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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Award-Winning Paper Presents Ways to Prevent Intentional Rail Fatalities

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dr. Scott Gabree was recently recognized for delivering the best paper at a rail conference for his presentation about ways to reduce intentional fatalities, or suicides, by trains. Drawing on some novel approaches from around the world, Dr. Gabree, an experimental psychologist, provided an overview of a variety of countermeasures that are being considered by railroads in an attempt to prevent deaths.

“Until very recently, the idea that the railroad industry could do something about suicides was not really considered,” said Dr. Gabree.

Suicides on railroad rights-of-way have not been researched, or even recorded, for very long.

Dr. Scott Gabree

“While railroad companies were required by law to obtain cause of death determinations from coroners and medical examiners, the Federal Railorad Administration (FRA) requested that only fatalities deemed not-to-be-suicide be shared with FRA," said Dr. Gabree. "Thus, no suicides were included in reports prior to July 2011.”

The data that are collected are based on determinations of coroners and medical examiners who may vary in their training and qualifications. FRA reports on their safety data website that, since 2011, there have been nearly 900 fatalities and injuries that are suicide related.

Rail companies around the world are considering a variety of countermeasures to prevent suicides by train.

Countermeasures Being Considered by Railroads to Prevent Deaths

One set of countermeasures involves techniques like signage to reduce the likelihood that an individual will follow through with suicide. Some examples include signage along rail lines that promote a suicide prevention hotline, gatekeeper training to identify those at risk of suicide, and public awareness campaigns designed to reduce the likelihood of suicide.

Making railroads an undesirable way to attempt suicide is another potential countermeasure. By working with the media and outreach programs like Operation Lifesaver to counter the belief that being struck by a train can yield a quick and painless death, railroad companies may be able to reduce suicide attempts.

Restricting access using physical barriers is a way to prevent people from getting near the rails. Fences can be erected outside of stations to prevent trespassing. In stations, platform edge doors that do not open until the train arrives prevent access to the right-of-way while trains are moving.

Anti-suicide pits, which are dug below the tracks, allow for a person to avoid being struck by a train. The train is able to move over the person without contact. Railroads are also using speed restrictions in some areas, as well as cameras to see if there are potential risks on the right-of-way.

These cou2014 Global Level Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention Symposiumntermeasures are at different levels of maturity and evaluations of their efficacy are ongoing.  

“There is very little empirical evidence out there,” said Dr. Gabree, speaking about the efficacy of these countermeasures. “We’re hoping that if FRA and Volpe partner with railroads that are already doing this, then we can track how impactful these means have been. ‘What success are you having? How are you evaluating it? What can we help with?’”

Dr. Gabree’s presentation was given at the Global Level Crossing Safety & Trespass Prevention Symposium, held August 3-8 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Gabree was recognized for delivering the best paper by a rail safety professional.

Volpe's work in this technical area is sponsored by the FRA Office of Research and Development.