Two SkyTrain attendants dispatched to Surrey’s Scott Road Station at 7:17 a.m. on March 21, the first Saturday of spring, found a four-car train that wasn’t moving. Control-centre staff had thought something was blocking it. One of the attendants asked a woman on the platform if she saw anything. She pointed to the front of the train.
TransLink declared the station closed and used the euphemism “medical emergency” on its Twitter account. There were delays systemwide, but an improvised bus “bridge” shuttled passengers south to Gateway Station.
One by one, emergency responders arrived. First the police, then the fire department and ambulance paramedics. Vehicle technicians came to lift the car and a coroner was on scene by 8:36 a.m. A man’s body was eventually removed and the tracks cleaned up. It was 1:45 p.m. when the station was deemed ready for service again.
A safety-investigation report, released after a freedom-of-information request, concluded: “Person intentionally entered the SkyTrain track in front of an arriving train; (Platform emergency) intrusion detection system operated as designed but could not stop the arriving train in time to avoid contact.”
TransLink estimated that 117.7 million passengers boarded SkyTrain’s three lines in 2014, and it claimed that trains were on time, within two minutes, 93.4 percent of the time. The Scott Road fatality was the second of 2015 at a Surrey station and the 75th since the driverless trains went into service in 1985.
Most of the deaths have been ruled suicide, but could some, or all, have been prevented?
The October 2014 independent review by former Toronto-area GO Transit head Gary McNeil, which was ordered after the two major July 2014 SkyTrain service outages, recommended more eyes and ears on cars and platforms. So did the 1993 passenger-safety review by Toronto Transit Consultants. The latter report recommended attendants be deployed on all trains during morning and evening peak periods to respond more quickly to passenger-assistance and guideway-intrusion alarms.
Toronto Transit Consultants found surveillance cameras did a good job of monitoring fare machines, escalators, and elevators at SkyTrain stations but little else. It recommended “pan-tilt-zoom” cameras in downtown’s four tunnel stations. “With respect to platform coverage, it is understood that additional cameras are planned in order to improve coverage.”
Little had changed in platform monitoring by 2014, when McNeil’s report said staffing and surveillance were still inadequate.
“When a major service delay occurs today, there is not enough STA [SkyTrain attendant] staff available to effectively deal with evacuation,” McNeil wrote. He noted that there were only 40 to 45 attendants and supervisors stretched across the system last July 17 and 21. McNeil recommended greater visibility for frontline staff, but he didn’t say how many should be deployed at any one time. He did recommend spending $5 million over two years on better surveillance cameras for the Expo and Millennium lines, including closed-circuit cameras focused on the edge of platforms. However, “this could be deferred if improved response times to delays occur.”
Platform-edge cameras might have helped save a life on March 21 at Scott Road Station.
Statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service spanning 1985 to May 2015 show 75 deaths on SkyTrain tracks, of which at least 10 were accidental. The Commercial-Broadway (11) and Main Street (10) stations had the most deaths. (None have been recorded on the Canada Line.) Through mid-February 2008, 32 victims were male; 25 of the dead were between 19 and 39 years of age. Nine perished in 1994, the deadliest year on record; in 2014, four died.
Newer systems around the world separate passengers on platforms from tracks and trains with sliding glass doors that open in sync with the doors of arrived cars. SkyTrain vehicles of different generations, however, have different door locations.
Coroner Liana Wright’s inquiry into a May 2001 death of a male at Royal Oak Station said SkyTrain estimated in 1994 that it would cost $1.7 million to $2.2 million per station for barriers—as much as $50 million systemwide. Adding safety features to all stations “may not be fiscally attainable”, but her report said investments could be made at stations with high traffic or an increased risk due to “surrounding demographics”. Limiting platform access until a train’s full stop “would virtually eliminate the possibility for individuals to jump or fall in front of oncoming trains”, she emphasized.
