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RTE 303 Final Paper

Research Paper for Railroad Operations and Safety
Penn State Altoona RTE303
December 14, 2021, Altoona, PA USA
Connor Cashman
3rd Year Rail Transportation
Engineering Student
Penn State Altoona
3000 Ivyside Park
Altoona PA, 16601
Any fatality to occur while working on the job is a horrible
experience for anyone that may have to suffer through it. These
fatalities can be caused through many different means, whether
it be trespassing or an accident while working on the job.
However, the most gut-wrenching death that can occur on the
railroad has to be that of suicide. Suicide is a worldwide tragedy
that does not discriminate. It happens in every country, to all
types of people, and is an absolute travesty when it occurs. The
death is an emotionally scarring event for anyone involved with
it. Whether it be the victim’s family, the bystanders that witness
it, or the engineers that watch it happen, it’s all horrible and
needs solution. A subconscious thought that sits in the back of
every railroad engineer mind is the fear of someone jumping in
front of their train. It’s well documented that an average train
takes at least a mile to stop, which leaves zero reaction time for
when someone jumps. What’s worse if having to travel for that
mile while witnessing whatever grotesque sight is in front of
This paper aims to elaborate on why so many people may
choose the railroad for suicide. It’s a topic that is often
overlooked when discussing railroad related deaths. The
prevention of railroad suicide will also be elaborated on. The
current prevention methods can be expanded upon to include
more suicide prevention tactics. Railroads have been making an
effort to prevent trespasser related death, something that
railroad suicide relates closely to. Each country is missing some
crucial steps that could be taken to help their own prevention
techniques, which will be explored later. That is what this paper
hopes to shine some light on.
The subject of why people choose to commit suicide will
not be discussed in this paper. Such a topic is worthy of its own
paper in much deeper length. While the topic may be brought
up, the primary focus is how it affects railroads, and the steps
taken to prevent it.
More than 40,000 people in the United States die from
suicide every year. Of that 40,000, only about 1% commit
suicide by railroad. Because of the low percentage, railroad
suicide is often overlooked in discussions involving suicide
prevention. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) only
started researching railroad suicide in 2011. In different parts of
Europe, railroad suicide prevention has been taken more
seriously due to some celebrity deaths and a smaller railroad.
Several studies have been done using locations in Denmark,
Germany, and Great Britain. These studies all provided some
prevention tips that could be modified to work within the
United States.
Some choices made in the past were to try and help lower
suicidal ideation. Other strategies included implementing more
barriers and other forms of protection from rail lines. While
most lines are all given some form of protection, not all of it is
enough to prevent this kind of trespassing.
Railroad Suicide, Suicide Prevention
Railroad suicide is a tragedy that has not been discussed
until recent years. The FRA only started researching railroad
related suicide deaths in 2011. As mentioned previously, only
about 1% of suicides in the United States occur on railroads.
The FRA classifies the suicide deaths in their own category,
Copyright © 2021 by PSU-RTE
outside of the more commonly viewed trespasser deaths. This
means that the suicide results are being overlooked even in the
railroad operational field.
FIG 1. FRA Database For Rail Suicide (Dec 2021)
Since the FRA has begun their research, it’s seen that the
highest year for fatalities was in 2017, with the lowest being
2021. There appears to be no consistency with the fatality rate
within the past ten years. The Covid-19 pandemic could account
for the low number of railroad suicides in 2020, 2021, and the
latter half of 2019.
These suicides are proven to not only have an impact on
the families of the deceased, but the railroad workers who must
witness it. For the unfortunate engineers and conductors who
see the victim, they’re the last person to see that victim alive.
Numerous railroad workers have been interviewed about their
experiences, and most of them are the same. Many workers that
witness the death are susceptible to Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder, and the anxiety, insomnia and depression that come
from it. Sean Morgan, an engineer working out of San
Francisco, described his experience with a suicidal person on
the track, stating “I’d hear the sound when I’d try to go sleep”
(Elinson 2011). He later stated that in his area, workers are told
its not if they hit a person, but when.
Conductors don’t have it much easier. Bruce Shelton, a
Caltrain conductor for fifteen years, described having to go and
clean the train after the incident occurs. Shelton stated, “When I
went out to determine what the status was, I found a landscape
quite literally of body parts” (Valenti 2014). Different union
leaders have spoken about the trauma that these workers have to
go through afterwards and many transfer to do lower paying
yard work where they won’t have to operate out on the main
Why Choose Railroads?
