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Preventing suicide on the rails — and trauma later | Editorial

The rate of suicide-related deaths on SEPTA subway and railroad tracks are cause for concern -- about public safety, and the effect on the well-being of engineers and operators.

A train on the Market-Frankford Line heads toward Center City from 60th Street on Dec. 7, 2018.
A train on the Market-Frankford Line heads toward Center City from 60th Street on Dec. 7, 2018.Read moreJason Laughlin / Staff / File Photograph

SEPTA Regional Rail engineers and city subway operators know all too well how nearly impossible it is to avoid hitting or running over someone who’s in the path of a train. By the time a person on the tracks becomes visible to the person at the controls, there likely isn’t enough time to stop. The deaths that result mean grief for the loved ones of the deceased — and sometimes, trauma for the engineers or operators involved.

The Inquirer’s Jason Laughlin and Dylan Purcell analyzed federal and other data and determined that 40% of what Federal Railroad Administration categorizes as “trespasser deaths” on subway systems — among the 825 deaths on all railroad and subway systems nationwide in 2018 — involved people intending to die by suicide. SEPTA subways have the highest rate of suicide deaths per mile in the nation, and the percentage of suicide-involved trespasser deaths in SEPTA’s network of railroads, subways, trolleys, and buses is about 50%.

It would be no exaggeration to call this data a picture of a public health crisis — one not only encompassing those troubled enough to end their lives but the pain and grief of those left behind — including the rail engineers involved in these fatal accidents.

One union official told The Inquirer that perhaps six out of 10 SEPTA Regional Rail engineers with a decade or more of experience have been involved in at least one death; for subway line operators, the number is estimated at one in 10. It is SEPTA’s responsibility to make sure that employees involved in this sort of fatal accident — who have seen, heard, and felt the fatal impact at close range — are afterward treated with compassion and care. Currently, SEPTA provides three paid days off as well as a call from an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) representative; engineers or operators may seek counseling or other services, but many opt for a quick return to work. This hardly seems adequate to deal with such trauma.

Getting back on the job may be a sound choice for many. But several operators and engineers interviewed by The Inquirer said mental health difficulties can take time to emerge and can lead to sleep disturbances or other symptoms. SEPTA should recognize the complicated nature of trauma by taking steps such as instituting follow-up EAP interviews. Erasing the traces of what occurred isn’t possible, but it is possible to make sure someone is genuinely well enough to work.

Meanwhile, while there’s no practical way to isolate or encase an urban and suburban public transit network in a protective cocoon, the suicide death rate in SEPTA’s relatively compact and contained subway network does suggest a vulnerability to trespass that raises any number of public safety concerns.

Physical barriers, such as those being installed on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, can help prevent such deaths. SEPTA and other transit systems do use fences, barriers, or even landscaping to impede or slow access to the tracks. The numbers suggest, however, that more is needed.