I’ve been at the mercy of delayed trains and even broken trains where a second train came next to the disabled one and the passengers hopped from one train to another through open doors. Once, I was on a train when a tree fell down  and, luckily, spared the car I was sitting in. I’ve endured eternal waits in a subway tunnel with only a static speaker providing information. Thankfully, I have never been involved in a fire, a car/train collision or any kind of underground terrorist attack. When traveling or commuting by train or subway, here’s what you need to know to protect yourself and ensure that you survive a subway emergency.

Support The Crew

“In the event of an incident, the first and foremost thing to do is stay in your seat and wait for instructions from the crew,” says Scott Sauer, chief system safety officer for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). In SEPTA subway cars, like in many subways across the U.S., an operator will provide directions to passengers. On commuter trains there is an engineer and a conductor, and many times there are numerous conductors.It’s their job to ensure your safety. They are also in contact with the control center, so they have a better understanding of the situation. For the moment, it might be safer to be underground or in the car.

Safe Escape

“If it’s an imminent threat, something that is endangering you immediate safety, go to the next car,” said SEPTA’s Sauer. Walk between cars and move away from the threat, whether it’s smoke, a fire or worse. This way you are still on the train, which can provide shelter until help arrives.

A catastrophe means just that—a bad situation. The crew, if they are able, will lead you out. Remember, the height from the car window to the ground can vary from 6 to 8 feet. In some cases, the ground may not be level, soft and inviting, but filled with rocks, sloping or on a bridge. The crew will notify first responders. If you have cell service, you will want to call, too. There’s no need to keep the situation a secret.

There are two ways to evacuate a subway car, first by door and, if that is not possible, then via the window. “In the middle of the car is a door release that a passenger or crew member can operate. It is the same door a passenger used to board the train,” explained Sauer. Most modern trains in service in the United States have emergency windows that are easily removed. First pull the handle next to the window and yank the rubber gasket out around the Plexiglass. The window will then come out and you can drop to the ground.

Deadly Voltage

Subway trains are powered by an electrified third rail. It’s the rail elevated above the two wheel rails. Don’t touch the third rail under any circumstances. Sauer said that in most cases, due to the emergency, the third rail will be deactivated, but always treat it like it’s a deadly viper ready to strike.

Many underground subway systems have emergency exits between stations that will allow you to get above ground. You should walk in the middle of the track to avoid the third rail. Walk in the direction the train was traveling and make your way to the next station.

Underground Essentials

There are two items to have on your person that can help keep you safe in the event of an emergency: a cell phone and a flashlight. If you are one of the passengers lucky enough to have phone service, it’s important to try calling for help. It certainly can’t hurt.

The other essential, the flashlight, will illuminate the situation for you and other passengers. The tunnels are dark, and subway cars have minimal emergency lighting. A lightweight penlight like those held on the end of a key chain or even a head-mounted light that you stash in your knapsack can make your escape from danger more effective.

This article is from an issue of SURVIVOR’S EDGE. To subscribe, please visit

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