SkyTrain deaths examined
Could TransLink do more to prevent fatalities?
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.
May 27, 2015 at 12:10pm
Just over two deaths per year from sky train suicide or accident isn't many and certainly not worth the cost of glossing in the old station platforms. Sorry. The saying "if it saves just ONE life it is worth doing" simply is not true no matter the efforts to bring an economic argument to the case: make it about bridge jumpers and you have an argument for pushing them to alleviate the ripple effect on the economy.
This is the rare piece on the Straight that doesn't pretend the promised transportation utopia is set in stone so kudos for that. What is entertaining is how the recommendations for "more" from the inevitable "consultants" started under the NDP regime and nothing was done. That is how bureaucrats launder only thru to friends in the private sector and think-tanks: lots of consulting but rarely any action taken. The NDP could have put cameras in the then new Millenium Line or budgeted for their wonderful creation Translink to meet the recommendations but they weren't thinking about anything besides hiding debt.
Transit in the Lower Mainland has been mismanaged since the Brill trolleys were slated for retirement. Every decision since then seems to be part of a cluster-fornication that keeps growing every year. The executives at Translink are more concerned with real estate speculation and potential bonuses tied to selling some of their holdings in the Lower Mainland and getting more money into their coffers than providing services.
May 27, 2015 at 12:28pm
It is a EEC law that all driverless transit systems must have station doors that only open when the train is stopped at the station and is one reason these small mini-metro, such as SkyTrain, have fallen from favour.
We actually have three transit systems operating in Vancouver.
1) The original UTDC, ICTS/ALRT proprietary mini-metro operating on the Expo Line.
2) The Bombardier ART (what we call Mk.2 cars), operating on both the Millennium and Expo Lines. Both Mk.1 and Mk.2 cars can operate on both lines, but they cannot operate coupled together.
3) The SNC/Hyundai Canada Line, which operates Hyundai EMU's on an elevated railway and is not compatible in operation with the Millennium and Canada lines.
What was supposed to be the safest transit line yet built, is not. Edmonton's LRT has gone several years without a death and the granddaddy of the them all, the Wuppertal Schwebbebahn (suspended railway) operated for 99 years before its first recorded death!
May 27, 2015 at 12:52pm
"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."
That's about one quarter of what's been spent on a Compass Card system that doesnt work, and which will cost more to administer than it will save in unpaid fares (assuming they ever do manage to get it up and running).
May 27, 2015 at 1:59pm
People will kill themselves if they want. What does it matter if it is on the Skytrain or somewhere. Spend the money on support for people that need help, not on something that slow the system down and may not save anyone.
May 27, 2015 at 3:30pm
"People will kill themselves if they want. What does it matter if it is on the Skytrain or somewhere. "
This isn't true. If a person attempts suicide but survives, they are much more likely than average to try again, but only about 4% of will actually kill themselves in the following 5 years.
The article states that 90% of people who attempt suicide have a mental health issue or addiction, but many of those are "just" depression, with much of that due to difficult periods in life. For example suicide rates are high among teens, and mid-life males going through career problems or divorce.
Such people are not thinking rationally at the time. Letting them die is like letting someone die of a fever, instead of helping them survive long enough to recover to their normal selves.
May 27, 2015 at 4:20pm
It doesn't matter to Translink how many die by suicide or accident, all that matters is how much of a bonus they get. Don't think otherwise.
May 27, 2015 at 10:49pm
A recent study on unintentional deaths, mostly of drunk people showed they just misjudged the location of the platform after being awoken by a train arrival alert. Apparently if you point the benches or seats NOT facing the tracks, there is a huge reduction in these events. It might be worth it to re-orient the seats in the station as they currently face the tracks!
Skytrain is safe
May 27, 2015 at 11:09pm
Before people jump to conclusions, go take a look at the TTC's average of 20 suicides per year.
The Skytrain might have 2 per year, and part of that the lack of faregates, not the lack of platform-side doors.
Should we have platform-side doors? Probably not. If these people are killing themselves at the Skytrain station, they would just jump into the tracks from the only accessible at-grade segments of the system (29th ave, or the at-grade segments of the Evergreen Line.) But more likely they would just throw themselves off bridges, because we do have quite a few of those.
People want to be killed by the Skytrain because they think it's quick and painless, when it's likely far from it (it's probably closer to sticking ones body parts in the blender.) The Skytrain is not light rail/heavy rail, light rail is far more deadly and has a lot more force behind it (since the LRV's have to also survive being hit by cars.)
Light Rail systems have no platform side doors, and most of them don't have 8' fences along their entire ROW. The only reason Calgary and Edmonton have low amounts of fatalities is because people kill themselves at bridges (Edmonton has over a dozen suicides per year at just the High Level alone) instead since most of the light rail ROW is fenced in.
So trying to fix one suicide mechanism just pushes it somewhere else.
The mixtures of rolling stock on the Skytrain is what will keep platform side doors from ever happening. With the faregates, it would be easier to figure out how many people "should" be on the platform. Additional cameras (particuarly IR cameras) could be installed to determine if there are crowded platforms and slow the incoming trains or force the trains to stop with the nose outside the station if there are people too close to the edge of the platform.
May 28, 2015 at 8:44am
Skytrain is is very dangerous. I don't trust these numbers i bet scores of passengers lose limbs every year but we don't hear about because there was no death involved. Don't get me started on the crime violence on the trains.
May 28, 2015 at 9:56am
Fire Doug Kelsey. He did not respond to questions from the Georgia Straight and is dodging the question.