Vancouver-region transit officials are pushing back at human nature as they try to persuade passengers not to pry open doors and escape from stalled SkyTrain cars in future emergencies on the line.
Dozens of passengers took that extraordinary action last week, despite the high elevated tracks, when a power issue shut down trains and silenced the public-address system across the 60-plus kilometres of the SkyTrain system. It was the second such shutdown in five days – an unprecedented pair of system crises for a transit staple that dates back to the 1980s. No injuries were reported in either incident.
TransLink’s chief executive officer has declared that getting passengers not to leave the light-rail cars without supervision is a key priority as he personally leads a review by the region’s transportation authority over the system breakdowns and how to better handle similar situations in future.
But psychologists suggest self-evacuations are inevitable in such incidents on the SkyTrain, an automated system without drivers that has expanded to a pair of major lines that add up to one of Canada’s largest transit systems.
When SkyTrains come to a halt, one key issue for passengers is a loss of control, says Peter Suedfeld, a professor of environmental psychology at the University of British Columbia.
“If they just stand there and wait, they feel helpless. That is a feeling that most people find very stressful and so they feel it is better to do something, anything than to just stand there and let the fates decide what’s going to happen,” he said in an interview.
Prof. Suedfeld said that feeling was likely fuelled last week by a lack of information. With the public-address system down, TransLink staff had no way to tell passengers what was happening or how long it might be before it was fixed. “Lack of information makes you even more helpless, adds uncertainty, which is stressful all by itself.”
In the face of sufficient psychological distress, people are willing to take physical risks such as prying open doors and walking out onto tracks – as they did in the SkyTrain case – so they can get to the nearest station, he said. Some of those tracks run several storeys above Lower Mainland streets. Even people who are not normally claustrophobic can develop a kind of situational claustrophobia when trapped on a crowded SkyTrain car in hot weather, he said.
Robert Gifford, an environmental studies psychologist at the University of Victoria, said it’s notable that not everyone left the SkyTrain cars. “Those who did, I would guess, have a very high desire for personal control. They were exercising that.”
Some passengers may have been motivated to leave because of fear that things could get worse as the SkyTrains were stopped. “It’s a taking of control of the situation, even if it’s misguided,” he said.
Other Canadian cities have transit systems where a SkyTrain dilemma is not an issue. Brad Ross, a spokesman for the Toronto Transit Commission, said the city’s subways and rapid-transit line in Scarborough all have operators on hand to guide passengers in the event of emergencies.
There are no drivers on the SkyTrain, but occasionally transit police may be on board, checking fares.
“Prying open doors is not something we’ve had to encounter,” said Mr. Ross.
Ian Jarvis, TransLink’s chief executive officer, said the system is going to have to look at “a whole bunch of communication tools on all fronts” to ensure passengers are deterred from self-evacuation. That will include effective use of social media, the Web, Twitter and YouTube to underscore the dangers to passengers of breaking out of a stalled transit car.
“They need to be informed. They need to understand the risks they are taking and then have assurances from TransLink that we will have people there to respond,” Mr. Jarvis said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
Gordon Price, head of the City Program at Simon Fraser University and a former Vancouver city councillor, said one wise move might be for TransLink to upgrade its trains, and make it impossible for doors to be easily pried open.
Mr. Price has called for a review of SkyTrain technology, saying it is necessary given the age of the system.
But Prof. Suedfeld said TransLink might have to consider retrofitting the tracks to reduce risks if passengers do exit on their own.
“You need to take it for granted that some people will leave no matter what,” he said.
Warn them its dangerous, but make it safe to do so. “Some people, no matter what you tell them, are going to panic,” he said. “They are likely to do anything they can to get out of there.”
Photos: Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail (left), Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail (right)