By Mark Simon, @MarkSimon24
It hurts us all.
In a place that prides itself on responding to problems positively, creatively and effectively, the deaths by suicide on the Caltrain right of way and in the larger community are deeply troubling and acutely frustrating.
These deaths go through our organization like a continuing ripple of pain. It’s an issue faced by railroads across the country and around the world. We have been dealing with these tragedies since assuming operation of Caltrain in 1992 and, each death seems to cut even deeper. I am reminded of the line from poet John Donne’s most famous essay: “Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.”
We also share the dismay and exasperation of our customers and the far-reaching consequences of these events. Passengers sit idle on trains, late for important appointments, missing out on family events and social engagements, running late for flights and transit connections. We serve the whole community and it is an additional level of pain when a tragic turn of events also prevents us from meeting our obligations to the many individuals who rely on our service.
That is why for nearly a decade, Caltrain has been involved in a wide range of efforts to address safety on the right of way and the larger issue of the well-being and mental health of our community.
This message is intended, among other things, to update you on those latest efforts, but before I get to that, I must sound a cautionary note: There are only five things, in our experience, that can truly impact these tragic events, and none of them is a quick way to make this problem better:
- Stop running trains. While this doesn’t solve our community’s troubling suicide rate, it would certainly stop deaths on the railroad. This might be a solution to deaths on the tracks, but it is untenable, considering the place Caltrain has in serving our community and its impact on the lives we try to lead.
- Fence off the major road/rail crossings. Our data shows the vast majority of suicides on the Caltrain tracks occur at or near the grade crossings. We often are asked to put up more fencing along the tracks (more on that further down), but this data suggests that the grade crossings are the main point of access. Many of these roads are the principal east-west thoroughfares on the Peninsula and blocking them off entirely is as untenable as ceasing train service.
- Grade separate the crossings. In those Peninsula cities where grade separations have been constructed, incidents – accidents and suicides – have been reduced dramatically. Building grade separations is complicated politically, as evidenced by the continuing and passionate debate over elevated vs. underground structures. They also are expensive and take a long time to build – a grade separation project in San Bruno cost more than $150 million and took five years. Unlike the first two options, this is something we can do, although the debate over what kind – elevated or underground – is far from resolved and likely will add months, perhaps years, to this effort. And it may not have the effect we would wish in that it doesn’t eliminate access to the tracks. Tuesday’s tragic death occurred at a train station, where it is nearly impossible to eliminate pedestrian access to the tracks.
- Engage in a community-wide effort to address underlying mental health issues, suicide prevention and lifting the stigma of seeking help. This is the long solution – it can take decades to change community attitudes about mental health to the point where a troubled individual can openly admit that he or she needs help. And even if, together, we did everything we could and transformed our community, there is no guarantee it will work. Some of the recent cases have involved people who had sought help and had been identified as struggling with mental health issues. To the credit of our community, this mental health/suicide prevention effort is underway and has been for years. There are a number of government-, community-, and school-based organizations throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties that are working hard to improve the availability of services and to help guide all of us on how we can work together to reduce the risk and to reach out to one another. That is commendable and we need to consider how we can redouble our efforts, together.
- Reduce the harmful news media attention to these deaths. There is ample science to establish that giving high profile coverage to these incidents makes the problem worse. There are many professional journalism organizations that actively assert coverage of suicides should be minimal and non-sensational. Every leading suicide-prevention organization issues media guidelines that beg news organizations not to describe the means of the suicides in detail. And yet, as recently as Tuesday’s tragedy, every news story described exactly how the death occurred. The news media has to take some responsibility for the story it is creating, not just covering. This makes some journalists angry. A recent social media assertion along these lines provoked a very angry response from one local news organization. They defend their coverage as newsworthy because of the disruption to the daily commute. Or because the deaths themselves have become newsworthy. But this is something that can be done right now and, evidence suggests, can have a positive impact.
These options aside, it is fair to ask: What is Caltrain doing?
We are considering a range of technologies that could be applied to the right of way – all of it untested and not currently in practice on any railroad in America. Nonetheless, we have a responsibility to look at everything, and we are.
We receive a wide range of suggestions – everything from slowing the train to 5 M.P.H. to installing blowers or air bags on the fronts of the trains to installing lights and cameras at the grade crossings. Many of these ideas are impractical, and we know this because we’ve looked at all of them. Nonetheless, we will continue to explore any and all ideas. And, we have to add, we are responsible for 42 grades crossings across more than 50 miles. Any idea has to be one we are prepared to implement everywhere.
We met recently with officials from the City of Palo Alto, who, it should be noted, are nearly desperate to find something that can done – anything. We’ve agreed to look at some technology they have proposed, and we’re working with them to see how we can enhance and improve the Track Watch program of guards at the crossings.
We have installed 22 miles of additional fencing on the right of way in the past several years, and we are working with the city to consider where additional fencing might have an impact, along with the removal of trees and shrubs that may provide hiding places.
The Transit Police are specially trained in how to intervene with someone who is clearly in crisis and we have close, working relationships with many local law enforcement agencies. With their help and the help of customers who are attentive and willing to get involved, we frequently receive an early warning of someone acting erratically at or near the railroad. The result has been what we call “saves” – people we take off the right of way before they can harm themselves.
With all the attention given to the deaths on the railroad, there are many more instances where someone is saved.
For nearly a decade, we have been directly involved in special task forces and ongoing organizational efforts to address the issue of community mental health and well-being. We have tried to be a vehicle for communication about these difficult issues and a positive force for the message that there is help and there is hope. Those efforts will continue and expand – we are engaged at this moment with mental health, city and school officials on this issue.
We will work with community leaders in an effort to educate the news media on the impact of its coverage of these tragedies and to seek a more constructive approach.
In sum, we are talking to anyone and everyone about all of these – grade separations, technology, mental health, community engagement and media education. We are prepared – eager – to do anything and everything we can.
It hurts us all.
We want to help. We will be an active partner in any effort to make a difference. We are all in.