Caltrain suicides difficult for agency to prevent, but measures under way 

Deaths on the Caltrain tracks have gone down since 2009’s near-record high prompted increased safety and suicide prevention measures.

It’s too soon to say, however, whether those measures are bearing fruit, officials said. Caltrain has had four pedestrian deaths so far this year.

There were 19 deaths in 2009, 15 of which were deemed suicides and four of which involved teens in Palo Alto. In response, Caltrain implemented safety measures including increased police enforcement along the railsystem,engineering improvements to crosswalks preventing trespassing and increased suicide prevention education and outreach.

Though Caltrain occasionally experiences vehicle-train incidents and accidents, the agency’s primary safety focus is suicide.

“In 2009, we really worked with the community to prevent suicide,” Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn said.
Though Caltrain pedestrian deaths dropped to 11 last year — nine of which have been confirmed suicides — the numbers have fluctuated widely over the years.

“We really have no way of judging if our efforts were effective or not,” Dunn said.

Caltrain installed suicide-prevention signs along the tracks in 2001 containing a phone number to a national suicide-prevention hotline, said Dunn.

However, officials only began tracking calls to such numbers in 2010 as part of a national study to determine whether the signs are effective. As part of that effort, 250 new signs were installed along a stretch of track between Menlo Park and Mountain View with numbers to a local crisis center in San Carlos.

The problem of suicide-by-train is a frustrating one for Caltrain officials, and a painful topic for the engineers.
“I don’t think it’s something that anybody can prepare for,” said Tim Smith, California legislative board chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “It tends to leave scars … at least in your memory bank.”

A train engineer in his 39th year, Smith said pedestrian suicides are unfortunately part of the job. He experienced one suicide along a Stockton rail line in the early 1990s.

“It was not a pretty sight,” Smith said. “I couldn’t sleep for a week. When your hand is on the throttle, you feel a little more responsibility. It’s not a practical way of looking at it, but you can’t swerve off the track.” Amtrak,

which employs Caltrain engineers and conductors, automatically grants requested paid leave to workers who have been involved in train-related deaths, said Amtrak spokewoman Vernae Graham. Engineers and conductors are closely monitored for the first 48 hours after the incident and counseling services are provided.

Train fatalities are on the rise nationally. California led the nation with 66 train-pedestrian deaths in 2010, up from 47 the year before, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Nationally, such deaths increased from 417 in 2009 to 451 in 2010.

However, it is difficult to compare these figures to Caltrain’s because the state and national data counts killed trespassers who were not at rail crossings, but excludes suicides, according to the agency.

The FRA in previous years didn’t require train agencies to report suicides, said Warren Flatau, agency director of public affairs, citing the difficulty of actually determining if a trespassers death was intentional. Beginning June 1, however, the FRA will require suicides to be reported and included in its database.

Through analyzing national case samplings between June 2006 and May 2007, the FRA estimates that up to 50 percent of all trespasser-train related deaths are suicide, Flatau said. The FRA will conclude its second phase of analysis by the end of this year.

Trends tough to track with suicides along tracks

It’s tempting to look for patterns and explanations for suicides along the Caltrain tracks, but they have proved elusive.

A study released in December by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University analyzed pedestrian suicides along Caltrain’s 77 miles of rail.

Though the study included data dating back to 1992, it couldn’t identify significant yearly or monthly trends.
“2009 was really an anomaly,” said Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn, citing the year’s near-record high 19 deaths.

Though fatalities dipped in 2010 to 11, Dunn said she didn’t know why they dropped.

“It’s frustrating,” Dunn said.

The study did find that the 25-mile stretch between Burlingame and Sunnyvale accounted for the largest concentration of suicides.

The study, which examined 193 suicide cases from 1992 to 2009, concluded that more deaths occurred during the week. With fewer trains running on the weekend, there are fewer chances of encountering a train, the report said.

Male train-suicide attempts also were 3.5 times more common than female attempts.

aterrazas@sfexaminer.com

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