Besides the noise and confusion, the swoosh and roar of the subway trains, Toronto Transit workers suffer an even more mind-warping job stress: the number of locals who try to end their lives on those ominous tracks. Torontonians know little about subway suicides because, as a rule, the media, police and TTC do not publicize the tragedies. But Ontario Coroner's figures suggest there have been between eight and 22 subterranean suicides in the past four years. Less known but more alarming are the number of failed attempts.
Shockingly, perhaps partly because discussion of the subject has been taboo, the transit system has no prevention plan in place other than emergency stop buttons and video cameras to monitor platforms. But the TTC drivers and staffers who have been regular unwilling spectators to the terrible happenings have now become the impetus for a brave new movement to establish barriers.
Every day, Wayne Moore hopes it won't happen again. In his 28 years as a TTC subway operator, he's been involved in 13 subway suicides. In 1999 alone, three people were crushed by Moore's train. While the first incident involved a man who fell to the track after suffering a heart attack, the second and third were suicides, leaving Moore so badly shaken he needed muscle relaxants to sleep. "But other drivers have had it worse," he says. "Some have seen as many as 25 or 26 suicides in a 30-year career."
Although the exact number is unclear, Bruce Bryer, a TTC ticket agent for 23 years, says that on average one person jumps every week. "Something needs to be done, because we can't ignore it any longer," he says.
TTC media relations officer Marilyn Bolton won't confirm the number of suicides, for fear, she says, of glamourizing the idea. She has a point, says Paul Links, chair of suicide studies at the U of T. "There is significant evidence that reporting on individual suicides can put vulnerable people at risk and lead to copycat suicides."
By withholding the facts, however, the TTC is putting up "a wall of silence," says Bryer. After a number of his letters were ignored by the commission, Bryer helped the Citizens Transportation Alliance pen a proposal for barriers. The group of engineers and planners established in 1997 to find solutions to Toronto's transport problems will formally introduce the proposal to the TTC on June 15.
It's just after evening rush hour when Bryer enters Kennedy subway station to demonstrate his proposal to James Alcock, chair of the Citizens Transportation Alliance. The ticket agent, recognizing Bryer without his burgundy uniform, lets them pass. They walk downstairs to the train platform, straight to the end wall. A train enters the station and Bryer measures the 7- metre distance from the entry wall to the rear of the last subway car door, which he identifies as the "jump zone." When jumpers hide behind the wall where the train enters the station, he says, their suicide attempts are most likely to succeed. It's impossible for drivers to see the jumpers in time to slow down. Standing just past the jump zone, Bryer explains that a 7-metre-long, 4-metre-high plexiglas barrier would force people to stand farther from the wall, giving drivers a chance to stop.
Bryer and Alcock calculate that each barrier would cost about $50,000. Two barriers per station, times 60 stations, totals $6 million, a figure that both argue is reasonable.
Besides the costs of construction, Bryer also considers the indirect costs of subway suicides and attempted suicides, which are substantial. Besides delays in service, a large number of people are involved, including police, coroners, maintenance staff, paramedics, counsellors, TTC personnel and hospital staff to care for survivors.
The Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, which helped spearhead the campaign to put suicide barriers along Bloor Street's Prince Edward Viaduct, is familiar with the human costs.
Based strictly on statistical data, there is an even more pressing need for barriers in subway stations than there was for the bridge. The Society estimates that approximately 400 people have jumped off the Viaduct since its construction in 1919, an average of about five suicides per year. But there have been over 100 subway suicides in the last decade alone.
Ursula Lipski, policy and research coordinator for the Society, says she can't comment on suicide barriers in subway stations in particular. She does say that when people who want to commit suicide have a particular plan and find they can't execute it, they usually don't have an alternative scheme. Erecting a barrier in a particular location can deter follow-through. In these circumstances, she says, "it is less likely they're going to do it somewhere else."
Canada isn't alone in being worried about this issue. A 2002 study on railway safety in England found that about 200 people commit suicide annually on the country's railways, costing the industry approximately £300 million a year, including 2,000 days off a year for staff suffering from trauma-related sickness. The report suggested putting up fencing or barriers at platform ends and providing more and better fencing on bridge parapets. The Jubilee Line extension in London, for example, incorporated a glass barrier with doors that runs the length of the platform.
TTC chair Howard Moscoe doesn't want to sound insensitive, but says $6 million is too much money - money the TTC doesn't have - to consider the proposal seriously.
Moscoe says he's not against experimenting. "If they find the barriers workable and successful, then we can look into investing more over time," he says.
"To me, anything is worth a try," says Moore. "As a person who's seen it, it scares the heck out of me. I want to believe it won't happen again."