South Florida railroads deal with increase of death on the tracks

The railroad tracks crisscrossing South Florida attract more than commuters and commerce.

They also attract people looking for an end. In the last six months, three people died from apparent suicide on the CSX Railroad tracks near Boca Raton after being hit by Tri-Rail trains.

One was a 35-year-old man who was considered a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend in Boynton Beach. His death occurred just weeks after another man jumped in front of an oncoming train.

On Nov. 29, a man walked out of the bushes near Boca Raton and laid on the tracks.

Suicide by train is fairly uncommon, making up less than 1 percent of all suicides, said Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

Yet, railroads are seeing an increase of suicides on their tracks, said Holly Arthur, with the American Association of Railroads.

They have an impact not only on the victims but also on train engineers and conductors who are helpless to stop a train in time and are stuck witnessing the grisly aftermath.

Beyond that, the deaths tie up traffic at railroad crossings and on increasingly busy South Florida rail lines.

"People just decide to take their lives," said Bob Ledoux, Florida East Coast Railway vice president. "There's absolutely nothing you can do."

Along the FEC, most of its trespasser deaths occur in South Florida.

In the last three years, 17 trespassers have died on FEC tracks in Palm Beach County, 14 in Broward County and six in Miami-Dade County.

Most of those are people who died from suicide, Ledoux said.

In that same time, CSX tracks, including Tri-Rail trains, had about eight trespasser fatalities in Palm Beach, 13 in Broward and two in Miami-Dade, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration and Tri-Rail.

Railroads are not required to report suicides to the railroad administration, but they do report cases of people injured or killed while in a railroad's right of way.

Among those trespasser fatalities, FRA records show people laying, walking or standing on the tracks.

Sometimes, they're sitting on the tracks, Ledoux said.

Saving them before a collision is impossible. It can take up to 2 miles to stop a train.

And train engineers and conductors sometimes are devastated by the results.

"This never leaves them," said Bonnie Arnold, Tri-Rail spokeswoman. "When people decide to take their lives by jumping in front of a train, they're changing someone else's life."

There is also an immediate impact when these collisions occur. Because of police investigations, trains can be held up for hours on the tracks.

Sometimes Tri-Rail uses buses to get commuters to another station. But if the area where the collision occurred is not accessible, commuters will have to wait on the train, stuck on board for hours.

Since Tri-Rail trains have external cameras, police can view video of the incident to help move investigations along, Arnold said. That has helped reduce delays because of investigations.

The reasons why people commit suicide by train is the same as why other methods are chosen, Berman said. The rails are readily available and easy to access. And they choose it because it's fatal.

"If you want to die, being hit by a train is fairly lethal," Berman said.

To prevent suicide by train, some railroads have put up fences to block access to the tracks. The commuter line Caltrain in the San Francisco Bay Area spent $4.1 million putting up 62,500 feet of fencing between 2009 and 2011.

The fencing is effective at preventing suicide by train, Berman said. But it's a costly option.

The railroad industry is also looking at other preventive measures, including increased surveillance of tracks, training of railroad employees and crisis hotline signs, Arthur said.

FEC's police regularly patrol the railroad's corridor looking for trespassers. They average about 30 arrests a month, Ledoux said.

Tri-Rail train crews keep a look out for people lingering around the tracks. Sometimes people contemplating suicide by train will hang around the tracks a few days before actually doing it, Arnold said.

But usually, there's little that can be done to stop people determined to do it.

"If someone jumps out on the tracks, there's nothing you can do," Arnold said.

astreeter@tribune.com , 561-243-6537 or Twitter: @adstreeter

The Numbers

From 2006 through 2012, 260 trespassers were killed on Florida train tracks. Almost half of those people, 124, were lying down, sleeping, sitting or standing on the tracks when they were killed. Another 44 people were walking on the tracks.

Warning signs to watch for

People who are considering suicide show warning signs. If these are observed, seek help. In Broward and Palm Beach counties, call 211:

Talk about suicide, death, and/or no reason to live.

Be preoccupied with death and dying.

Withdraw from friends and/or social activities.

Have a recent, severe loss (especially a relationship), or threat of a significant loss.

Experience drastic changes in behavior.

Lose interest in

hobbies, work, school, etc.

Prepare for death by making out a will (unexpectedly) and final arrangements.

Give away prized possessions.

Have attempted suicide before.

Take unnecessary risks; be reckless and/or impulsive.

Lose interest in their personal appearance.

Increase their use of alcohol or drugs.

Express a sense of hopelessness.

Be faced with a situation of humiliation or failure.

Have a history of violence or hostility.

Have been unwilling to "connect" with potential helpers.

Source: 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast


Comments