SkyTrain Accidents: Public News or Private Concern?


Last night at roughly 6pm, due to what was deemed by Translink staff a “Serious Medical Emergency at the Burrard Station,” all Skytrain service on one rail was ceased between the Stadium and Waterfront Stations, and train service continued via a shuttle-style line on the remaining rail back and forth between Stadium and Waterfront for the next three hours or so.

Although the traditional news media have been quiet about the incident, the occurrence was caused by a person on the tracks being hit by a train, according to several reports on the Discover Vancouver forums. Police, paramedics, and the coroner spent several hours on the tracks themselves and examining the train which had been involved. No reports were certain whether the incident was accidental, malicious, or a suicide attempt, or knew for sure the medical outcome of the person involved.

Police and TransLink officials tend not to release details of SkyTrain incidents, purportedly to prevent additional copycat incidents, and presumably to some degree out of respect for the victims (for example, in the reports of two shootings earlier this week [cbc].

Any accidents involving a human vs. a light rail train are by nature pretty horrific, and my compassion goes out to anyone directly related to the incident (primarily to the victim and his/her family and acquaintances, but also to any observers, given that this kind of thing can be pretty traumatic).

But my curiosity was also piqued with regard to the role of the media in accidents such as these. The victim and family have a right to anonymity, of course, but to what extent do the people affected in various ways by the occurrence have a right to know what happened? If their commute is delayed by 20 minutes or so, is knowledge whether the nature of the delay was management-related, mechanical, or medical adequate? Do they have the right to know, if medical, if the person survived? Or at which point does this cross over from the need-to-know (for example if it were useful in preventing future incidents or could be perceived as important for people who wanted to avoid a dangerous area) to the morbidly nosy?

11 Comments so far

  1. Richard (unregistered) on February 28th, 2007 @ 1:42 pm is the forum topic in question (I think), and I wonder how many people were listening into the scanners at (which includes a SkyTrain scanner) at the time.

  2. Ryan Cousineau (unregistered) on February 28th, 2007 @ 6:32 pm

    I’m very reluctant to speak in other than generalities, or to wade into this tipic, but the people writing in on that Discover Vancouver forum topic are mostly proposing “incident mitigation” stuff that has already happened.

    I am under the impression that the coroner’s attendance is an unusual situation for a death on the line. It suggests that the circumstances this time are unusual (I’m making a wild guess here, but given the scene described, my first guess is that our hapless suicide may have briefly survived the attempt).

    Regarding car capacity, SkyTrain currently puts virtually every car it owns on the tracks during rush hour. Indeed, the system does better than virtually any other system on the planet at proportion of rolling stock available for service.

    If SkyTrain had more trains, they would put them in service. Translink would probably point the finger at levies they requested which weren’t approved.

    In other words, it turns out that providing public transit costs money. The only two debates worth really pursuing are what the right amount of service is, and what mechanism should be used to pay for that service.

    You could have a debate about the performance and the efficiency of the service, but to the complainers I can only say this: the system is weirdly high-performance and surprisingly high-efficiency.

    I’m a pretty ardent fan of Vancouver’s transit system, and a fairly regular user. But transit costs money, and money has to come from somewhere.

  3. Wrenkin (unregistered) on February 28th, 2007 @ 8:45 pm

    Vancouver does a lot better than other systems. Toronto currently doesn’t have the ability to run cars the “wrong way” down the track due to an antiquated signalling system, so when one track is closed in a station both are effectively closed (to prevent trains from piling up on the other side).

    Since there on places to turn trains around every few stations, you end up having gaps of 3 stations or so with shuttle buses.

    Anyway, I don’t see why the public needs to know the details. The putative gain from knowing that a medical emergency is “really” a suicide attempt (which often assumed) would be outweighed by any gain in preventing copycats. That doesn’t mean that we should never hear about them if there was something actually relevant (like the case in Toronto where a mother was kicked out of a station, and just went to a different one to kill herself and her kid. There was supposedly a public interest in raising awareness of post-partum depression, and the (poor) state of staff training.)

  4. Toby (unregistered) on March 1st, 2007 @ 7:20 am

    While I agree with the above comments that the SkyTrain, despite perception, is actually quite good at handling bad situations, it is my understanding that it is the lack of information that proves most frustrating. I guess it is akin to delays at the airport. In countless news stories, you’ll hear travellers complain that they don’t know anything and they look quite enraged but now that YVR will say that for security reasons or whatever, most newscasts will show a traveller saying, “well…if it is for security then i guess we should all wait longer…”. I’m just saying this as someone that was affected by that incident that while I am glad SkyTrain had a plan and was pretty good – and acknowledging that most of my complaints usually have to do with transit users not operators – that a little something maybe vaguely referring to medical emergency over their PA messages would have been reassuring.

  5. Vicky (unregistered) on March 2nd, 2007 @ 4:46 pm

    I don’t think knowing the specifics of the incident is really that important. A delay is a delay no matter what. I used to live in Toronto and rail jumping is a lot more common there than here. The stories from friends who worked for the TTC were horrific. Seriously, you don’t want to know the details. Just be happy we have an amazing system here that actually stops to a halt when something or someone hits the tracks. Public transit isn’t foolproof and neither is driving in your car. You should expect delays.

  6. bcneocon (unregistered) on March 3rd, 2007 @ 2:48 am

    Worst lede to a news article i’ve ever read – don’t quit your day job. This is obvious – bloggers should stick to writing about their cats.

  7. Matt (unregistered) on March 3rd, 2007 @ 10:17 am

    BC Neo-Conservatives (at least this one) = comment spammers. Duly noted.

    In the chance that bcneocon’s remarks were not simply thinly-veiled comment spam for driving more ad revenue to his/her website and were simply a poorly-articulated expression of having taken some offense at my post on track jumpers, I’ll concede that it skirted pretty closely to even my own boundaries of good taste. Based on some of the other comments here, however, I feel like it did raise some of the debate I had intended for it to generate with regard to the competing interests of freedom of the press vs. rights to privacy.

  8. Richard (unregistered) on March 3rd, 2007 @ 4:32 pm

    Another medical emergency this afternoon (there was one police car and two firetrucks and three ambulances, so it wasn’t a crime), this time at Granville Station on the Eastbound track. SkyTrain had all trains (in both directions) using the Westbound track upstairs.

    The news media might not be reporting on it, but a large proportion of people with cell phones have cameras, so I wonder if there were an ‘citizen journalists’ covering today’s emergency and the emergency described in this post (not to mention the ethics of someone not affiliated with the news media publishing their accounts).

  9. Matt (unregistered) on March 3rd, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

    I hadn’t heard about today’s incident, despite being downtown for much of the afternoon.

    It does make me wonder how often this happens.

    Also make me wonder what the increasing internet citizen journalism will do to traditional media control for scenarios like this. If media coverage of suicides significantly contributes to more suicides, then our YouTube culture may make this increase unavoidable.

    Whether that’s “right” or “wrong” is a sticky point indeed, however.

  10. brian (unregistered) on March 3rd, 2007 @ 7:04 pm

    the incident today was witnessed by a friend of mine. apparently someone jumped onto the track when the train was arriving.

  11. nic little (unregistered) on March 8th, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

    another medical emergency right now at nanaimo station. this is the 4th such incident that I’m aware of in the past two weeks. there was an early morning medical emergency at new westminster station about two weeks ago.

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