The two leading causes of rail-related death in the U.S. have nothing to do with operating or riding in a train. Instead, hundreds of people lose their lives every year on train tracks due to trespassing or suicide.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has long focused on safety improvements to reduce grade crossing and trespass deaths, but suicide was not historically considered alongside those efforts. However, in 2011, FRA began collecting suicide data and actively participating in suicide prevention efforts and studies.
Over the past decade, research from rail suicide prevention experts in Europe, Canada, and Australia has illuminated strategies that can reduce rail suicides.
U.S. DOT’s Volpe Center and FRA built on this global research to develop a program with six focus areas to identify ways to reduce rail suicide.
Filling Research Gaps
The body of research on rail suicide prevention is sparse. Although there is a small and growing international body of literature, cultural differences could affect mitigation strategies adopted from overseas.
Volpe’s research, sponsored by FRA, is in its early stages. This research aims to do the following:
- Grow the present body of knowledge
- Identify effective ways to reduce rail suicide
- Partner with railroads to serve as test beds or provide data
- Help railroads implement and evaluate suicide mitigation strategies
The research areas outlined below provide the public, FRA, rail carriers, and suicide prevention researchers with a comprehensive view of why rail suicides happen in the U.S., where and when they are most likely to occur, and how to prevent them.
Addressing Rail Suicide: 6 Key Research Areas
Volpe and FRA identified six key research areas that can provide insight into mitigating and preventing rail suicide.
Because good data is critical to understanding rail suicides, some of these research areas focus on understanding the types and quality of rail suicide data available in the U.S. Other areas focus on evaluating mitigation strategies and identifying ways to implement them.
- Suicide Countermeasure Pilot Projects
FRA and Volpe work with rail carriers that are implementing strategies to mitigate suicide. Volpe evaluates the effectiveness of various strategies and then passes on findings and best practices from pilot tests to carriers considering similar strategies.
- Media Reporting of Trespass and Suicide Incidents
Media that irresponsibly report on a rail suicide incident can elicit copycat attempts. This focus area started by examining how U.S. media outlets report on rail suicides and will continue to refine recommendations for how to responsibly report on these types of incidents.
- The Global Railway Alliance for Suicide Prevention (GRASP)
The GRASP working group is made up of international experts in rail suicide prevention. GRASP shares best practices and resources for improving rail suicide prevention.
- Trespasser Intent Determination
The training and qualifications required for coroners or medical examiners is decided at the local level, and varies by state or county. This may lead to inconsistencies in the criteria that an official death determination is based on, and can lead to rail suicides being underreported. This work aims to understand variations in rail suicide reporting and develop consistent criteria for the rail industry to use internally when determining probable cause of death.
- Demographic and Environmental Characteristics of Rail Suicides
This work provides an overview of the types of people injured or killed through acts of suicide on the U.S. rail system. It includes other data, such as common locations or times when incidents are more likely to occur.
- GIS Mapping
Mapping trespass and suicide incidents can provide insight into why an incident occurred in a specific location at a particular time. As data grows, this technology may help identify potential at-risk areas before they become a problem.
This breadth of research will help FRA better understand rail suicide and identify effective countermeasures. Volpe performs these investigations in tandem with continued collaboration with experts from suicide prevention groups and the rail industry.
About Rail Suicide in the U.S.
More than 40,000 people die every year in the U.S. from suicide. Less than 1 percent of those deaths happen within the rail system. But, as with all suicides, rail suicides can have lasting, detrimental emotional effects on the victim’s family and friends.
With rail suicides, emotional stress extends to train crews, emergency responders, and bystanders. Identifying ways to limit these incidents will save lives, save money, reduce delays, and help families, train crews, and first responders avoid emotional distress. Additionally, when rail suicides happen, they often receive media attention, which can result in copycat suicide attempts.
In June 2011, FRA began systematically collecting suicide data from U.S. rail carriers. For each year from 2012 to 2017, more than 219 people died by suicide within the U.S. rail system, and another 220 individuals were injured during that period from rail suicide attempts. In 2015, the U.S. rail system experienced its highest recorded number of suicide incidents with 358 incidents (328 fatal and 30 injuries).
These statistics likely underrepresent rail suicides, and the most recent data are likely significantly underrepresented.
These statistics likely underrepresent rail suicides. When the medical examiner or coroner reports that the cause of a rail fatality is undetermined, it is recorded as a trespass death and not a suicide, even though the cause is officially unknown.
