At Metrolink, the number of train strikes is on the rise, whether the trains hit pedestrians far from stations at marked crossings or plow into vehicles on the railroad tracks, the agency reported.
Sometimes, the train strikes involve people deliberately jumping into the path of an oncoming locomotive train, a problem the six-county commuter rail agency tries to prevent with public service videos and by working in concert with mental health counselors.
Metrolink brought together suicide prevention experts, first responders and nonprofits on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at a conference in Burbank to raise awareness and try to wrap their arms around a problem that is worsening amidst a growing economy, increased homelessness and rising rates of anxiety and depression related to the long pandemic.
“It has been an issue for us in the industry for decades. The numbers have gotten pretty extreme,” said Don Filippi, chief operating officer for Metrolink, speaking during the “Trespassing & Suicide Prevention Summit.”
In 2021, Metrolink, freight rail and Amtrak passenger service together recorded 63 train strikes that included 41 pedestrians not at a crossing, six at a crossing and 16 vehicle strikes. This year’s figures add up to 78 train strikes, already higher than last year with more than three months left in 2022, the agency reported.
“Of those 63 strikes in 2021, 34 involved Metrolink trains. Of the 34, 14 were ruled deliberate acts with 11 resulting in suicide,” wrote Scott Johnson, Metrolink spokesman, in an emailed response.
Metrolink reported that of the train strikes in 2021, 48% were deliberate acts, meaning they weren’t accidents and included suicides. They also included motorists illegally driving over train tracks or pedestrians running across tracks to get somewhere quicker, for example, explained Frank Castellon, Metrolink’s chief safety, security and compliance officer.
A study of train strikes and trespassing on railroad tracks in New Jersey by Rutgers University used video cameras to capture the behavior of those who lingered near or on tracks. The footage noted that more people walked on the rails during graduation time.
“Especially during May and June, people were posing (on the railroad tracks) and posting pictures on social media,” explained Shala Blue, an engineering psychologist with the Federal Railroad Administration.
Sandri Kramer, director of community relations and special projects for the Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, spoke about hot spots where suicides on railroad tracks may occur. She said homeless encampments near rail stations are among the places to watch.
“Some have a high incidence of mental illness,” she said during a panel discussion, referring to those living in encampments. “To them, it is like almost every 10 minutes a loaded gun goes by.”
Kramer provides training to Metrolink staff on suicide prevention and recognizing suicidal behavior in people near train tracks, stations — and those who call in to Metrolink’s hotline, 1-800-273-8255.
Often, train conductors need counseling if their train strikes and kills a pedestrian or motorist. “There is an increased risk of a mental health crisis for our employees,” she said.
Nancy Sheehan, executive director of the nonprofit California Operation Lifesaver, which promotes rail safety to adults and school children, said the best way to spread the message is word of mouth. Her group uses onsite meetings and social media to reach school kids and their parents.
“Sharing rail safety tips with family, friends and coworkers is one of the most effective ways. Ninety-two percent trust (the) recommendations from friends,” she said.
Reports of suicide by train dropped during the pandemic, Kramer said. But she saw an increase in calls on suicide prevention hotlines in 2020, especially from young people asking for help.
Metrolink has worked on the problem of train strikes and suicides for 30 years. Some experts say putting up signs with anti-suicide messages on train platforms is a good deterrent.
“We are helping railroad employees to recognize the symptoms and if they see something to ask: ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’” said Patrick Sherry, executive director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation and a researcher on train safety who spoke at the symposium.
He teaches train agency staffers to ask direct questions of those who call hotlines or exhibit suicidal behavior. He said those who consider suicide by jumping in front of a train often are without other means, such as drugs or access to a firearm. Those who commit suicide this way often live close to train tracks or train stations, he added.
Filippi said Metrolink is trying new approaches to prevent train strikes and train suicides. As a former locomotive engineer, he has hit cars and killed people while operating a train, he said. He said Metrolink, which operates seven lines and 62 stations in six counties, is asking for more federal dollars to prevent train deaths.
“It isn’t just homeless people getting hit. It is everybody, young kids, families in cars. … We need to start looking at things differently.” Filippi said.