Rail 759: The tragic toll on the railways

It’s the railways’ hidden story. While rail is indeed the safest form of travel, every year they still result in the deaths of over 300 people, almost one a day and by far the greatest number are suicides. The recent tragedy at Slough where a woman and her son were killed in an apparent when she grabbed him and jumped in front of a train highlighted the issue but most go largely unreported and only come to the notice of those affected by the delays.

The problem is considerable and, sadly, growing. The latest statistics show that there were 279 suicides on the national rail network in the year up to April 1 2014, an increase of 11 on the previous year and 55 more than in 2011, a rise of almost a quarter in that three year period. Add in, too, around 50 on the London Underground and it works out at almost one per day. This, of course, is a societal rather than a railway matter as unemployment, the cuts under the austerity programme particularly to mental health services and other factors.

In the past, the railways were reluctant to talk about this issue or indeed do anything about it. Suicide was seen as a societal matter, which was ‘none of our business’.  But that has changed because it is now recognised it is very much the railways’ business.  These tragedies result in awful trauma for the staff, result in major delays and will occur more often if nothing is done to prevent them.  It is partly about saving some of the £34m cost to the railways of these incidents  but also about the railways playing its part in avoiding these tragedies. As one insider put it, we need an approach that is both ‘hard-headed but compassionate’

Therefore a  National Suicide Prevention Group  – which includes Network Rail, the Samaritans, the Rail Safety and Standards Board, the British Transport Police and several others – has been set up.  While there is now an acceptance that simply ignoring the issue does not work, one area of concern has been to avoid the wrong sort of publicity will lead to copycat tragedies and the group has issued guidelines  to the media.  For example, the guidelines counsel against reporting too much detail, as that is seen as an encouragement, and wants reporters to avoid mentioning specific locations  as that can point vulnerable people to specific spots. Prominent reporting on the front page or with big headlines, is also discouraged and terms such as ‘killed instantly’ and ‘died immediately’ are also no-nos as ‘such phrases may give the impression to vulnerable people that deaths on the railways are painless or quick’.

This is a much more sensible approach than simply trying to ignore the issue as happened before. I remember in the 1990s being rung up by senior people in London Underground asking me – without success – not to run a story in The Independent about suicides because of fears it would encourage others. The media are bound to cover the story so it is much better to try to work with journalists, rather than attempt to impose a ban which would be ignored.

Unfortunately, the numbers have risen but this has to be seen in the wider context of a rise in all types of suicide.  Suicides on the railways represent around 4 per cent of the total, and that has been consistent – the phenomenon has been a problem for the railways since their very creation in the 19th century. The press release on the partnership attempts to put a positive gloss by suggesting that ‘rates based on the population must be considered’ and that the proportion of suicides on the railway compared with the overall number has remained around the same. However, there is little disguising that the numbers remain high.

Each incident is a tragedy and can cause immense trauma for drivers and other staff. On the basis that there are around 30,000 drivers on the network, almost one in a hundred is likely to experience a suicide – or a trespass death of which there are around 30 annually – in any one year, and consequently there must be few experienced drivers who have not being involved in such an incident.

The key question is what to do about it. Interventions must be worthwhile. In the past there were concerns that putting up posters, for example, would merely encourage more people to jump in front of trains. Now research has shown that posters are, in fact, helpful  in reducing numbers. The same goes for the mid platform fencing that has been installed on 50 stations on the West Coast Main Line, to separate passengers waiting for trains on the slow line from the fast tracks. Despite concerns that people would simply walk round the fencing, or go through the gate, the fact that potential suicides do not want to draw attention to themselves has meant their introduction has been successful.  More security type lighting is, too, a good idea but other ideas, such as installing blue lighting, which supposedly has a calming effect, has been shown to have no effect.

A key part of Network Rail’s collaboration with the Samaritans is in running courses, both as preventative work and for staff who have been involved in an incident. Around 6000 railway staff have completed the managing suicidal contacts course which is designed to give delegates the skills and confidence to identify and approach a distressed person to try to resolve the situation safely. More than 1100 people have undergone the Trauma Support Training course aimed at helping managers understand trauma and to identify and manage those affected by it.  Whereas in the past, staff were expected to just get on with the job after experiencing an incident, there is now much more support and help available

One problem is that there are not many discernible patterns to suicides. The type of area likely to be feature in suicides cannot for the most part be predicted by societal factors such as deprivation or demographics apart from the occasional exception notably at Slough and Southall where the high number of female suicides have been associated with domestic abuse among the local Asian community.

In terms of the victims, there are more men than women, and the key age group is between 30 to 55, mostly lower income groups. Therefore the advertising produced by Network Rail and displayed throughout the network features a soldier, a boxer and a builder, and gives a contact number for the Samaritans in the expectation the type of person in trouble is unlikely to have discussed his problems.

All this represents a step change in attitude within the industry. Resources are being invested in prevention and much training is taking place. The biggest barrier seems to be the industry’s bureaucracy. Even getting a poster put up can take months because of rules around which sites are available to NR and work around the fencing on the West Coast took ages to be agreed.  Everyone in the railway needs to recognise that there are enormous benefits to this sort of preventative work.



High speed take up has been in the slow lane


Japan has just celebrated 50 years of the inauguration of its bullet train, the world’s first high speed line between Tokyo and Osaka introduced just in time to serve people attending the 1964 Olympics. It had, actually, been long in gestation and might well have been built in the 1940s had the Second World War not intervened. It was conceived, like most high speed lines, to deal with capacity shortages, not to speed up journey times, though that was an important side effect.

Given the success of the Japanese Shinkansen, and subsequently of the French TGV services, introduced almost twenty years later, it is perhaps surprising that by now the world can only boast some 17,500 miles of high speed line, half of which are in China. Sure, there are lines under construction in several countries and lots of other projects are being mooted, but progress has been slow, a mere 350 miles per year. Compare this, for example, with the growth of the railways where in Britain there were 6,000 miles line just 20 years after the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester in 1830, and in the USA where, on average, 3,100 miles of railway was opened every year between 1830 and America’s entry into the First World War in 1917.

So high speed may be a fantastic boon and is helping to sustain rail travel in several countries, but it is not quite the revolution which it is sometimes portrayed. The reasons are varied. First, the economics of high speed lines dictates that they should only be built on intensely used routes. China and to some extent Spain have rather ignored this, but the realeconomics of railways has limited the spread of lines.

Secondly, operating high speed lines is for the most part not a profitable exercise. Recently a leaked memo from SNCF shows that profitability of the TGV network is declining because the Network Rail equivalent – RFF – is demanding ever higher access charges, largely to pay interest on the debt resulting from their construction. Sadly governments remain myopic about the value of railways which are still expected to pay their way, despite all the other advantages they confer on society. Therefore the economics of high speed lines looks bad, even though their societal value is great.

Thirdly, there are often objections to their construction. This was even the case in Japan where it took a long time to build the second line because of environmental objections from local people. So here is a prediction from Mystic Wolmar that unfortunately he will not be around to ascertain whether it is borne out or not: over the next 50 years, the mileage of high speed lines across the world will double but not triple.

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