Rail 964: The terrible toll of suicide on the tracks

Lady luck has not shone on Richard Hughes-Jones. Well it did at first. As a five year old, he remembers watching trains go by and vowed even at that tender age that one day he would work for them. And he did, joining British Rail in 1976 in his early twenties, and like many other future drivers, he started off as a guard, later becoming a driver..   Richard is not an angry man, nor a bitter one. But he has not sat in a cab since 2009 when he was forced to retire aged just 54 and he misses it terribly. He still loves the railways and I met him on a train on Cambrian Coast Line after he had spent a few days on the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog narrow gauge lines. He recognised me from Rail  and that’s why listened to his story. And why it is worth repeating.

It was not particularly glamorous working on local trains and freights around north Wales, but he loved it. Every minute of it.  But then just six years later came the first incident that would eventually trigger his departure from the industry he loved. When the Freightliner he was working on was stopped by signals at Prestatyn, he was informed that the previous service had reported hitting a large dog and ‘could we please stop at scene to check if a vet would be required’. The driver, Reg Hewson, stopped the train short of the location and the two proceeded on foot with lamps.

That first incident in a different age when safety on the railways was not prioritised in the way it is today and issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were barely considered. So when the pair arrived at the scene, they found the body of a badly mutilated young man. Richard was asked to mark the blood stained sleepers with a piece of ballast before moving the body off the tracks to enable traffic to resume. Richard explained that nothing else was done: ‘After I arrived at Holyhead, I was advised by the shed foreman to go for a few pints, sleep it off and return to work for my next day’s shift’.   The driver, Reg, clearly suffered severe shock as he logged on to work the next day and tragically dropped dead of a heart attack.

Richard, meanwhile, put the horror of having to move a dead body behind him with only a few flashbacks, and became a driver for BR and First North Western after privatisation.  He even got to drive HSTs which he says are the best trains ever  as Virgin subcontracted the work on the North Wales line to First North Western whose wages were lower. Until New Year’s Day 1997. A young woman had spent the day with her mother, with nothing untoward, and then early in the evening, just as it was getting dark, lay on the tracks at Colwyn Bay in front of Richard’s HST which was travelling at around 50 MPH. After stopped the train, he walked back to find the body, again inevitably badly mutilated. He recalls: ‘She was apparently a quiet girl, and those are the ones most at risk. They find some quiet part of the tracks and just lie in front of you. Those standing on a bridge threatening to jump are less likely to do so.’

This time, he did get a few weeks off. And because, at the time the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority had a scheme to pay drivers involved in fatalities which were considered a workplace accident, Richard received a £1,000. He was also required to attend the Coroners’ inquest, a traumatic experience given that the family of the deceased are inevitably there. Nowadays drivers are only called in exceptional circumstances.

A mere two and a half years later, it happened again. This time the death occurred on a clear August morning at Shotton in Deeside when a man ran in front of the train giving a V sign just before it hit him.  Richard later found out that the dead man had just murdered his wife and stabbed his young son in the head, causing permanent brain damage. Richard managed to stop the train about 500 yards down the track and was once more faced with having to see the body, this time only the top half. Again, Richard had several weeks off work and was sent to seek medical help in Manchester. Not only was taking a train for the first time after this third incident rather difficult, in that typical bureaucratic way he was given a pass which specified ‘FGW trains only’.

This time the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority turned down his application for £1,000 because, in a rather contradictory sentence, ‘your injuries [PTSD] sustained as a result of the suicide on August 8th 1999 are not directly attributable to this incident and therefore do not meet the minimum award of £1,000’. This was because Richard had not gone sufficient times to his doctor after the third incident. There seemed to be no awareness that there might be a cumulative effect causing PTSD. So while Richard trudged off to Manchester to see a company doctor, it was not an opportunity to be provided with any counselling but rather, as he describes, a box ticking exercise.