In 2009, TransLink and the B.C. and federal governments announced a $100-million project to battle fare evasion at station entrances instead of keeping passengers from jumping or falling on tracks. Meanwhile, recommendations for keeping better watch on platforms remain unresolved.
“Prevention measures, such as surveillance and response, could ‘piggyback’ on surveillance and response systems used for other purposes on the rail systems to make such projects economically feasible,” said a November 2014 San Jose State University report—for the Mineta Transportation Institute—called “An Approach for Actions to Prevent Suicides on Commuter and Metro Rail Systems in the United States”.
That report said few suicide-prevention programs have been implemented and that preventing suicide on transit property may not prevent suicide by other means. That doesn’t mean operators should do nothing: “There still would be the benefit of sparing trauma to the rail personnel and preventing traffic delays and similar costs.”
As difficult as it is to attach a price tag to a human life, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did that by estimating the cost of each suicide at $1 million, based on 2005 figures, in medical costs and lost productivity. Statistics Canada reported 3,728 suicides in 2011, and it estimated that 100,000 years of potential life were lost to Canadians under age 75 in 2009. More than 90 percent of people who die of suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.
The Mineta report said the costs of a suicide on public transit could be much higher than the CDC’s $1-million estimate because of rail-travel delays, ripple effects on other modes of transit and area roads, and the expense of restoring service. “The costs associated with the impacts on engineers and train crews are also part of the latter cost. The cost effects of personnel turnovers should also be included,” the report said.
“That would mean that societal impacts, such as the cost of counseling people who are affected by the suicides but who may not be members of the rail system staff, should be included in the costs. Including this higher cost would allow justification for higher spending.”
Media outlets tend to shy away from reporting directly on suicide, for fear of a copycat incident, despite this decade’s societal shift toward greater discourse about the causes and effects of mental illness.
Psychology professor Brian Mishara, director of the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia at the Université du Québec à Montréal, told the Vancouver 2013 International Railway Safety Conference that research found suicide attempters in metro and subway systems wrongly believe they will have a certain and painless death—a message that should not be suppressed.
“A minority of subway attempters may actually die, and many will suffer from severe handicaps,” Mishara wrote. “A strategy that might be worth evaluating would consist of educating the general population about the fact that people who attempt suicide in the metro or subway usually do not die, and that their death is not always instant and painless.”
Metro Vancouver’s 69-kilometre SkyTrain network will grow by almost 11 kilometres by fall 2016, when the Evergreen Line opens in the Tri-Cities. Should the plebiscite on funding TransLink’s $7.7-billion expansion be approved, Vancouverites will be one step closer to a subway under Broadway.
Doug Kelsey, president of SkyTrain operator B.C. Rapid Transit Company, and George Bell, BCRTC director of safety, security, and support services, did not respond to an interview request.
TransLink says that SkyTrain attendants, transit police, and transit security take a three-hour suicide-intervention course and that the agency is working with the Vancouver Crisis Centre on platform phones linked to 1-800-SUICIDE, awareness campaigns, tabletop exercises, and station signage.
As for the McNeil report, it could take up to five years for all 20 recommendations to be implemented. The Mayors’ Council transportation plan, in the hands of plebiscite voters until May 29, contemplates $765 million to upgrade the Expo and Millennium lines, but details in the June 2014 blueprint are vague: “Specific scopes of individual station upgrade projects would be confirmed through additional planning and coordination with project partners.”
The union executive for SkyTrain workers said there have been steps taken in recent years to help workers deal with the impact of witnessing a fatality or working on the cleanup.
CUPE 7000 vice president Tony Rebelo said workers have had the Employee and Family Assistance Program for years but also now have a “critical incident stress management” team to help. Eight union members are trained as “peer defusers”, and group debriefings are scheduled a week after incidents.
“Things will happen, accidents will happen, and we want to make sure there are things in place that will help the employee dealing with these issues,” he said.
Anyone feeling distress can call the Vancouver Crisis Centre at 604-872-3311 or visit a hospital emergency room.