What It’s Like Dealing With Railway Suicides

We spoke to the former head of safety at British Rail about the reality of finding a body on the tracks.

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Oct 26 2017, 10:47am

Cast members from '31 Hours'

Someone commits suicide on Britain's rail network every 31 hours, and that someone is ten times more likely to be a man than a woman.

This month, a play called 31 Hours is being performed at the Bunker Theatre in Southwark. Written by Kieran Knowles, it tells the story of four men who clear railway suicides, and how they choose to "man up" and not discuss the mental issues they suffer as a result of their vocation. The play is being backed by the British Safety Council (BSC), a 60-year-old charity that exists to maintain the health of Britain's workforce.

Louise Ward, of the BSC, used to be the Head of Health and Safety at British Rail and dealt with rail suicides on a near-daily basis. I spoke to her about how she, and her staff, dealt with these tragically common occurrences.


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VICE: Why did the British Safety Council get involved with 31 Hours?
Louise Ward: Mental health is something we're very concerned about; it's very much the issue of our age. There's such a stigma around mental health, especially with guys on a job like the railways. It's incredibly macho and male-dominated.

How many suicides did you have to deal with in your time with British Rail?
Well, the play is based around the concept that someone committed suicide on the tracks every 31 hours. I worked with them for four years.

That's quite a lot.
It is.

With it being such a regular occurrence, did it ever become just another number?
Never. You never stop feeling it when you get the summary of events in the morning. Even on the day I left, it struck me there would probably be one or two over the last 24 hours. We were always respectful of everyone involved, and sometimes staff would be deeply affected by it.

What's the rough timeline when something like this happens?
There's an immediate notification from the driver or a member of staff on the train. That then goes into the signaller, who triggers the emergency response. This will be the mobile operations manager and the support crew, as required by the British Transport Police. They then go out immediately to the scene. They then have to decide whether anything suspicious has occurred, and whether they can clear the scene. The scene then has to be cleared up respectfully, before they can get the trains on the move again.

How long does this normally take?
It really depends on each individual incident. There is no "normal".

What's the mood like at a scene like this? Obviously a tragedy has occurred, but people must also be aware of the effect it's having on the rail network.
It's professional, but sombre and reflective. It's very different from a railway work site, where it's buzzing and there's loads going on.

Louise Ward

Not to be too grisly, but what happens to a body that's hit by a train?
We're always careful about talking about it because we don't want to be giving people hints. It depends how fast the train traveling, the position the person is in when they're in collision. Some people choose to jump from a platform, some choose to step in front from the platform. Some sit, stand or even lay down on the rail. It very much depends on the environmental conditions and the position they're in on impact.

It must be so traumatic for the driver.
It's dreadful for them. They're responsible individuals. I have known examples where they don't drive again. It's especially horrific [when] they see it coming. There's so little they can do about it. Sometimes they'll be traveling at up to 160 mph – by the time you see them, you've got absolutely no hope of stopping the train.

What sort of services are there for drivers afterwards?
Train operating companies have done a huge amount of work on supporting drivers, and it starts from the very first moment they report the incident. They'll report the incident to the signaller and the signaller will stay on the phone until someone else gets there. Someone will stay with them at all times until they're escorted from the scene. Peer support is often the most important thing. It's OK to not be OK, and that's what we want to get across. It's OK to want to talk about it. Often, the people that have been through that experience themselves are best placed to provide that support.

Is there any sort of training for station staff to intervene with someone they might consider a risk?
The Samaritans have partnered with British Rail on this [the Suicide Prevention Programme]. Since it's been incorporated, there's been a 12 percent drop in suicides.

How do station staff deal with it?
It's about training and equipping them with some basic skills in how to recognise someone that might be vulnerable. It's reaching out, asking if you can help, asking how they feel and letting them talk. It's active questioning, getting someone to talk about their feelings. We're programmed as fixers, so our instinctive thing is to try and make people feel better, but that's not necessarily the right thing at that time. It's better to just ask open questions, let them talk and get to the stage where you can get them help.

That's a pretty incredible skill to arm someone with.
It is. And the results speak for themselves. The Samaritans are wonderful.

How do you deal with suicide sites becoming memorials?
It's really difficult. They can do, but there is sometimes a need to minimise this. You don't want to advertise it, to invite copycat events. There's a very fine balance, so often the tactful thing is to suggest they [leave memorials] somewhere that would be significant to the individual.

Thanks, Louise.

The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or you can find the details for your local branch at www.samaritans.org.

'31 Hours' is on until 28th October. Get tickets here.

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