How much information should the TTC give passengers about delays?

If you've been to New York lately and used the subway system there, you may have noticed there's no more sugar coating when it comes to reporting the reason for delays to passengers. But is it something the TTC should emulate?
The TTC does have a transparancy policy on reporting delays, but won't go so far as to tell passengers when someone jumps in front of a train.

If you've been to New York lately and used the subway system there, you may have noticed there's no more sugar coating when it comes to reporting delays to passengers. But is it something the TTC should emulate?

According to a story published Tuesday in the New York Times by a reporter who actually experienced the incident, an announcement was made on a delayed train in upper Manhattan on July 27, letting passengers know someone had just attempted to take their own life.

The announcement, reporter Maggie Astor wrote, was something she and the commuters onboard had never experienced before.

"Several people gasped," Astor wrote. "A woman near me jerked her head up from her phone, wearing an expression of horror. We riders did something not normally acceptable: We made eye contact with one another."

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates the New York subway system, says it's making an effort to be more transparent in the wake of an incident in early June.  A train had been stuck in tunnel in the sweltering heat for hours with passengers getting only automated announcements with minimal information.

While the MTA wouldn't confirm to CBC Toronto Wednesday whether a new policy is in place, in a recent interview with New York radio station WNYC, MTA chairman Joseph Lhota said: "We have started already on some of the lines communicating directly from our control centre, and telling folks why they are stopped."

Suicides are not uncommon on subway tracks in Toronto, but you would never hear it described quite as bluntly here, according to Brad Ross, the TTC's executive director of corporate communications.

"The language we use in Toronto is that due to a personal injury at track level there is a delay on X line, between X stations," Ross said. "That's the level of detail we get into when we broadcast the delay."

Ross says he understands why the MTA is trying to be more transparent when it comes to delays.

"While we are in the transit business, we are also in the customer service business and it's important then to let your customers know what is happening with the service that they have paid for." Ross said.

TTC doesn't want riders 'triggered by traumatic events'

The TTC has a transparency policy, but when it comes to issues like suicide, Ross says a level of sensitivity is also needed.

"We can be transparent about what's happening, while at the same time respecting and being sensitive to a tragic event that has just unfolded,"

Ross says it's also important to be considerate of passengers who may be dealing with their own mental health issues. 

"We don't want to unnecessarily cause people to be shocked, to be triggered by traumatic events that may have happened in their own personal lives."

Better to call it a medical emergency: psychiatrist

A psychiatrist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre says the TTC has the better approach. 

Telling subway riders that someone has committed suicide without any of the context could be triggering or lead people to believe that it happen regularly, Dr. Mark Sinyor said. In fact, he noted, suicide rates in large cities are often lower because they have more mental health services. 

"The key point is that suicidal thoughts are a thinking error and that the conditions that give rise to them, whether it's depression or anxiety or substance use problems, they're all treatable," he said. "I don't think the subway is a great place to educate people about suicide."

Laura Barrett, a regular subway user in Toronto, agrees with the TTC's policy.

"I don't think they need to know that somebody has done something like that," Barrett said, "They just need to know if there's a security issue or a safety issue, that kind of thing."

The TTC will give details about many other issues that lead to delays. Ross says they will let passengers know if a train has broken down, or if there is a fire in one of their subway tunnels.

"We will broadcast on the train and across the network, through PA announcements." He said, "Also through tweets and through e-Alerts, our email subscription service."

'Being transparent builds credibility'

That information is very important for Anowarul Kader, also a regular subway rider in Toronto.

"When you don't know nothing and you're sitting in a tunnel, you feel panicked," he said. "Outside in a bus, you can see everything."

Ross admits delays can be frustrating, especially when people have somewhere to be, but he believes by keeping them in the loop about what is causing the delay, they are able to ease any tension.

"Being transparent builds credibility with your customers, they want to trust you," he said, "You ... want them to ride the system, it's important then that you're honest with them."