He returned to work within a few months only for it to happen again. And this time there was the misfortune that he actually knew the father of the young lad involved and had even met the boy – another quiet type. It was at Valley, near Holyhead, and as Richard’s train was running through at 75 MPH he saw a young man on the track who, at the last moment, seemed to attempt to push himself clear, but it was too late. It occurred in Jan 2003, making it Richard’s 3rd fatality in five years. Again, remarkably, there was no compensation award because to qualify it needed ‘disabling temporary mental anxiety lasting more than six weeks medically verified’. This time there was some limited counselling but again Richard went back to work after a few months.

And despite the odd flashback, all was well until suddenly, six years later, in 2009, he experienced a series of incidents involving vomiting and stomach problems. On the last of these, he was driving a train and was violently sick out of the window near Chester and had to be relieved of his duties as soon as he reached the station. And that was the last time he ever drove a train.

He was diagnosed with delayed onset PTSD and despite the ill-considered offer of job with platform duties ‘I asked what would happen if there was a fatality?’ he was able to get a lump sum from his pension and retire early. ASLEF, his union, were always supportive and helpful, but otherwise there was little recognition of what he went through. But as he points out, ’I really still would want to be driving trains now into my sixties but I can’t. I’ve lost so much money and the job that I loved through no fault of my own.’

Throughout all these terrible tragedies, Richard got no support – apart from that from his wife, Menna, who is his bedrock. ‘There seemed to be an attitude that you just had to “man up”’. When Richard told one manager that he had endured four fatalities, the response was ‘well you don’t hold the record’. Indeed, he says that each of these fatalities has two victims, ‘the dead person and the driver’. That is very true and with something 200 fatalities on the network every year, many drivers will face the issues that Richard was left to deal with on his own. Fortunately, as the accompanying piece outlines, things are much improved since the days when a guard would be asked to shift a dead body off the tracks so that traffic could continue running.



….and today?


There are many ways in which the situation has improved over the past dozen years but largely thanks to initiatives from drivers and their union, rather than from the railway companies. The Richards of today do get more consideration although, unfortunately, I will still have to end with a ‘but’ which is of great concern. It was just over ten years ago, precisely around the time of Richard’s enforced departure his job that Andy Botham, a driver and ASLEF rep started taking an interest in the issue. He started asking around the industry to ascertain whether there was any type of set procedure to deal with the impact of fatalities on drivers. And it was just as Richard had found– there was nothing. No support, no clear policy, great variations between different train operators and generally a laissez faire approach.

Worse, there was not even any record of when drivers were involved: As Andy put it, ‘if driver had a SPAD [Signal Passed at Danger], then it would go on his record and a new employer would be informed about it. But a driver could have three or four fatalities, and that would not be recorded’

So working with the Samaritans, his union and, crucially, driver managers, he began to devise an industry wide procedure on the driver impacts in the aftermath of fatalities. The crucial first step was training with all the various parties involved – the drivers, as well as managers and the unions. The training which is delivered by the Samaritans and is specifically tailored to coping with the aftermath of rail fatalities, has been undertaken by more than 1,000 rail industry employees.

There is also a booklet given to all drivers setting out what help is available after a fatality and ongoing help. Botham adds: ‘There is, too, now ongoing support. Managers are expected to keep in touch with drivers’. In the past, management would be in a hurry to get people back to work but it was for the wrong reason – to save money. Now, though,Botham  says, there is a common interest: ‘It is good for drivers to start working again. The longer they leave it – even if it is just going for a cab ride to get back on track – the more difficult it becomes to return.’ Given the high numbers, Botham says that new drivers today are, rightly, warned that this may well happen in their careers. It helps to prepare them when it does happen.

Of course prevention, which is also an area where there has been much improvement, is very important but fatalities will still occur. And as Andy Botham warns, ‘we are coming up for a period of recession, and that’s when things are going to get worse’. And he has a specific concern. The funding for the training courses has been cut and currently none are being run. It is vital that they should be restarted, and any senior managers reading this column should make sure they are. It is interesting that yet again this was an industy wide failure. Why did it take a driver like Andy, who has himself endured a fatality, to galvanise action on the fragmented railway?  Again, as with the much more trivial issue of lost property which I wrote about in the previous issue of Rail there is the need for industry wide coordination. Another one for the lengthening in-tray of Great British Railways.


Scroll to Top