Concern grows over e-battery fires on trains and subways

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Thursday, May 18, 2023
Concern grows over e-battery fires on trains and subways
The city of New York has seen an explosion in battery fires sparked by e-bikes and e-scooters. 7 On Your Side Investigates how NYC is handling these concerns. Dan Krauth has the story.

The city of New York has seen an explosion in battery fires sparked by e-bikes and e-scooters. There have been 80 e-battery fires so far this year, including 60 injuries and nine deaths.

The city leads the nation in e-battery fires. Cities like Los Angeles and Seattle have reported about a dozen in the same time period. Other cities like Houston don't track them.

7 On Your Side Investigates had to look across the pond, to London, to find a major city that's experiencing a similar deadly rise in fires.

The British city has a similar number of electronic devices and fires reported this year.

"It's our fastest growing fire trend," said Charlie Pugsley, the Asst. Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade. "We're up to around one fire every two days from e-bikes or e-scooters," he said.

They've launched a media campaign called Charge Safe and they took action in the transit system. The city banned all e-bikes and scooters from the Tube where the flames and smoke could be especially dangerous, and people have no way to escape.

"When you consider a metro subway system, if you have a fire there with open carriages, you have nowhere to go and so we fully understand and support Transport for London's decision there," said Pugsley.

There's a similar fire concern in New York City. The MTA took action recently. They didn't ban e-devices from trains. Instead, they banned people from charging them on board and the new policy states they have to be powered off.

"In the news, every kind of incident that we heard of these things going on fire is when somebody's charging it so we can't have that happen on the train," said Gerard Bringmann, an MTA Board Member and part of the Long Island Rail Road Commuter Council.

The city's fire marshal said fires are not only limited to devices that are charging. The e-battery fire in a fatal Queens blaze last month was charging at the time it went up in flames. But the e-battery fire that leveled a Bronx supermarket was not.

"It was not charging at the time, so it doesn't really fit the narrative that these things are always from delivery workers and they're charging all the time, it's not always the case," said NYC Chief Fire Marshal Daniel Flynn.

With limited space, city leaders have been promoting the use of the devices as an alternative way of getting around. They've also expressed concerned they don't want to affect the livelihood of the more than 60,000 delivery workers who use the devices.

When asked who's going to police the new policy, Bringmann said it'll primarily be up to transit workers.

"The first line of defense would be the conductors, if it's a problem and they get some push back they could at least get on the phone and have MTA police meet them at the next station," he said. "There's certain risks that you take everywhere so we want to mitigate those risks as much as possible."

City leaders have also been taking action. They passed a series of 5 new laws that include banning the sale of uncertified and unregulated batteries. Even though people can still purchase them online which is a problem for cities across the world.

"Maybe we need to have something else down the line but this is a good start," said Bringmann. "The MTA is not beyond tweaking this policy down the line."


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