The causes of why people would choose to commit suicide
is a very deep and complex issue that has been researched for
decades. In Great Britain, Keely S.E. Duddin and Benjamin
Raynes analyzed suicide notes for why people would choose
railroads to commit suicide. They found five key reasons for
why people would select the railroad as their death. These
include an ease of planning, nonhuman relations, certainty,
peacefulness, and bereavement.
Not much planning is needed when involving railroads as a
method. They tend to be consistent and only one open segment
is needed. The act of being hit by a moving train leads to a
rather impersonal relationship; no loved ones must find the
body first, leaving rail staff and police to deal with the
aftermath first. However, this reasoning leaves out the multitude
of rail workers, passengers and potential bystanders that must
witness the tragedy. Another key reason is the certainty of
committing suicide by rail. Because of the high fatality rate,
many feel like their deaths will be over quickly. That same
reason is also chosen for the peacefulness of the death. The last
reason relates to a copycat death. If a victim knows someone
who had also committed suicide by rail, they may feel enticed to
do so themselves.
The final reason is also supported by a string of events that
occurred in Germany in 2009. Robert Enke, a famous German
football (soccer) player, passed away on November 10, from a
railroad suicide. The death had national media coverage, and
there was a daily increase of suicide by 81% from when
compared with previous years. As such, another key reason
could be the media attention that such a death gains, leading to
This same reason was elaborated on by the United States
Department of Transportation Volpe Center. The Volpe Center
has been communicating with irresponsible journalists who post
too many details of the death publicly. The Volpe Center has
been communicating with stakeholders in the Northeast
Corridor to try and control this irresponsible reporting.
Removing Ideation
The simplest solution to this problem would be to prevent
people from wanting to commit suicide in the first place.
Various public awareness campaigns have been authorized in
the past to attempt to help suicidal people. Some are done
through railroads, and others are general population help. These
campaigns have helped provide awareness to suicide hotlines
and advertise ways to get help.
One of the easiest ways the railroads try to help are with
their signage plans. Numerous railroads have implemented
signs with helpful information on them for someone who’s
feeling suicidal. They often include the phone number for a
suicide hot line or contain other hopeful messages. Denmark
posted signs with the text, “Is life difficult? We are here to help”
and phone numbers for their suicide hotline equivalent. The
Copyright © 2021 by PSU-RTE
United States followed a very similar approach, with an
example of their signs shown in Figure 2.
FIG 2. Signage Used by Caltrain
These signs have proven to be somewhat effective, but only in
the case that the suicidal person manages to see the signs. In
areas where there aren’t any signs posted, other preventions
must be taken.
Physical Prevention
When discussing suicide prevention, an imperative step is
where the suicides might take place. Duddin and Raynes
compared where suicide notes said the suicide would take place
versus the British Transport Police’s reports. The main point
from this discovery is that a majority of suicides occur at the
station platform and the lineside, both of which have immediate
access to the railroad lines. As such, one method of suicide
prevention would be a way to prevent the immediate access to
the railroad lines.
The main way to prevent immediate access to the railroad
lines, outside of stations, would be fencing. The United
Kingdom already has most of its lines fenced, due to older laws
that were made to protect cattle. However, this fencing appears
to not have a major impact on the suicide rate in the United
Kingdom. The United States does have some fencing along its
railroad lines, but its main purpose is to keep out trespassers,
not suicidal people. It is also largely impractical to try and fence
all the lines in the United States, due to how much track there is.
Installing fences at hotspots could potentially help, but the
fences could also be vandalized rather quickly. The fences have
worked in other cases, such as the Grafton Bridge in Auckland,
New Zealand. These barriers were proved to lower suicide
rates, when they were briefly removed, and the rates increased
five-fold. After the reinstallation, the rates returned to normal.
Besides the Grafton Bridge, there isn’t much information
regarding the effectiveness of fencing preventing railroad
suicide, but it has proven effective for keeping trespassers out
of certain areas such as railyards,
Prevention at Platform
As shown in Figure 3, the station platform is the most
likely spot for a railroad suicide to occur. Railroads across the
world have acknowledged this and have set up precautions.
The most visible form of prevention at the platform is the
Platform Edge Doors (PEDs). These doors are specially built to
prevent any access to the train lines, and only open when the
trains arrive at the station. However, the PEDs are mainly only
applied at underground stations. While not installed at many
stations, the ones they are installed at prove to be an incredibly
reliable service. The PEDs prevent the suicidal person from
being able to climb over and reach the tracks, or at least make it
more difficult to do so. Along with this, PEDs shown to have
various other uses, such as preventing debris from getting
kicked onto the station by a train and help reduce the cold/warm
air from the outside.
