As the number of people using trains has risen, so too has the number of suicides committed on the railways. In Europe in 2015 alone, at least 2,868 passengers took their lives on railway network. And last year, SmartRail World reported that suicides on railways in the UK had reached an all-time high. More recently, we featured a video exploring how in the UK the Samaritans have worked with Network Rail to train people how to deal with and hopefully resolve the difficult situations in which passengers appear suicidal. In the video, Neena Naylor a train dispatcher for Network Rail expressed the opinion “if it means helping someone or potentially saving someone’s life, you couldn’t ask for more.”
This got me thinking, writes Sarah Wright of SmartRail World, with statistics reaching such heights but many wanting to make a difference, what is the rail industry doing to help prevent suicide?
In 2014, the prevention of suicide became a focus for the British Transport police (BTP), that year 326 people took their lives on Britain’s railways. In 2013 BTP launched a suicide prevention programme, working alongside mental health professionals, offering rail staff a chance to identify the people at threat, learn how to approach, support them and resolve the situation. Working with the NHS directly has allowed the officer’s in the programme more access to information, meaning they have a better chance of helping as they can begin to understand the passenger’s history. It also puts them directly in contact with professionals who deal with situations like these daily and can pass along valuable knowledge and understandings.
The Independent reported that by its second year BTP’s prevention programme saved the lives of 1,146 of the 1,156 potentially suicidal passengers that it dealt with. Mark Smith, head of suicide prevention and mental health at the BTP, chose to begin the programme after experiencing first-hand the impact of suicide on all those involved, saying “each event traumatises the driver of the train, the passengers that are on it, and the people that then have to respond to it.”
In line with the BTP’s suicide prevention programme, the UK’s Rail Industry Suicide Prevention Programme (RISPP) (promo at a London Underground station pictured left) was launched. The programme has bought together representatives from: Network Rail, BTP, Train Operating Companies, ATOC, RSSB, ASLEF, Unite, TSSA, RMT, and the NHS. RISPP works with the Samaritans (a UK based charity) to offer training courses to rail staff. The programme focuses on communication and contact for all those involved, offering staff pocket sized handbooks, training videos and reference cards. Feedback from those who have taken the course is clearly encouraging. It has given staff the courage to approach people in a suicidal crisis, and helped them understanding how to act in these difficult situations, much in the same way as the BTP prevention scheme.
Across the channel, the European Union funded and launched its own suicide prevention project, RESTRAIL. The project analysed the data and methods used across the EU with hopes of coming up with an answer on how to effectively save lives, time and money. As a result, the RESTRAIL toolbox was created, offering guidance to all and sharing best practice from across the region. The EU has claimed that the initiative has been effective, stopping accidents, delays and loss of profits. The project came to an end in September 2014, though the toolbox is still available online.
Though it seems that reading advice which is removed from the situation and quite un-personal in nature offers guidance but may not be as effective as a hands on training course, like RISPP, which is perhaps why a number of European countries have reached out to the programme to find out more. In the US operators like Caltrain and BART follow similar action plan to those used in the UK. Rail staff look out for potential threats, and are encouraged to talk to the passenger whilst the authorities and train divers are made aware of the situation. BART has also invested time in working with mental health care professionals. A method tried by Hong Kong in 2002 saw the introduction of physical barriers and screen doors in stations, this saw the suicide figure drop by almost 60% but proved too costly and unachievable in many stations. In Japan, experimental techniques are in use, problematic stations are fitted with screens broadcasting soothing pictures, public panic buttons and leaflets with suicide hotline contact details are widely available.
Last summer, World Health Organisation statistics showed in the last 45 years, worldwide the suicide rate has risen by 60%, with many of these deaths being committed on railways. In Europe in 2015 alone, 2,868 passengers took their lives. Shockingly, only twenty-eight countries are known to have suicide prevention programmes in place. The question is why? In the UK the rate of railway suicides is one of the highest in Europe, yet it is working hard to change this number.
As explored above, it may only take a bit of kindness and understanding to prevent an awful thing from happening. If we give our staff the right training – just a few hours to build their confidence – it can make a massive difference. As our colleagues in Hong Kong have shown, physical barriers can make a massive difference but come at a cost that cannot be sustained. Vigilance and compassion cost nothing. Suicide prevention programmes may not be there quite yet, though they are certainly on their way. These programmes with the right support can make all the difference, not only by saving lives but by protecting our staff and other passengers.
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