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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 November, 2004, 10:10 GMT
Death on the line
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Magazine

Berkshire train crash
Seven died in Saturday's crash
Each year 200 people end their own lives on the UK's railways. Conjecture about Saturday's fatal rail crash highlights the impact the deaths have on those involved.

Even as police continue to investigate whether the driver involved in the Ufton Nervet train crash meant to kill himself, speculation is rife about Brian Drysdale's final moments.

Suggestions that he committed suicide in "the most selfish way imaginable" have filled the press, but officers are checking if a mechanical fault stopped his car on a level crossing.

Whatever they discover about the cause of the crash, which killed seven people and injured 71, it highlights the very real problem of suicides on the UK's rail network.

Every year about 200 people choose to die on the railways - a further 50 kill themselves on the London Underground.

It is a phenomenon which not only affects the families of those who die, but the drivers, station staff and passengers inadvertently caught up in the tragedy.

Examples

Having spent the past 16 years working on the London Underground, Andy has dealt with three "one unders".


"They're all shocking and very sad," says the station worker, who was just 18 and at the start of his career when he was asked to help with the first death - that of a young man who jumped under a train in north London.

He was later called upon to help with two other suicides, including one when a woman walked deep into a tunnel and was hit at speed.

"Everyone is affected in different ways," he says. "I have seen the faces of train drivers who have hit these people and I would never in a million years want to be in their place."

Andy (not his real name) has been able to deal with the deaths by talking about it with friends and colleagues. He ruefully suggests: "It could well be an occupational hazard."

Other staff are less fortunate, with many forced to take months off work or even to resign because they are so upset.

"The trauma can be particularly acute if it's a young person who has died," says a spokesman for the RMT union. "It's a hugely selfish way to commit suicide."

Investigation and measures

In 2003 there were 252 fatalities on the railways, of which 179 were suicides or suspected suicides.

Brian Drysdale
The inquest into Brian Drysdale's death has been adjourned

The figures, provided by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), tend to be higher than official figures because it looks at circumstances surrounding the death to decide if a person took their life.

The number of suicides last year was actually 30 fewer than in 2002, the first fall for several years, but the authorities are anxious to do more and plan to cut the figure by 20% by 2010.

It's something which is easier said than done.

"If someone is determined to take their life, there's not much you can do," says the RMT.

Danger signs

Despite the difficulties, the RSSB and other industry bodies have attempted to identify the patterns and say many suicides take place in the areas around mental health hospitals.

"When someone has decided to take their own life they can become very focussed and determined
Samaritans

It means the problem is not so much connected to a particular bridge or section of track, but to a vulnerable group of people who may chose to end their lives in the surrounding area.

Preventative measures can be taken locally says Sue Nelson, of the Rail Fatality Management Group. In Mile End, east London, for example, Tube staff are warned if a patient has gone missing.

Railway staff are also taught to look out for the danger signs and efforts have been made to make access to the railways as difficult as possible.

Adverts for the Samaritans have been placed at more stations and CCTV is being used to help spot people who may be at risk.

When deaths do occur, counselling and other support is offered to witnesses and those involved in the clean-up, says Ms Nelson.

"The forgotten victims are the staff who have to deal with the aftermath," she says. "They're the ones who go on the track with the emergency services and deal with the deceased person."

'No attempt'

Interim findings from the Health and Safety Executive say Stanley Martin, the driver of the train which hit Mr Drysdale's car, was not at fault. The level crossing was working properly.

The trauma can be particularly acute if it's a young person who has died
RMT union
It added that the chef "made no attempt to leave the vehicle once the crossing traffic signals began to flash and the barriers descended", a finding which will fuel speculation that he meant to die. An inquest into his death has been opened and adjourned.

His devastated family have questioned the suggestion, one member telling reporters: "He didn't have a bad bone in his body. I can't believe he'd commit suicide if he thought he'd kill other people."

While it may be some time before an official verdict is reached, it would certainly not be the first time someone wanting to commit suicide had forgotten the possible impact on other people.

"We cannot say what happened in these particular circumstances," say the Samaritans.

"When someone has decided to take their own life they can become very focussed and determined to carry through with the decision. At this point they are unlikely to be thinking about the wider context."


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