Additionally, it may take months or years for verdicts to be finalized, so the most recent data are likely significantly underrepresented.
Research and Resources
The following reports from researchers in the U.S. (including Volpe) and internationally discuss the current information available on rail trespass and suicide incidents and the implementation of countermeasures to prevent them:
- Remedial Actions to Prevent Suicide on Commuter and Metro Rail Systems (2016)
- Countermeasures to Mitigate Intentional Deaths on Railroad Rights-of-Way: Lessons Learned and Next Steps (FRA/Volpe, 2014)
- An Approach for Actions to Prevent Suicides on Commuter and Metro Rail Systems in the United States (2014)
- A Model of Suicide and Trespassing Processes to Support the Analysis and Decision Related to Preventing Railway Suicides and Trespassing Accidents at Railways (2014)
- Improving Suicide Prevention Measures on the Rail Network in Great Britain (2012)
- Feasibility of Railway Suicide Prevention Strategies: A Focus Group Study (2011)
- Suicide and the Potential for Suicide Prevention on the Swedish Rail Network: A Qualitative Multiple Case Study (2011)
- Suicide Prevention in Railway Systems; Application of a Barrier Approach (2008)
- Suicides and Other Fatalities from Train-Person Collisions on Swedish Railroads: A Descriptive Epidemiologic Analysis as a Basis for Systems-Oriented Prevention (2005)
Volpe has conducted research about how current media outlets in the United States are reporting on rail-related suicide and trespass incidents. The effects of irresponsible media reporting have been documented widely in peer-reviewed journals. Below is a selection of articles specific to the rail setting:
- The Reporting of Suicide and Trespass Incidents by Online Media in the United States (FRA/Volpe, 2017)
- The Railway Suicide Death of a Famous German Football Player: Impact on the Subsequent Frequency of Railway Suicide Acts in Germany (2012)
- Increasing Railway Suicide Acts after Media Coverage of a Fatal Railway Accident? An Ecological Study of 747 Suicidal Acts (2011)
- Assessing the Impact of Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicides in Austria: Interrupted Time Series Analysis (2007)
- Suicide and the Media (2006)
- Preventing Suicide by Influencing Mass-Media Reporting. The Viennese Experience 1980-1996 (1998)
Volpe, FRA, and the American Association of American Railroads formed the Global Railway Alliance for Suicide Prevention (GRASP) working group to share rail suicide mitigation efforts from around the world. Below are the websites for each GRASP partner:
- International Union of Railways (France)
- Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (Japan)
- TrackSafe (Australia)
- Transport Canada (Canada)
- Pro Rail (Netherlands)
- UQam (Canada)
- VTT (Finland)
- Trafikverket (Sweden)
- Network Rail (United Kingdom)
- RSSB (United Kingdom)
- Association of American Railroads (U.S.)
- The Evaluators Institute (U.S.)
These international publications describe how determination of intent is decided in a rail setting:
- The Reliability of Suicide Rates: An Analysis of Railway Suicides from Two Sources in Fifteen European Countries (2010)
- Railway Group Safety Performance Monitoring – Definitions/Terminology (1999)
The following FRA reports review known characteristics of victims of rail trespass and suicide in the U.S.:
- Characteristics of Trespassing Incidents in the United States, 2012-2014 (FRA/Volpe, 2018)
- Defining Characteristics of Intentional Fatalities on Railway Right-of-Way in the United States, 2007-2010 (FRA/Volpe, 2013)
- Demographic Profile of Intentional Fatalities on Railroad Rights-of-Way in the United States (FRA/Volpe, 2013)
Below is a selection of international publications from groups that have done work in this area:
- Main Characteristics of Train-Pedestrian Fatalities on Finnish Railroads (2012)
- Trespassing on Finnish Railways: Identification of Problem Sites and Characteristics of Trespassing Behavior (2009)
- Railways and Metro Suicides: Understanding the Problem and Prevention Potential (2007)
- Suicide in the Montreal Subway System: Characteristics of the Victims, Antecedents, and Implications for Prevention (1999)
Volpe is in the early stages of mapping and analyzing suicide incidents for patterns. Below are relevant publications from other groups:
- Patterns of Suicide and Other Trespassing Fatalities on State-Owned Railways in Greater Stockholm; Implications for Suicide Prevention (2012)
- Suicides on Commuter Rail in California: Possible Patterns – A Case Study (2010)