Officials at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority are studying the use of technology to minimize subway commuter deaths, but admit it won’t come cheap.

“I’m not saying that it’s unfeasible, but we have technical issues to solve, and no silver bullet on the technological front,” said New York City Transit president and MTA interim executive director Thomas Prendergast after he told the MTA board’s transit committee that improvements could cost roughly $1 billion – steep given the authority’s $31.2 billion of debt outstanding, its commitment to major capital projects, and its estimated $5 billion of short-term borrowing necessary to offset the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

The MTA reported 55 rider fatalities in 2012, including two headline deaths late last year in which victims were pushed into oncoming trains.

Unfunded capital program needs over the next 20 years include $15 billion to modernize the signaling system; $4 billion to cover 20% of emergency ventilation needs; $5 billion for the station component program; $2.5 billion for safety–related information systems; and $15 billion for subway car and bus investments.

In addition, major capital projects under way include the Second Avenue subway line, East Side access for Long Island Rail Road trains, and a new transit hub at Fulton Street in lower Manhattan.

Technological safety remedies under consideration could include platform screen doors and intrusion detection devices, the latter setting off buzzes or bells when riders move too close to the platform edge. Challenges include train door-platform alignments, signal interfacing and even rats setting off the detection systems.

Prendergast said the age and quirkiness of the system’s 468 stations – some platforms are straight, for example, and others curved – further complicate any remedies. “When rail rapid transit came at the start of the century, it was all man-operated. It’s difficult to retrofit a system that was developed 110 years ago,” he told reporters.

Board member Charles Moerdler asked whether the MTA could implement such cost-effective measures as electronically extending the yellow warning line to keep commuters further back, comparable to systems in London and Paris. “It should not cost a lot of money,” Moerdler said.

Paris, London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and São Paulo are starting to retrofit stations with platform doors, according to MTA officials.

The MTA plans public-service messages and multilingual paid advertising, warning commuters to stay from the edges of subway and commuter-train pits.

“There are many questions, including: How to make the riding public fully aware of the dangers? Are their effective technologies that would prevent these incidents? And if there are, how to pay for it?,” said Gene Russianoff, an attorney and chief spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign ridership advocacy group.

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