Train passengers are about to see the biggest changes in station design for years, and will have their behaviour monitored more closely, as part of a drive to cut suicides on the railways, which last year numbered 238.
Extra fencing, removal of seats from the ends of platforms, more no-go areas painted with yellow cross-hatching, and “trespass bollards” where the interruption of infrared beams sets off alarms will be among the most visible alterations.
Less obvious may be the use of smart cameras programmed to identify unusual behaviour, already being trialled at one busy station, and sensor lighting for dark areas. Network Rail is also considering whether tracking people’s movements via mobile phone signals would help to alert control rooms to potential incidents.
Nearly 5,000 rail staff have been on courses developed by the Samaritans to help them identify and approach potentially suicidal people. The charity also provides trauma support for train and railway workers.
The introduction of fencing to separate platforms for fast through trains from those for stopping services has started, with stations between Reading and London Paddington and Milton Keynes and Euston the first affected.
Other moves designed to provide psychological disincentives are on the way, as are station watch schemes along on the lines of neighbourhood watch anti-crime groups.
Posters advertising the Samaritans and dedicated telephones at stations have already been introduced. The removal of 700 level crossings over the past three years has helped cut easy access to tracks. For the first time, railways are recording suicide attempts that staff action or other interventions have prevented. There are thought to have been at least 50 in the past year.
Network Rail says the partnership – also involving British Transport police, train operating companies, and rail safety advisers – has helped keep annual suicide numbers static at 238 in each of the past two years. Disruption to train services, which costs about £33m a year according to Network Rail, has fallen by nearly a quarter in 12 months, and total delays due to suicide attempts have fallen from more than 6,500 hours to under 5,000.
Training police officers who respond to fatal incidents to undertake initial crime scene tasks has helped cut the time for dealing with unexplained deaths on the railways by a third, to 84 minutes, a process helped by dedicated phone lines from train cabs allowing drivers to give initial descriptions of incidents.
Neil Henry, Network Rail’s head of performance and operations, said: “From a purely economic point of view, there is a very strong business case which we don’t deny. But there is certainly, too, a moral obligation, we feel, to do everything we can.”
Trials of new measures were encouraging, he said. “You programme cameras, for example, to focus on somebody who has been in the same location for a long time, has been on a station for a long time, perhaps has been there when a train has come in and not got on … It will then alert people that have you have got somebody here that is acting out of the ordinary,” said Henry.
The fencing along the middle of platforms was “not necessarily that difficult to get over but it is a barrier that may just change people’s minds. There is evidence to suggest it does.”
Henry said although the partnerships with the Samaritans had been in place for nearly three years, an industry conference on the issue in June had proved a turning point. “There was this noise going round that actually there is not much we can do, other than to restore the railways to normal working as quickly as possible. To prevent someone who is intent on taking their own life is too difficult. It was quite important to say some [suicide attempts] are preventable, we can really make a difference here.”
Railways in other countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, are looking at the UK’s progress. Rail suicides make up less than 4% of the UK total: there were 6,045 suicides in all in the UK in 2011, the highest total since 2004.
Police crime scene examiners normally attend unexplained or suspicious deaths, but 55 response officers in more remote areas have been equipped with forensic suits, cameras, swab kits and sterile evidence bags and have been trained to carry out body recovery and initial investigations. Coroners have been encouraged to standardise their procedures. “We ensure the respect due to the deceased but minimise disruption to the wider railway network”, said chief inspector Tom Naughton, the officer leading the strategy.
Initial interviews with drivers were not “overly oppressive” or formal, he said, but together with other information gained from the scene, including an initial search of the body, could speed up investigations that were reviewed carefully later.
A pilot scheme in London is bringing in health professionals to police custody suites to assess those in mental distress, said Naughton. “If someone is on the railway and they are obviously trespassing, putting themselves in danger, our priority is to get them into a place of safety. We don’t want people criminalised if they are in need of medical aid.”
Rachel Kirby-Rider, executive director of fundraising and communications at Samaritans, called the developments “an outstanding example of co-operation between industry and the charity sector”. The charity’s research indicates that men in their 30-50s from disadvantaged backgrounds are at highest risk of dying by suicide, including on railways, and it is working with journalists to reduce “copycat” suicides though more responsible reporting.
“We are doing everything we can to let people know that anyone can call Samaritans at any time,” she said. The Samaritans’ 24-hour helpline is 08457 909090.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk.