I've taken trains in many countries. I've only been scared here, on my ride home
A terrifying late-night journey has me questioning the cracks in Edmonton’s LRT
This First Person article is written by Davin Tikkala, an avid traveller and writer in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I was riding the LRT back to my home on Edmonton's south side. I'd just spent two hours at a downtown theatre watching The Batman, as captivated by the moody visuals of a dark, rainswept Gotham City as I was by the story itself.
Sitting on a bench facing the aisle, I was relaxed, enjoying the warm air from the heaters and the lulling effect of the rocking carriage. There was a scattering of other passengers, most of them immersed in their digital worlds.
On most days I'm impressed by the efficiency of the LRT. My morning commute ends like clockwork at 7:24 a.m. outside the University of Alberta Hospital where I work. By and large, the trains are clean and comfortable and the passengers do their best to treat each other with respect.
At least in the daytime.
When night falls, the atmosphere can deteriorate, as it did in March.
A man with a bat
I was about halfway to my destination when a young man boarded. He was wearing a trench coat and carrying a baseball bat. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him walk up and down the aisle. My senses sharpened with adrenalin, I heard his mumbles — mostly incoherent — about not wanting to take it anymore.
He stopped beside a young woman, who froze and did not look up from her phone. To my dismay, he then approached me. We were knee-to-knee, him squeezing and releasing the neck of his bat as the mumbling became louder and angrier. My heart was in my throat, and I prepared to dodge a swing to the temple or a bunt to the forehead.
The man moved away as the train pulled into the Century Park station — my destination as well. Inside the station, a second man ran down the stairs and began attacking the man holding the bat. In the ensuing fight, the two ended up on the tracks. The only security staff that I could see was a 20-something guard who pulled out her phone and started typing. (Was she tweeting?)
I don't know how things ended up. I hightailed it away without reporting it to the police or transit authority. There was nothing in the morning news.
It made me wonder how many other incidents never make the headlines.
Great trains in other places
I like trains. I've taken the famous Blue Train sleeper from Pretoria to Cape Town, spent over 24 hours on a wooden-seated bus in Africa with live chickens in the aisle, and bullet-trained up and down the Japanese archipelago.
Trains in Japan are particularly impressive: the interiors are sparkling temples of cleanliness, paint jobs are updated with the season, and what seems to be an unspoken agreement to avoid speaking unless spoken to makes for a pleasant ride.
The least pleasant part of Japan's trains is the crowds but even this speaks to how well the system works. Everyone uses it. People trust it. They don't — as I do — consider an Uber at 15 times the fare for a better chance of arriving home unharmed.
Mind the cracks
This summer, Edmonton's LRT was making headlines when cracks were found in the concrete piers supporting the new Valley Line that will run from the city's southeast to downtown.
The city's disappointed mayor, Amarjeet Sohi, said he expected the builder to fix the issues to provide "safe and reliable service."
When I read the mayor's words, my thoughts returned to that March night coming home from the movie theatre.
The atmosphere that night felt far from safe and reliable. It had me wondering if LRT, instead of standing for Light Rail Transit, is an acronym for "Leave? Remain in my seat? Try to blend in with the upholstery?"
A series of violent incidents that occurred this spring — two women who were repeatedly attacked by a stranger on a bus and a 78-year-old woman who was pushed onto LRT tracks — sparked concern from the provincial government and action from the city, which boosted the number of transit peace officers and passed a bylaw to better regulate the conduct of passengers.
The union representing transit workers had been urging action for months, noting the rise in incidents since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But even during an uneventful commute, there are quiet signs of trouble all around — spider-webbed glass in the shelters, empty beer cans rolling down the aisles, open drug use by people caught in the cycle of addiction. It's all too much for a commute or a trip back from the movies.
And when will the evenings start bleeding into the days?
Pride and passengers
The Japanese have every reason to be proud of their system. I wish we had such pride in ours.
As soon as the cracks were detected in Edmonton's concrete piers, there was a swift response followed by regular updates.
I wonder why structural issues are faced head-on while experiences like mine are often ignored, as if they were isolated events instead of a concerning pattern. Is it that we don't want to face the cracks that are appearing in our society after the stresses of the past several years?
The willingness of our city to let passengers fend for themselves as incidents pile up — documented and otherwise — suggests an indifference that is not part of the Edmonton that I want to call home.
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