FIG 3. Characteristics of suicide notes and authors versus
BTP's railway fatality database
Copyright © 2021 by PSU-RTE
possible to set these speed restrictions in hot spots where
suicides occur, such as under bridges or on open sections of
Track surveillance is another common way of helping
prevent suicide attempts. This method relies on the security
cameras, sensors, or speakers in the area to keep track of
suspicious looking individuals. A system was implemented on a
bridge in Pittsford, New York to mixed results. The main
criticism came form the large amounts of false alarms that the
system picked up, nearly twice as many as the positive alarms.
However, this same system may have saved five lives on three
different occasions.
FIG 4. Platform Edge Doors
Blue lights are another notable addition to platform safety.
Blue LEDs are placed at the ends of station platforms to try and
turn people away from committing suicide. The lights use the
psychology behind blue as a calming color and may help in
preventing someone’s suicidal ideation. These lights are very
common in Japan, where railroad suicides are much more
common. Denmark also implemented these as motion sensor
lights that go off when someone gets too close to the edge of the
platform. The study in Japan showed an 87% decrease in
railroad suicides among the station it was planted in. An
additional benefit was a lowering season depression among
riders. However, due to the small sample size, it’s unknown how
effective these lights would be if implemented into US train
Anti-suicide pits are used on roughly half the stations on
the London Underground. Originally built for drainage, these
pits have proven to have a second life in preventing suicide
fatalities. Many people who have attempted suicide by falling
have reported second thoughts as they were falling. These pits
help someone who’s fallen lie down underneath the tracks,
rather than on top of it. They’ve proven to be very effective in
London for not just suicidal people, but also people to fall onto
the tracks. A study from 1996-1997 showed that of the 58 falls
onto railroad tracks monitored, stations with the pits had a
fatality rate of 44%, while those without had a 75% fatality rate.
These pits could be potentially implemented in the United
States subway services.
Other Methods
As far as other methods are concerned, the speed
restrictions are a very common form. Speed restrictions are
already set in stations for the purpose of assisting passengers. If
someone falls carelessly onto the tracks, or tries to commit
suicide, the train would be able to stop much quicker than if it
were going at its regular speed. This has proven effective in
preventing fatalities in collisions with cars and cyclists, but is
unknown how it would effect someone on the tracks. It’s
Suicide is a national tragedy that should be prevented at all
possible costs. It not only affects those who may personally
know the victim but scars the innocent rail workers who have
no choice but to witness it. Railroad suicide is described as a
rail workers worst nightmare for very good reasons.
The United States could improve its own systems greatly
though implementing these observed practices from
international examples. Perhaps they could improve upon what
other countries have been doing, or maybe even pursue
development of unique ways of suicide prevention. For the sake
of the innocent workers, and the people who feel as though this
is their only option, this kind of prevention has to be
implemented and expanded upon.
The author would like to thank the Penn State Altoona Rail
Transportation Engineering program for allowing this research
into railroad suicide,
[1] Baumert J, Kunrath S, Ladwig KH. (2011, August 5).
SP3-73 Increase of Railway Suicides in Germany after the
Railway Suicide Death of Robert Enke, a Famous German
Football Player. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health
[2] Chase S, Doucette A, Gabreee SH, Martina M. (2014,
November 1). Countermeasures to Mitigate Intentional Deaths
on Railroad Rights-of-Way: Lessons Learned and Next Steps.
United States. Federal Railroad Administration. Office of
Research and Development
[3] Duddin, K. S. E., & Raynes, B. (2021, August 24). Why
Choose the Railway?: An Exploratory Analysis of Suicide
Notes From a Sample of Those Who Died by Suicide on the
Railway. The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide
Copyright © 2021 by PSU-RTE
[4] Erlangsen, A., la Cour, N., Larsen, C. Ø., Karlsen, S. S.,
Witting, S., Ranning, A., Wang, A. G., Ørnebjerg, K., Schou, B.,
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Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention.
[6] Valenti K. (2014, August 11). Deaths on the Rails
Haunt Engineers, Conductors. USA Today
[7] Volpe Center. (2020, October 14). Rail Suicide
Prevention Resource Page. U.S. Department of Transportation
[5] Elinson Z. (2011, December 10). For the Engineer, a
Death on the Tracks Means Horrifying Memories. The New
York Times
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