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SkyTrain's Mounting Death Toll

Experts urge platform barriers already saving lives in other cities.

By Bob Mackin 18 Nov 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Bob Mackin reports for 24 Hours Vancouver, where versions of the material in this article first appeared.

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Beijing's new line uses screen doors to prevent passengers falling onto tracks. Photo by Bob Mackin.

A man who fell from a wheelchair onto the tracks at Metrotown Station midday Nov. 1 is lucky to be alive. He could have become the 55th SkyTrain-related death since 1985.

According to British Columbia Coroners Service statistics obtained by 24 Hours Vancouver via freedom of information, at least 54 people have died on SkyTrain tracks and platforms. Ten deaths were accidental. The rest were suicides.

SkyTrain president Doug Kelsey said there is no plan to retrofit any Expo Line or Millennium Line platforms with barriers to stop people from falling or jumping on tracks.

Past Olympic cities like Beijing and Torino have such barriers on their new rapid transit lines, as do Hong Kong, Las Vegas, London, Paris and Singapore.

But when Canada Line opens in late 2009, its platforms will be barrier-free, like all others at existing SkyTrain stops.

'Need a solution that works': SkyTrain president

Concerns about platform safety were voiced by coroner Liana Wright in her inquiry into the May 19, 2001, suicide of a male at Royal Oak Station. She cited a 1994 SkyTrain safety review that estimated platform barriers would cost $1.7 million to $2.2 million per-station. The $40 million to $50 million system-wide estimate was deemed too expensive by SkyTrain.

"While adding safety features to all stations may not be fiscally attainable, emphasis could be placed at those sites that have higher rider usage or where there is an increased risk due to surrounding demographics," Wright recommended.

Limiting access to platforms until a train has stopped, she concluded "would virtually eliminate the possibility for individuals to jump or fall in front of oncoming trains."

Kelsey said he does not know of any platform barrier system that would work on SkyTrain, which has cars of varying ages with different door-spacings.

"You don't want to have any one incident, but you also need a solution that works," Kelsey said. "We haven't seen any solutions that work yet."

Kelsey said wider yellow tactile warning strips were added to platform edges in 2003 and lighting upgrades are bringing Expo Line stations in accordance with newer Millennium Line stations. He said SkyTrain carries 72 million riders annually.

Safer down south

Similarly large subway train systems south of the border report far lower death rates.

Last year, there were five SkyTrain-related deaths. There was not a single death reported on a right-of-way or platform, stop or waiting area in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco or Washington, D.C. Single suicide deaths were reported only on the L.A. and Staten Island systems.

In 2006, there were two SkyTrain-related deaths. No right-of-way death was reported in the U.S., though Boston, Chicago and Miami each had one platform/stop/waiting area death. There were four suicides, all on-platform in Washington, D.C.

In January of this year, Premier Gordon Campbell pledged $10.3 billion for rapid transit expansion to 2020. Transportation minister Kevin Falcon did not respond to repeated interview requests from 24 Hours. His ministry website said it is "committed to... innovative, forward-thinking transportation strategies that move people and goods safely throughout B.C."

"The negligent manner in the way the Liberals have been dealing with issues has amounted to nothing less than assisted suicide by government," said Canadian Union of Public Employees' local 7000 president Gerry Cunningham.

Cunningham said transit workers are trained to spot intoxicated or distressed passengers, but admits they can't be everywhere at all times. He said counselling is available to workers affected by the deadly incidents. Some workers have taken leaves of absence.

"Once someone has expired, [staff] have to call emergency services, police, fire, paramedics," Cunningham said. "From that point on, stations are closed and quite a routine has to happen. Buses have to attend the station in order to transport passengers coming off the trains or entering that area, and need to get to their destination. There is quite a job that takes place."

Stay alert says SkyTrain chief

"The solution is for people to remember that any place close to tracks where an onrushing train is liable to arrive at any time is a place to be aware of their surroundings," Kelsey wrote in a subsequent letter to 24 Hours. "Again, this is not dissimilar to our city streets. Stay well back from the yellow tactile strip -- it's not just for the visually impaired. Wait until the train has come to a full stop before boarding."

But that advice couldn't have saved one Surrey man who died en route to his downtown Vancouver office on April 23, 2003.

The man, whose name was censored in a B.C. Coroners Service report released to 24 Hours, awoke from a nap and exited a SkyTrain car at Stadium Station. Closed circuit TV cameras showed he walked briskly toward the eastbound side of the platform, suddenly collapsed and fell forward into the track area below.

Sensors tripped the emergency brakes on the approaching train. The man was motionless for a second, sat up and tried to climb out of the guideway. He was struck as the train came to a screeching halt and trapped under the lead wheel closest to the platform.

Firefighters manually pushed the train westbound, but the man was dead on the scene at 8:38 a.m.

He suffered crushing injuries to his abdomen. Coroner Colin Harris ruled the death accidental by mechanical asphyxia. An undiagnosed heart ailment apparently contributed to the collapse. The man tested negative for drugs and alcohol.

Montreal train suicide attempts studied

"As for suicides, even if there was a barrier along a SkyTrain platform, they may sadly find other means," Kelsey wrote.

But one of the world's top suicide researchers said two-thirds of people who try to kill themselves in the Montreal subway do not die.

University of Quebec at Montreal Prof. Brian Mishara, president of the International Association for Suicide Prevention, said distraught people may choose against ending their lives if they knew that suicide via rapid transit is neither quick nor painless.

"Those that did die often died after a lot of pain and anguish and not immediately," Mishara said. "Those who survived were very often severely handicapped."

Many files released to 24 Hours by the B.C. Coroners Service concur with Mishara. Two were especially horrific.

Firemen cut a hole in a SkyTrain car floor to help a man who dived in front of a train on July 3, 1989 at Stadium Station. His upper right arm was ripped off, flesh torn from his lower left leg and left thigh bone shattered. He died eight hours later in Vancouver General Hospital.

Emergency crews found another man conscious under a SkyTrain at Main Street Station just four days later. His left arm was severed below the shoulder, left leg and right ankle broken, ribs crushed, skull fractured and lungs lacerated. He eventually died.

'High cost for society'

Mishara's Railway and Metro Suicides: Understanding the Problem and Prevention Potential study found deaths on tracks constitute four to eight per cent of suicides in most countries, but "they have an extremely high cost for society." Hundreds or thousands of passengers are inconvenienced and witnesses and train personnel are traumatized.

"Very often a person is not dead, they're alive and screaming and this is not pleasant to witness," he said.

Obvious surveillance cameras, improved lighting, prompt intervention during an attempt and suspended-rail "suicide pits" can help prevent such suicides, he said.

Platform barriers are the solution, but many in the industry consider them "financially untenable," he said.

The federal government granted TransLink almost $10 million under the Transit-Secure program in 2006, but those funds are strictly for anti-terrorism measures. Not one of the 54 deaths recorded by the B.C. Coroners Service in the past 23 years was terrorism-related.

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