Signs on railway station platforms in Boston, New York and Toronto are intended to offer help to anyone who is emotionally distressed or suicidal — a last-ditch effort to keep people from taking a final, fatal step onto the train tracks.
Increasingly, commuter rail agencies in those cities and in Europe have decided it's good public policy to partner with local suicide prevention organizations by posting 24/7 hotline numbers and urging counseling for those who are troubled.
As new research shows that a higher percentage of train fatalities in the Chicago area are suicides than in the rest of the U.S., some experts say it's time for Metra to consider adopting such a policy.
"All that is required is people in leadership reaching out to their partners who are on the ground trying to save lives," said Roberta Hurtig, executive director of Samaritans, a nonprofit agency that works with Boston's commuter rail agency.
The goal would be to educate the public about suicide and offer help to anyone who might be tempted to step in front of a train, Hurtig said.
While Metra has looked at other cities' efforts and believes it can learn from them, officials have been hesitant to take any "knee-jerk" action, said Hilary Konczal, Metra's director of safety.
"There are several things we can do, and we're looking to see if one of those would be beneficial or not," Konczal said. "The last thing we want to do is implement a program that isn't working."
Rail safety researchers from the U.S. and Europe recently presented findings at the Global Level Crossing Safety & Trespass Prevention Symposium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Posting signs with hotline numbers and public awareness campaigns can be effective suicide countermeasures, said Scott Gabree, an engineering psychologist with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.
Also valuable is "gatekeeper training" of railroad employees and crews to enable them to spot suicide warning signs such as anxious behavior by people at stations and along tracks, Gabree said.
Although suicide by train is an individual act, officials say there are wide-reaching public consequences: Fatalities exact a heavy toll on train crews as well as on witnesses and emergency responders. The resulting investigations cause delays that can disrupt hundreds of commuters' lives.
"Suicides on rail systems constitute a significant social concern," according to a study prepared for the Mineta Transportation Institute based at San Jose State University in California.
The Chicago area has a higher percentage of train fatalities that are suicides than the national average, said Northwestern University professor Ian Savage, who has done extensive research on the subject.
Nationally, about 30 percent of railroad-pedestrian fatalities are apparent suicides, versus 47 percent in the Chicago area, Savage said.
The latest Illinois Commerce Commission records show there have been 172 apparent railroad-related suicides in northeastern Illinois from 2004 to mid-2013.
Although he used the ICC data in his study, Savage conducted further research and concluded that the number of apparent pedestrian-train suicides in the Chicago area was slightly lower, 161 out of 338fatalities.
Savage attributes the higher incidence of railroad suicides in the Chicago area to the greater prevalence of trains. Chicago is the largest rail hub in North America and is served by all six of the major Class I freight railroads, as well as by Amtrak and Metra, the nation's second-busiest commuter rail network.
Within the region, there are clearly suicide hot spots, or clusters of incidents, and the far suburbs in DuPage and Lake counties show the highest railroad fatality risk, Savage found.
"Higher-income communities have a worse problem," said Savage, with most fatalities being men in the 40-55 age group.
Experts say there is evidence that well-publicized suicides have a copycat effect. Savage said he found a marked spike in Chicago-area rail suicides in the weeks after the widely publicized death of Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano on May 7, 2010. Pagano stepped in front of a Metra train on the day he was about to be fired for taking $475,000 of unapproved vacation pay.
Neither the ICC nor Savage counted deaths on CTA train lines. The CTA says it has had one suicide so far in 2014 and had four in 2013, seven in 2012 and eight in 2011.
The Regional Transportation Authority, which oversees Metra and the CTA, was poised to award a $120,000 consulting contract to develop a suicide awareness program last summer. However, the contract was withdrawn at the last minute. The RTA board had reservations about the program's merits, a spokeswoman for the agency said.
Boston's commuter rail agency, the fifth-largest in the U.S., has partnered with Samaritans since 2008. The agency provides space to Samaritans to promote suicide prevention services at train stations via posters with the group's hotline number.
There is no hard data on what effect the rail station campaign has had on suicide rates in Boston, but Samaritans has been told by hotline callers that the signs motivated them to seek help, Hurtig said.
The Long Island Rail Road, the nation's largest commuter line, launched a suicide prevention program in 2009. It has signs at 124 stations with hotline numbers and the message, "Suicide is Not the Route."
London has adopted a much more powerful visual message, using close-up photos of middle-age men, who are most at risk of suicide, and messages like, "A Samaritan helped me through tough times."
Until now, reports on the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts have been largely anecdotal, experts say. But results are due soon from a 36-month project called RESTRAIL, for Reduction of Suicides and Trespasses on Railway Property, that was conducted on Europe's rail lines.
In Japan, railroad officials believe that the installation of blue lights at stations has a "calming effect" on people and is a deterrent to suicides. There is little scientific evidence of the lights' effectiveness, and more testing is needed, said the Volpe Center's Gabree, who added it's possible that lights other than blue could have the same effect.
Other programs take steps beyond just posting signs. In Toronto and Washington, D.C., rail employees are trained to recognize potential suicidal behaviors and identify distressed, at-risk customers. These might be people who loiter around stations and exhibit signs of erratic behavior, experts say.
One program that Metra participates in is Operation Lifesaver, a cooperative effort with other railroads, state and local governments, businesses and safety groups.
The organization's goal is to increase public awareness of hazards at grade crossings and rights of way. It also assists in law enforcement efforts to curtail unsafe behavior at crossings and trespassing, said state coordinator Chip Pew.
Although Operation Lifesaver's main focus is not suicide prevention, it worked with Villa Park and Lombard to post signs along the Metra/Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The signs say, "There is Help. Call Us," and they list the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.
Deterring a potentially suicidal person is more challenging than stopping a trespasser or someone who drives around a crossing gate, Pew said.
In Illinois, with 7,200 miles of railroad track, "you can put up 7,199 miles of fence and someone will go that extra mile," Pew said. "You can put a sign here, but who's to say someone might go 50 yards farther where there is no sign?"
Samaritans' Hurtig believes there's no reason the Boston program or one like it can't be duplicated in Chicago, if Metra were to partner with a local mental health or suicide prevention organization.
Any last-minute intervention — even a distraction that takes someone's mind off a crisis — can prevent the person from intentionally stepping in front of a train, experts say.
"At a time when anyone is vulnerable or overwhelmed," Hurtig said, "you want something there to give them a reason to pause or know there's another way."