Wednesday, 7:14 PM PST, January 26, 2005

Suicide by Train Is a Growing Concern
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar - Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Suicide on the railroad tracks is a growing concern in the United States, safety advocates say, but as yet there are no firm numbers on the extent or severity of the problem.

"We hear about it, and we hear that it's like the tip of the iceberg, but we do not yet collect statistics federally," said Gerri Hall, president of Operation Lifesaver, a Virginia-based advocacy group that promotes railroad crossing safety. "It's an emerging concern."

Researchers from the U.S. Transportation Department and its Canadian counterpart, Transport Canada, are planning a joint study to determine the scope of railroad suicides in both countries, said Brian Mishara, director of a center for the study of suicide at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

U.S. data will be particularly difficult to gather, since it will have to be gleaned from thousands of local coroners' offices. Some suicide cases may be classified as accidental deaths.

"We believe it is time to look to see if there is a problem here," said Hall.

More than half of suicides in the United States are carried out using guns, and suffocation and poisoning rank second and third. The category of "all other causes," which would include stepping into the path of an oncoming train, accounts for fewer than 10 percent of the deaths. Some researchers believe that the number may be as small as 200 or 300 cases a year, out of more than 30,000 suicides.

But if 200 or 300 rail suicides a year is a small part of the national total, they represent a category in which the trauma spreads beyond those personally involved.

Karen Marshall, a Michigan-based suicide prevention expert who has worked with railroad groups, said the industry is keenly interested in the problem, even if railroads only have anecdotal data about its extent.

"Railroad employees are just traumatized when this happens," said Marshall. "They want to see an end to the carnage."

Some of the anecdotal evidence is disturbing.

In the early months of 2003, for example, a series of three suicides involving Metrolink trains occurred in southern California within 10 days.

On Jan. 27, 2003, a 52-year-old man drove a sport utility vehicle into the path of a Metrolink train in Glendale. Three days later a 37-year-old man with a history of depression parked his car at a City of Industry rail crossing and was killed. And on Feb. 6, 2003, a 15-year-old boy carrying a suicide note in his backpack stepped into the path of a Metrolink Train in Covina, east of Los Angeles. The train struck the boy, who was a student at Charter Oak High School, at 53 mph, authorities said.

In Europe, where the rail network is more extensive and handgun ownership is restricted, suicide on the tracks is a recognized social problem, according to academic experts.

One case last November in England bore a resemblance to Wednesday's Glendale tragedy. A driver believed to be suicidal parked on a crossing at the town of Ufton Nervet. Six people, including the driver, were killed when a passenger train slammed into the vehicle.

But many of those who attempt suicide by rail, while acting on the assumption that a train will kill them instantly, survive with devastating injuries.

"One of the curious phenomena in studies of survivors is that most of them believed they would die certainly and painlessly, but the reality is completely different," Mishara said.Even in Germany, whose high-speed rail network has the most serious suicide problem, about 10 percent of those who attempt to kill themselves survive, he said.

In Germany, there were 5,731 railway suicides from 1997 to 2002, an average of more than 1,100 a year for a five-year period, Mishara said. Men were more likely to take their lives than women, and a disproportionate share of the deaths occurred in the vicinity of psychiatric treatment facilities.

On the Montreal subway, about two-thirds of those who jump on the tracks survive, he added.

"The people who survive are often extremely handicapped, and those who die don't necessarily die painlessly and immediately," said Mishara.

"It's not a certain way of ending one's life."

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