On patrol with Transit Safety’s new Special Response Unit

Metrolinx’s front line officers have a new way to tackle issues across the vast system that serves GO Transit and UP Express. It’s a unique team, and we’re taking you on an early morning patrol down some of the hidden corners they patrol in hopes of saving someone’s life and limb. Or just making sure you wear your face covering correctly while on GO Transit.

Walking parallel to the tracks just east of Hamilton GO Centre, Special Constable Steve North points his flashlight down the rails towards an alcove carved into the side of a retaining wall.

“That’s where we’re going,” he says while hoping over a barrier and staring down the tracks towards the dimly lit area.

Image shows an officer jumping over a concrete barrier
A Transit Safety officer leaps over a barrier, to patrol along rail tracks. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

His partner, Special Constables Jeff Nichols has already made the radio call to the Rail Traffic Control to ensure they’re safe and that no trains are coming.

As soon as Special Constable North clears the wall, Nichols hops over the barrier directly behind him and the pair start their pre-dawn patrol, walking towards the alcove.

On this morning, they’re looking for vulnerable people who sometimes unknowingly put themselves in to serious danger by seeking shelter right next to the tracks.

The officers look at a hole in a large concrete wall.
The officers check an isolated, and hazardous, area near active rail lines. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Special Constables North and Nichols are part of Transit Safety’s new Special Response Unit (SRU); a team specifically created to help target safety concerns around the network, like this one.

While they don’t find anyone there on this morning, during many other patrols they have – which has potentially saved lives. 

When it comes to transit and community safety, knowing where to be and when is a puzzle that officers and agencies have been trying to solve for centuries.

Morgan Wilson, the staff sergeant in charge of this newly created unit, believes the Special Response Unit is able to help fill in a few of those pieces, by allowing the officers to really dig in and focus on an issue. Their assignments are based on staff feedback, the community and internal data – not a dispatcher over the radio.

“Since the Special Response Unit officers don’t have to worry about bouncing call to call for service, they’re able to focus on priority safety initiatives,” says Wilson. “That can be everything from stopping vandalism, to spending a shift chatting with customers about track or bus driveway safety.”

Officers look down the platform.
Constables North and Nichols look down the platform as a GO train pulls away. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Recently, the Special Response Unit has been working to address an issue that’s definitely a sign of the times: face-covering compliance.

Given that education is a big part of their job, helping improve compliance of the mandatory face-covering policy seemed like a perfect opportunity for the newly minted unit.

During the course of their regular duties, both Transit Safety special constables and revenue protection officers report on how many customers are wearing their face-coverings, and properly, onboard vehicles and in stations.

While that number is typically around 98 per cent, Metrolinx began to hear from some customers about specific trips where it appeared to them that fewer of their fellow passengers were wearing face-coverings.

When Metrolinx asked non-uniformed staff conducting passenger counts or performing onboard cleaning duties to also report on face-covering compliance, the percentage was lower.

“What our SRU officers have been doing is focusing on those trips with lower compliance and having conversations with customers about the face-covering policy,” Morgan says. “They take the opportunity to spend a bit more time chatting and explaining to customers why wearing a face-covering is critical to keeping everyone healthy and safe.”

Two officers stare down the tracks.
The officers catch a glimpse of something down the tracks. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

Another high profile issue the Special Response Unit was involved with had to do with an alarming increase in trespassing incidents at various rail bridges across the network this past summer.

The constant presence of the SRU officers at many of these locations is credited for helping curb the dangerous behaviour, and making the rail network safer.

The architect of the Metrolinx Special Response Unit is Inspector Steve Weir. He came up with the idea a few years ago, as a way to try to accomplish a few different goals.

“We were looking to try a new deployment model that was a win, win, win,” says Weir. “Essentially, to come up with a framework that better serves our customers, increases safety around the network, while also giving our officers a chance to create close relationships within their home communities.”

Weir explains one way the Special Response Unit has been successful is by simply having the SRU officers start their days at various stations around the network (within 30 minutes of their home), rather than having them report to a few centralized locations like other special constables.

Two officer walk along a path.
Officers move toward stairs leading to a rail platform. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

By changing where the officers report to, Weir says customers and staff along those routes are seeing the officers more frequently; the officers are building those relationships with people in their own communities; and they’re spending more time actually riding the rails, rather than commuting to a place where they just put on their uniforms.

“That part about building relationships is really the key one for me,” Weir explains.

He adds that not only do the officers in the unit enjoy starting their days closer to home, but that “staff and customers are beginning to trust and approach the officers to talk about the issues affecting their communities.”

Back in Hamilton, another one of those issues is helping vulnerable people better connect with social services that are available in the area.

As Special Constables North and Nichols make their way toward the front of the station, they spot someone lying in the bushes. Sadly, it’s not uncommon around Hamilton GO Centre.

Officers talk to a man by the side of the road.
The officers check an area near a street and rail section. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

After they make sure the man is alright, they ask him if he needs anything. He mumbles that he’s fine – and that he’ll be on his way shortly.

“We all get into this line of work because we like helping people and want to make sure everyone is  safe,” says North. “Just because this person doesn’t want to accept our help today, doesn’t mean we won’t try again tomorrow.”

And while they may not know what tomorrow’s assignment will bring, as Special Response Unit officers they know they’ll be starting their day at this same station – giving them that opportunity to try again.

By the way, does this sound like a job for you? Anyone wishing to apply for a position as GO Transit special constable, can visit the Metrolinx careers page here.

Story by Matt Llewellyn, Metrolinx spokesperson and senior adviser, media relations and issues.