written by andy on

A number of fatalities occurred on Caltrain tracks in the last two plus months is approaching to that of the entire 2014. The latest incident on Monday is the 8th of the year while there were only 10 fatalities last year. The trend is alarming.

As this incident is being investigated, preliminary report suggests it is a suicide of a high school student. Suicide is a particularly difficult issue for Caltrain since it cannot reliably be eliminated with standard safety measures such as fencing and grade crossing upgrades, which Caltrain has invested in over the last 15 years and has successfully reduced unintended deaths and injuries.

While some blame the existence of Caltrain as the cause of the suicides, and suggesting solutions such as eliminating the trains, the slow the trains down significantly. I disagree. The train tracks have existed for more than a century and Caltrain has essentially run on the same schedule and same speed for almost 10 years. According to a study done in 2010 on the issue, there is no definite pattern in terms of where and when these incidents occur over a long period of time. Suggesting shutting down Caltrain is as useful as suggesting banning automobiles to eliminate traffic collisions, or banning alcohol to eliminate DUIs. Our highways are congested, people still need to commute, and communities like Palo Alto continue to benefit from the trains.

On the other hand, there are other factors contributing to suicides. The most concerning to me is copycat suicide. A suicide of a high school student is particularly disturbing considering the social environment of high school and the social networking tools that many students are using nowadays that didn’t exist a decade or two ago. Media coverage fuels it rather than reducing it.

There is a challenge of how to discourage media from sensationalizing suicides while continue to provide information to train commuters affected by the incident. From the public health perspective, suicide incidents should receive little coverage, but when such incidents affect thousands of commuters, it is hard to keep them from the media.

To address the problem, I think Caltrain should consider some type of alert levels (similar to fire danger levels in forests) for incidents on the railroads that result in train cancellations or delays. The lowest level, green, could indicate 15-20 minute delays (due to medical incidents, or residual delays), and the highest level, red, could indicate closure of all tracks and not ready to reopen for at least an hour. Such alert levels allow managers and law enforcement officials to provide useful information to customers without having to provide details. It encourages the media to report the incidents responsibility.

At the same time, there should be efforts to improve security and fencing on the tracks (including systems to monitor and detect trespassers), as well as counseling in schools to prevent copycat suicides. While long term solutions such as grade separation should be pursued, at best it will take years to plan and construct and it is not going to have a immediate impact.

I believe that Caltrain and communities along the rail corridor should adopt a vision there will be no fatality on the tracks, intended or not, and I believe that it is achievable without the train system be completely grade separated.