In a dark twist for a shiny new attempt at mass transit, the Brightline train service has drawn attention to a fraught and little-discussed public-health problem: People who end their lives by getting in front of a fast-moving train.
Experts say there’s no easy fix — and they caution that the very act of debating and trying to prevent the practice might bring the unintended effect of increasing the numbers of people using trains to deliberately end their lives.
From July 2017 through June 2018, four people killed themselves in southern Palm Beach County by jumping in front of Brightline trains, according to the Palm Beach County medical examiner and police. The incidents left passengers stranded and engineers traumatized.
Suicide is hardly unique to Brightline. Tri-Rail saw 12 suicides along its route in 2017, and the service this month announced it was installing signs along the tracks and in stations directing people feeling suicidal to call the 211 hotline.
In 2016, the year before Brightline began testing its sleek new trains in South Florida, there were 14 suicides by train in Florida and 275 nationwide, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That was just a fraction of the nearly 45,000 suicides nationwide in 2016.
“It’s still a tiny proportion of suicides nationally,” said Cathy Barber of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center.
Intentional drug overdoses and guns remain far more common methods of suicide. But like other experts, Barber frets that media coverage of train-related suicides exacerbates the problem — particularly given the lethal effectiveness of locomotives.
For vulnerable people considering hurting themselves, news reports serve not as a warning but as an invitation, Barber said. Dozens of research studies have established links between media coverage of suicides and the likelihood of suicide by vulnerable people.
“Publicity can only create harm,” Barber said.
That conventional wisdom leaves both suicide experts and rail operators reluctant to publicly address suicide. Caltrain, a commuter service that connects San Francisco and San Jose, is a rare exception.
“Rail agencies across the country struggle with this issue,” said Tasha Bartholomew, Caltrain’s communications director. “It’s always been an issue, but it was not necessarily something we always addressed publicly.”
That changed in 2009, when several high school students from Palo Alto committed suicide by jumping in front of Caltrain locomotives.
“It became a copycat situation,” Bartholomew said. “It became a situation where we couldn’t not talk about it any more.”
Caltrain’s anti-suicide efforts have included launching a hotline for suicidal people to call or text for help. The rail service also became active in suicide-prevention organizations.
Caltrain taught its transit police to deal with suicidal people, and officers stopped 40 people from killing themselves in 2017, Bartholomew said. In a separate attempt to end suicides, the city of Palo Alto tested camera surveillance of the tracks, with the idea that security guards could watch for potentially suicidal pedestrians.
Alas, people continue to kill themselves on the Caltrain tracks. There were four suicides in 2017 and two more in the first half of 2018, with several other possible suicides awaiting final rulings from medical examiners, Bartholomew said.
“Even with all of our efforts, it’s always going to be a problem we’re going to have to try and address,” Bartholomew said.
Like Brightline, Caltrain has miles of tracks through a heavily populated service area. Keeping people from trespassing on the railway is nearly impossible.
Given the logistical challenges of blocking access to the tracks, Harvard’s Barber said it’s unclear whether suicide hotlines or suicide-prevention signs achieve their goal.
“I don’t know that there are specific steps that don’t perversely draw attention to trains as a method of suicide,” Barber said.
Brightline, for its part, has seen four suicides over the past 13 months.
In July 2017, before Brightline began carrying passengers, Madison Brunelle, 18, killed herself by jumping in front of a train as it was being tested in Boca Raton. The train was traveling 40 mph, and the engineer hit the brakes, but Brunelle still died. Police said the woman “was upset about a recent abortion” and had a history of depression, bipolar disorder and drug addiction. She had been staying at a halfway house a few blocks from the tracks.
In April, Douglas Updike, 34, jumped in front of a northbound train as it traveled through Delray Beach. Updike had a history of depression and alcohol and drug abuse, according to Delray Beach police.
On June 1, Christopher Bailey, 46, killed himself by hurling himself in the path of a train traveling through Boynton Beach. A friend told police that “Bailey was lonely and depressed due to the fact he had gotten divorced and recently relapsed on drugs, alcohol and possibly heroin.”
About 10 days before his death, police said, Bailey told a friend, “I’m going to end it — I’m going to jump in front of a train.”
And June 20, Luke Sherrill, 29, apparently committed suicide as a Brightline train sped through Boynton Beach. While the medical examiner hadn’t ruled on the official cause of death as of Thursday, Boynton Beach police said witnesses described Sherrill jumping in front of the train.
The medical examiner’s office ruled accidental another pedestrian death, one where witnesses told police the victim stood on the tracks and refused to get out of the way of a Brightline train. That incident occurred in March in West Palm Beach.
After Brightline’s swift new trains were involved in a couple of accidental, rather than intentional, deaths, the rail service embarked on a public-awareness program to warn pedestrians to heed lights and crossing gates. The pace of accidents has slowed, but suicides have continued.
“Brightline’s safety and security team is evaluating areas where recent suicides have occurred,” Brightline spokeswoman Ali Soule said. “We will partner with local officials and law enforcement to find ways to reduce or eliminate future suicides.”
All Aboard Florida, which operates Brightline, is owned by an affiliate of Fortress Investment Group LLC, a global investment management firm. Fortress Investment Group LLC is contracted to manage and advise New Media Investments Inc., which owns GateHouse Media, the parent company of The Palm Beach Post.
Tri-Rail, for its part, posted a tweet Thursday about signs along its tracks directing people to the 211 hotline.
Life is worth living!— Tri-Rail (@Tri_Rail) July 26, 2018
Signage is being placed along our corridor to help combat suicides on railroad tracks. pic.twitter.com/56BHX357Q8
Warning Signs of Suicide
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
What to Do
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional