Striving to prevent suicide by train

Steve Vale leaned on a weak point of a fence on George Street as an express train whizzed by at close to 100 miles per hour in Mansfield. His daughter died on the tracks in 2008. Steve Vale leaned on a weak point of a fence on George Street as an express train whizzed by at close to 100 miles per hour in Mansfield. His daughter died on the tracks in 2008. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / February 9, 2010

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MANSFIELD - Steve Vale has to walk only 45 seconds beyond his driveway to get to the train tracks where his daughter killed herself 17 months ago.

“You could almost reach out and touch them,’’ Vale says, gazing at the metal rails.

He is standing next to a 5-foot-tall rusted fence, easily penetrable through gaps and tears, flush against the nation’s busiest passenger rail line.

Suicide by train, though an inherently public act, is in many ways a taboo topic, rarely reported in the media and seldom discussed openly. The rail industry has long considered the phenomenon unfortunate but unavoidable.

Now, the Federal Railroad Administration is challenging that notion.

It has funded an effort, the first of its kind, to tally train suicides as part of a study into whether and how more of them could be prevented. The study, now in its fourth year and set for release next year, looks more closely at fences and other barriers, which are often low and rickety, if they exist at all, along the nation’s rail beds.

There are 300 to 500 train suicides a year, according to the study’s preliminary findings. In Massachusetts, 15 people were killed on the tracks in 2008, the most recent year for which federal data are available, though the data do not indicate how many of those were suicides.

Vale, a 56-year-old retiree, hears trains day and night: long and lumbering freight trains, six-car MBTA commuter trains, and Amtrak Acela trains that thunder by at up to 150 miles per hour, traveling between Boston and Washington, D.C.

If he could afford to move his family away from these constant reminders of the worst day in their lives, he would. “It’s like a jet. It shakes the house.’’

Even before the death of his 21-year-old daughter, Vale had written legislators asking for better maintained and more substantial barriers. He has no conclusive evidence that they would have saved his daughter’s life, only strong feelings that vulnerable people, including children looking for shortcuts and adults who are not in a rational frame of mind, could be helped by better barricades.

At first glance, physical deterrents may appear useless in stopping people who want to end their lives. But there is significant evidence that taking away or obstructing the means for people to kill themselves can defuse self-destructive impulses, which often occur in moments of extreme anguish or stress.

“When you reduce access to a highly lethal method, overall, suicide rates go down,’’ said Matthew Miller, a Harvard professor and specialist in suicide prevention.

For example, the presence of a gun in the home multiplies the risk that people will kill themselves by a factor of as much as 10, with the highest risk found in homes where children and teenagers have access to loaded, unlocked guns. And instances of bridge suicide drop substantially when engineers build architectural barricades to prevent jumps.

Suicide rates in Britain dropped significantly in the 1960s after coal gas, used for stoves and home heating, was replaced with less toxic natural gas. By eliminating that means of suicide, the nation saw an overall 30 percent drop in suicides, suggesting that people who might have tried to kill themselves with coal gas did not necessarily seek out another means.

The effect of train barriers has not been studied. And there are legitimate questions about whether 215,000 miles of US railroads could ever be cordoned off and maintained well enough to limit access.

But the reflexive refrain from many in the rail industry, that little can be done, avoids grappling with the true moral quandary, Miller said.

European rails have been more aggressive in experimenting with moats, hedges, high fences, or electric gates that rise up on platforms when trains leave the station, said Alan L. Berman executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, which is performing the federal rail suicide study under a grant.

In addition to documenting suicides for the first time, Berman’s team is in the midst of conducting 60 psychological autopsies of train suicide victims in an effort to learn about their lives and motivation, to gain insight about how their actions might have been prevented.

“The individual railroads themselves are all over the map in terms of . . . focusing on the problem,’’ Berman said.

Some in the industry worry that finding a solution means adding more cost and responsibility, he said. Putting up barricades all over the country would not be feasible, he said, but the group may suggest testing barriers in targeted areas where prevention is most likely to be successful.

Most of the nation’s tracks have no barriers. And there is no standard for the type or height of fencing used in places that have them. About one-third of the 380 miles of commuter rail in Massachusetts is fenced in, with an emphasis around parks, schools, high-population areas, and those with repeat trespassing incidents.

Neighbors often cut through them to create shortcuts into town, and responsibility for maintaining them is split among rail entities, town governments, private companies, and school districts.

The track next to Vale’s home is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, but the fence is maintained by Amtrak, which was required to build it as part of the federal approval in 2000 to run the high-speed Acela trains on electrified tracks. Vale said he has been volleyed back and forth among the MBTA, Amtrak, and his local legislator when asking questions about the fence and the rail.

A spokesman for Amtrak, Clifford Cole, said recently that workers had been out to inspect the Mansfield fences. In recent weeks, after the Globe’s inquiries, the chain link near Vale’s house was replaced by a slightly higher fence and the gaps were eliminated. Other MBTA fences are maintained by a private company that runs commuter rail for the MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad Co.

“Do people go up and down the tracks looking for people or fence issues? They don’t,’’ said Scott Farmelant, a spokesman for the company. “It’s not practical.’’

Mass Bay Commuter and the MBTA teamed up for the first time last year with Samaritans, a nonprofit group, to launch an awareness campaign that includes signs at commuter stations with a toll-free help line.

Sign campaigns have been used more often nationally in recent years, but their effectiveness has not been measured, Berman said.

Still, the signs in Massachusetts have drawn callers and are believed to have saved lives, said Roberta Hurtig, director of Samaritans.

There were no signs near the section of track where Elizabeth Mary Vale committed suicide after a long battle with depression and several unsuccessful attempts to take her life.

On the night of Sept. 6, 2008, the college student drove 25 minutes from her Attleboro home to the end of her parents’ street, a few blocks from Mansfield Station. She parked her car next to the fence.

“This was a vigorous, bright, loving young woman,’’ her father said.

It is unclear how she gained access to the tracks, but the gaps in the fence were wide enough for most adults to pass through easily and fence is low enough to climb. She was hit by a southbound commuter train, which had just left Mansfield Station and was traveling 50 to 60 miles per hour, according to police.

Vale said his daughter’s suicide note, and attempts she made that day to reach her therapist, indicated she was wavering. Vale has no proof a better barrier would have deterred her.

“We’re not saying it definitely could have,’’ he said, “but we believe she would not have.’’