks was suspected as the cause of a January 19, 2021 fire at the 49th Street stop in Manhattan, delaying 17 trains on the N and R lines.

Another report from February 1, 2021, said that a collision between a train and a cart on the tracks at the Liberty Avenue station in Brooklyn caused a “small explosion” and delays on the A line. In August, a collision between a C train and a shopping cart at the Fulton Street stop in Manhattan caused a fire, temporarily knocking out rush-hour service on two lines.

‘Just What I Need to Make Ends Meet’

Several homeless people who ride the subway with shopping carts told THE CITY that the ban is mostly overlooked.

“No police officer has ever told me to get this thing out of the subway,” said Tanka Jonh, 65, who had a shopping cart on a platform Friday at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station in Manhattan. “It’s convenient to carry the things I need, so I think it’s all right.”

Advocates for the homeless have been critical of the ban, which they say discriminates against New Yorkers who shelter in the subway. The Safety Net Project of the Urban Justice Center last year sued New York City Transit, charging that the pandemic-era rules are “arbitrary and capricious” and provide cover for the homeless to be booted from the subway system.

“Banning shopping carts doesn’t address the root causes of homelessness or the question of why people are bringing their belongings into the subway system in the first place,” said Jacquelyn Simone, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless. “It seems like a very blunt enforcement mechanism to just ban all shopping carts because there’s a risk people might ignite them.”

Tyrone Cooper, who was riding the E train last week with a large, wheeled cart carrying a suitcase and a cooler stocked with sodas, said he’s been told by police officers to take it off trains during rush hours.

Tyrone Cooper on a Queens bound E train with his belongings in tow on Friday, 4, 2022.

Tyrone Cooper on a Queens bound E train with his belongings in tow on Friday, 4, 2022.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

“I’m just a worker, I sell peanuts, candy, soda and stuff,” said Cooper, a 65-year-old street vendor who is currently homeless. “I have just what I need to make ends meet.”

Gomez, the union officer, said he does feel compassion for the homeless and the mentally ill, but noted that crews do not want to operate trains in “unsafe conditions.”

“It’s not like I want them in the street, but I don’t want the carts on the train,” Gomez said. “It’s like a double-edged sword.”

Wheels Spinning

Subway motorwoman Nakia Butler told THE CITY she refused last November to move an L train from the 14th Street/Sixth Avenue station because of two shopping carts in the car she was operating.

“A million shopping carts can get on the train every day, but as long as it’s within my vision, Bulletin 72-20 says they are not allowed on trains,” Butler told THE CITY, citing an internal May 2020 memo about the revised rules. “We call them in, we bang them in and the police do not come to remove them.”

Lieber said at January’s MTA board meeting that Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams grasp the urgency of the mental health crisis in the subway, citing their commitment to help “these incredibly vulnerable New Yorkers” by placing more mental health workers and police officers in stations and on trains.

“We want to be part of a system that actually helps them,” Lieber said. “But we can’t accept when they pose a threat to our riders and to the viability of the system — we need our customers to feel safe.”

Gomez said train crews “are beyond fed up” over threats of violence on the job from unhinged riders.

“We can refuse to do unsafe work,” he said.