Subway Suicides and the Case for Platform Barriers on the TTC

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Subway Suicides and the Case for Platform Barriers on the TTC

Platform barriers improve reliability and save lives—so why aren't we building them?

Photo by Melina  from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Photo by Melina. from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Two Toronto subway lines came to a halt around dinnertime Monday night as the TTC and police investigated one suicide and one attempt. The TTC scrambled shuttle buses to help ease the burden on thousands of customers. Each delay took about 75 minutes to clear, and then service returned to normal.

It’s been a bad year for suicides on Toronto’s subway lines. Last year there were eight suicides and nine attempts; this year already there have been nine suicides and 17 attempts. “We’ve had a very high number this year and we don’t understand why,” said TTC communications director Brad Ross.

But there is a solution that will virtually eliminate subway suicides: platform-edge doors (PEDs), which wall off the tracks completely and open only when a train is in the station.

On Tuesday, Toronto Public Health released a report on suicide prevention in the city that included a recommendation for suicide barriers on subway platforms. The TTC has been quietly installing infrastructure to support barriers at the six new stations of the University-Spadina subway extension. But money is a problem: the TTC has a $10-billion capital budget, of which only $7.3 billion is funded. So the PEDs won’t be installed any time soon—if ever.

“This means certain programs need to happen—for example, easier access such as elevators—but there is currently no money allocated,” Ross said. “We have to find that money, about $2.7 billion, somewhere.” And that doesn’t include money for suicide barriers. Conservative estimates peg the cost of installing such a system at $10 million per station. At that rate, outfitting Toronto’s 74 current and six planned future subway stations with PEDs would cost about $800 million.

PEDs also require an automated train system, which allows trains to stop with greater precision—essential if the doors on the train are to line up correctly with the doors on the platform barrier. The TTC is installing such a system on the Yonge-University line, but that work will not be complete until 2020. Meanwhile, a number of cities around the world—including London, Paris, and Hong Kong—have already begun adding PEDs to their expansive subway networks.

TTC Suicide bar graph

Despite the cost of platform-edge doors, there is a strong argument for implementation beyond the obvious safety reasons.

“The real selling feature of a platform-edge door system is the reliability of the subway,” Ross said. “You don’t get track incursions, somebody causing mischief, or someone trying to hurt themselves, but also it would stop newspapers and other refuse from blowing onto the tracks that cause track fires. And those are huge killers in terms of reliability.”

Fires and smoke at track level have caused nearly 50 hours of subway delays this year, according to data provided by the TTC, while people going down to the tracks have caused more than 13 hours of delays.

“Track incursions seem to be trending upwards,” Ross said. “Usually alcohol is a factor. Some people will run across the platform when they realize they are on the wrong side, or there’s horseplay and mischief making. And some will go down there to relieve themselves and have been struck.”

And each incursion requires an investigation—another inconvenience that platform barriers would eliminate. PEDs would also increase loading efficiency, as riders would be able to line up at the barrier doors instead of than having to estimate where along the platform their next train—and its doors—will stop.

With platform barriers a long way off, the TTC is forging ahead with other suicide prevention initiatives. It has had some success with its Crisis Link, which allows people to connect directly to counsellors at Toronto Distress Centre via a blue button on public phones at every TTC subway platform.

Since the program’s launch in 2011, there have been 256 calls. More than half of those have come from pranksters or from people not in distress. The remaining 94 calls were sorted into four categories by the counsellor on the other end of the line. Level 3 and 4 calls are for people in crisis who are having suicidal thoughts; they require immediate action.

This year there have been 12 such calls. When one comes in, the Distress Centre contacts the TTC’s transit control centre, which then springs into action. Measures include slowing trains to a crawl, and dispatching transit officers, supervisors, and, if necessary, police. Front-line TTC employees are trained to look for the signs of a potential jumper—among them crying, lingering on the platform as multiple trains pass, disrobing, pacing near the tunnel entrance, and abandoning possessions on the platform.

Still, Toronto’s subways are a suicide magnet, and will likely remain so until nearly a billion dollars is found to build platform-edge doors at every TTC subway station.

“It would be something we would absolutely do in a perfect world,” Ross said.

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