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This is the 'point and acknowledge' system – seen on Feb. 13, 2020 – that ensures the train is in the right spot before a guard opens the doors.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The completion of automation work on the Yonge-University line on Toronto’s subway system will mark the end of an unusual practice based on cognitive neuroscience that’s credited with cutting safety errors by subway guards by 50 per cent.

The Toronto Transit Commission is in the midst of rolling out its automatic train control (ATC) signalling system on the line, and once it’s complete in 2022, trains will go to a one-person operator model and no longer have workers, known as subway guards, stationed aboard the last subway car.

Riders may have noticed these subway guards pointing out the window to green triangles stuck on station walls when the train stops. This is the “point and acknowledge” system that ensures the train is in the right spot before a guard opens the doors. Passengers risk falling onto the power rail if the train is not spotted properly to the platform, or if doors are opened on the wrong side.

The system consists of four steps – stand up, open the window, point to the green triangle, then open the doors – and taps into how the brain processes information, which helps explain why it has led to a dramatic safety improvement.

Inspired by the Japanese shisa kanko method, also known as pointing and calling, the TTC adapted its system in July, 2014.

“At the beginning, it was something very new for us,” said Neil Preece, a subway instructor and former operator. “Obviously, when you’re going into changing a culture, there was a little bit of pushback, but it’s really become a part of our daily work routine.”

Within seven months of its introduction, the TTC saw a 50-per-cent decrease in critical safety incidents, a rate that has since held steady, said chief operating officer James Ross.

“Obviously we’re looking for a 100-per-cent reduction, so it’s still not as great as we wanted,” Mr. Ross said, “but it did make a difference.”

New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority saw similar improvement on its subway lines two years after the “point-only” system began in the mid-1990s, and incidents of poorly spotted trains went down 57 per cent.

“I think it makes perfect sense,” said Susanne Ferber, a researcher and chair of the psychology department at the University of Toronto, about the protocol’s results.

When a behaviour becomes a habit, like opening subway doors hundreds of times during a shift, the brain can slip into autopilot mode and perform the movement while not paying any attention to it. A “goal-directed action” – meaning there is an intention and end point in mind with the movement – can break the “mental circuit” and force the brain to wake up, says Prof. Ferber. “Essentially, what would be happening is that you’re engaging different neural areas than those that would have already stored this entire movement path before."

The idea of a mental circuit was dubbed the “schema theory” by psychologists in the early 1900s, who suggested that past experiences can carve out mental templates for people. Schemas, when combined with real-time information in the world hitting someone’s eyeballs, produce a behaviour.

“We rely on them a lot in our everyday lives,” said Jody Culham, a vision scientist and professor at the University of Western Ontario. The danger of following a schema is being slower to pick up on things that are out of the ordinary, she said.

“By having to do an action, you’re engaging more of the brain,” because the perception and action systems are switched on, said Prof. Culham, “so that kind of snaps you out of autopilot [mode] that can lead to these ‘fail-to-see’ accidents.”

The point-and-acknowledge system is gradually coming to an end on the Yonge-University line, but will remain mandatory on rail lines that are not fitted with ATC, like Bloor-Danforth. ATC signalling allows the locomotive to spot itself on the platform, and it’s already in place from Vaughan to St. Patrick stations on the Yonge line. It will come into effect on another five stops to Queen station this month, and is meant to be complete in 2022.

At that point, the TTC plans to move to a one-person train operator model, a spokesperson said in a statement. Mr. Ross says the ATC system, which is an “engineered control," will perform better. Point-and-acknowledge, he says, is a “procedure.”

"The best control you can put in is an engineered control.”

TTC operator Gerry Gallately thinks the new system will be just as effective. “There are cameras on the train, and you’re observing the platform via the cameras,” he said, pointing out that the Sheppard line is already using the one-person model. “Your head’s not out the window, but you can still see what’s going on, so I don’t think it would change anything really because you’re still observing the platform through a camera.”

Carlos Santos, president of Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents most TTC employees, said the role of subway guards, beyond the point-and-acknowledge protocol, is invaluable for passenger safety. He says the guards do much more than operating the doors, and have saved people from injuries, stopped suicides and assisted in emergencies and evacuations.

“There are a lot of things that cameras do not catch, that the guard catches,” Mr. Santos said.

The union will be launching a campaign this spring to highlight the importance of subway guards, and “why we think real eyes are much better than a camera.”

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