Metro

MBTA to convene task force after surge of deaths on rail tracks

A commuter train in Belmont, Mass.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

A commuter train in Belmont, Mass.

State officials have convened a special working group and are asking for help from the federal government to counter a sharp and sudden increase in the number of people killed by Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains in recent months.

Since July 1, 11 people have been struck and killed on MBTA rail tracks — including two this week alone. The agency reported 22 deaths in its most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, double the number from the previous year.

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Though MBTA officials would not say what the cause of each of the recent accidents was, the agency in the past has said most train deaths were suicides. The recent increase comes despite years of efforts by the federal government to curtail railway suicides and other deaths on the tracks.

MBTA general manager Luis Ramirez said he has formed a working group that could include health professionals to study solutions to the problem.

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And Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the state would “find out if there’s a conversation we can have” with the federal government and other rail systems to learn strategies to prevent people from accessing the rails.

“This is something that’s obviously a concern for us and I know it’s a concern for folks in other parts of the country as well,” Baker said.

The number of suicides overall has been increasing in recent years in Massachusetts, and nationally as well. Those by train still remain a small percentage of total suicides.

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The causes of the latest fatalities along MBTA tracks remain under investigation. On Wednesday, a woman in her 20s was struck and killed by a commuter rail train in Somerville, and on Monday an 18-year-old man died on the tracks in Concord.

“I don’t think any of us have a clear picture or a good clean answer as to why,” said Steve Mongeau, executive director of the nonprofit Samaritans Inc., which has been working with the MBTA on suicide prevention. “There’s a hopeful part of me that is saying this is a temporary spike and not going to turn into a trend.”

Some of the deaths are accidental, such as the 11-year-old boy who was struck and killed in Salem earlier this year crossing a track to retrieve a bicycle.

Since 2010, federal transportation officials have been running a concerted campaign to reduce railway suicides with public awareness messages and by tracking and publishing data on such incidents. In 2013, several organizations, including the Volpe Center, the Cambridge-based research arm of the US Department of Transportation, launched an international working group to study and develop preventive strategies.

In reports, the federal government has suggested transit systems could add fencing and other barriers along their tracks, though most specialists acknowledge it would not be feasible to fence off entire rail systems.

Some academic and federal reports have also suggested more technology-driven tactics, such as using drones and closed-circuit TV to monitor tracks and alert train personnel to trespassers, or installing electronic doors on platforms that cannot open until the train has reached a complete stop at its station.

Steve Vale believes better fencing along the rail tracks near his home in Mansfield would have prevented his daughter from committing suicide in 2008. At the time, the fence was in “shameful disrepair,” he said, making it easy to access the tracks. The replacement fencing that was installed after his daughter’s death was “an improvement,” Vale added, suggesting the fencing should be more regularly updated.

Earlier this year the father of the boy killed in Salem also called for better fencing along that section of track. He could not be reached for further comment.

The vast majority of MBTA train fatalities have come on commuter rail tracks.

MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo said T leadership has met with officials at Keolis Commuter Services, the French company that operates the commuter rail, to discuss whether specific locations along the system need special focus, which could result in new fencing or signs. One challenge: Fencing along different sections of the commuter rail system can belong either to the MBTA, other railroad operators, municipalities, or private property owners.

But with 137 station platforms and 250 at-grade street crossings, Pesaturo said, the commuter rail will always have some access points, so the agency also has to focus heavily on messaging.

“The T will continue to work to raise awareness of the inherent dangers of being on active railroad rights-of-way,” Pesaturo said. “The consequences can be devastating for not only family and friends but also railroad employees.”

At the end of last month — a few days before the two most recent deaths — the agency participated in the first annual Rail Safety Week, holding public events at commuter rail stations to raise awareness of the danger.

The T has worked with the Samaritans for several years to run ads at train stations aimed at people feeling suicidal and added more messages in 2016. Since 2016, calls to a special hot line have increased by about 30 percent. “They’re saving lives with the awareness campaign,” Mongeau said.

Cathy Barber, a professor at Harvard University who studies suicide data, said rates overall have increased in recent years, so the deaths by train may be part of that trend. The overall suicide rate increased by 40 percent in Massachusetts between 2004 and 2014, according to the most recent data available, and has risen nationally over the past decade.

But Barber noted a small percentage of suicides are by train — fewer than 2 percent of those documented in Massachusetts in 2014, according to the Department of Public Health.

“Most suicidal people don’t find this an acceptable method,” she said, suggesting that may be because they will suffer severe physical injury if they do not die.

Nationally, train suicides have not followed a clear trend. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 77 in the United States over the first seven months of 2017, compared to 237 for all of 2016. There were more in previous years — 325 in 2015 and 274 in 2014. The agency’s data includes commuter rail, intercity, and freight lines, but not subway systems.

The federal agency separately tracks nonsuicide deaths of trespassers on the rail tracks, which increased nationally the last two years, said Libby Rector Snipe, a spokeswoman for Operation Lifesaver, a group that advocates for rail-safety awareness.

These may be people who are walking along railroad tracks who do not hear a train coming — possibly expecting one to be louder — or because they did not expect one at that time. Some may have headphones on or are distracted by a mobile device, Rector Snipe said.

Nationally, 480 “trespassers,” as the railroad administration labels them, died in 2016, compared to 452 in 2015. The numbers are on pace to increase again in 2017 but have not dramatically changed from the early 1980s.

“This is a rather stubborn trend,” Rector Snipe said.

For more information about recognizing the signs of suicide and seeking help, visit www.mass.gov/dph/suicideprevention or www.suicidology.org. Additionally, the Samaritans will talk at any time, by phone or by text, at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com.
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