Monday, May 6, 2013

What Happens At Track Level...

One of the things that was new to me when I returned to Toronto was the way announcements are now done in the subway. When I left, it would always be someone from Transit Control coming over the microphone, more often than not sounding like one of Charlie Brown's teachers--and that was on the rare occasion when I was in the position to hear one of their announcements, as it's only since I came back that I've been relying on the subway for day-to-day travel.

If you use the subway even occasionally, though, you'll run into one eventually. In a city where the passenger assistance alarm is pressed at least three times a day, given enough days the odds are unity.


It's not something that anyone likes to hear, is it? Plenty of us leave their schedules down to the wire as it is, and a few minutes here or there can break them. That emotionless, monotone synthetic voice comes over the speakers and your heart sinks--what's it going to be this time? Waiting in the tunnel for five minutes? Ten minutes? Half an hour? At least they even deigned to announce the delay at all; who hasn't been stuck on a train that's come to a stop in the tunnel, or just been loitering at the platform for five minutes with its doors open, with nary a word of explanation?

The problem is when people feed that sense of being inconvenienced too much. When it makes people lose perspective.

A few months ago, I was riding in to work as normal, aboard one of the sleek new Toronto Rocket trains. When it pulled into the Union platform, there was another train already there on the other side. Hardly unusual--what was unusual was that when my train stopped, it was more like it had been put on pause. None of the doors opened, and for a minute or so us passengers could only goggle out at the platform, wondering what the hold-up was this time. Eventually, a door opened: the one at the very front of the train, up where the operator sits. We started filing toward it, pushed on by a request to leave the train, as it had been taken out of service.

It was the same Union platform that I stepped onto then that it's been before and since, but the atmosphere was vastly different from anything I'd experienced. People were streaming up the stairways and escalators, but no one was coming down. Uniformed police officers were there, urging people to clear the area. There, crouched against one of the walls, was a woman in tears: a woman wearing the sort of frozen grimace that tells you everything you need to know.

Suicide is more common on the Toronto subway than we'd like to think. You won't see them reported on in the news, if only to keep from encouraging any potentials who might be wavering... but it happens, nonetheless. Those announcements of "a personal injury at track level" don't mean that someone slipped on the yellow dots. It means someone made a 218-ton subway the instrument by which they would catch a ride away from the world.

When I next checked up Twitter, what did I see in #TTC? Message after message of complaints. Of grousing. Of bitching. People moaning that they would be delayed in getting where they were going. People fulminating against the TTC for lousing things up again. People gnawing and whining that the wire had snapped.

Lost in it all, of course, was this simple fact: a person had died. Presumably, at least; I can only draw inferences about what I saw. But who cares about that? No, the truly important factor is how the fact that a person is dead impacts one's timetable. Don't consider, say, the operator of the subway--the person in control of those two hundred tons of steel, who got to watch while a person who'd reached the end dropped in front of the train, too close and too quick to do anything but let physics solve that harsh equation. Don't consider the people around--say, the commuter who watched someone step off the platform right next to them. Don't consider the people that the person left behind.

Because it's only your schedule that's really important. What's one life, more or less, if it means you're late to work today? Empathy is totally for suckers.


  1. To a certain extent, passenger suicides are avoidable at a certain cost. In many modern transit systems, such as Singapore's MRT and the London Underground's Jubilee Line Extension, platform doors make it all but impossible for people to jump in front of trains. In fact, Singapore has extended the idea to its above-ground stations and installed gates that extend far enough above the platform so that climbing over them to jump in front of a train is too difficult to accomplish.

    The fact that most stations on these systems are not curved is a factor.

    I do not say that people are justified in grumbling about delays caused by a suicide on the system. However, I believe that committing suicide by train is the ultimate "two-fingers up" at the world. There was a program on British TV a while back called "The Tube", a gritty look at life on our Underground. A female driver who had been traumatised by a jumper in front of her train was being reintroduced to train driving. In the end, she found it too difficult to go back to driving and ended up being assigned to platform duty. Did the person who jumped in front of the train really think that he was also depriving the train driver of a livelihood?

    The ultimate solution is to make it difficult (through platform doors or other methods) for people to commit suicide by or be pushed in front of a train. Most newly built systems do. We must urgently think about retrofitting older systems like Toronto's as well.

  2. It is a problem, I'll give you that. There've been noises here and there to outfit the TTC with platform screen doors, but that's something well for the future. With all the years of underfunding, it feels like there's barely enough money to keep the lights on down there.

    I will note one thing, though--I don't think any Toronto subway stations are curved; the tracks here tend to follow the grid, even parts of it they never got around to building.

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