‘Blow the horn, hit the brakes and wait’

The effect of suicides on drivers and railway staff can be traumatic, writes Dan Buckley

TEN seconds. That is all the time a train driver has to react when someone appears on the railway line.

Ten heart-stopping seconds that seem to go on forever. Ten seconds to impact.

“It might only be five seconds, depending on the speed,” says a driver with Irish Rail who has seen his share of train suicides.

“Whether it is five or 10 seconds, it is never enough,” he says. “If you are driving a car, you can try to turn or swerve or take some evasive action but with a train all you can do is blow the horn and hit the brakes.”

Anyone who drives a train for a living won’t be surprised at a new study showing a dramatic increase in the number of deaths by suicide in Irish teens under the age of 17.

The report in this month’s Irish Medical Journal shows a 16% rise in the suicide rate among young people in 2003-08 compared with 1993-98. In a growing number of cases, the method chosen by those taking their own lives is to stand on a railway line and wait for the inevitable. On the Dart alone, it amounts to one a month — and almost as many on the inter-city network.

The effect on drivers and other railway staff can be dramatic — and traumatic, something that Irish Rail has begun to address. “We now have in place a dedicated nationwide counselling service for drivers and other staff who witness suicides,” says Jane Cregan of Iarnród Éireann.

“We are very much aware of the effect it can have on train drivers. While it is not up to us to determine whether it is suicide or not, all fatalities on the line can be a very traumatic experience for rail staff.

“The counselling service is carried out by the VHI and our occupational health unit in Dublin also works very closely with them.

“We also work closely with suicide charities and we are particularly mindful of the fact that the more publicity you get, the more instances there are.”

Psychologist Emmy van Deurzen agrees. In a recent BBC interview, she described railway suicide as a violent method of choice, especially for younger men, who falsely believe that it is a fast, painless, foolproof way to end their life. “There is a 10% survival rate of these attempts which, though low, is still considerable, especially since it usually leads to severe and incapacitating injuries. The daredevil and violent element of railway suicide may appeal to people who feel desperate, because it conjures up an illusion of control and self assertion.”

That’s something that train driver Kieran (not his real name) has seen for himself. “If, say, you are doing 100mph and you see someone on the line, what happens next is up to them. The driver is powerless. It is out of your control. The person on the line is the one making all the decisions.”

That sense of powerlessness can make a traumatic event even more so. “Most drivers cope as best they can,” says Siptu rail staff organiser Paul Cullen. “Witnessing a death like this affects different people differently. Many who have had two, three, or even more events go back to their jobs after counselling, but there are some for whom the experience is too painful and traumatic and they can never drive a train again. There was a time when there was nothing in place for those affected, but the situation is much better now and I think the company has recognised that many staff needed help and they have responded well to that.”

Kieran agrees. “My father was also a train driver and there was a time when, in a fatality situation, drivers would have to take time out of their annual leave to attend the inquest.

“Reliving those events in a courtroom can be tough and all of us drivers recognise that the pain and grief experienced by the family and friends of those who died is of a different nature to ours. Nevertheless, the inquest does, at least, bring closure and a bit of finality for all concerned.”

Even so, Kieran is all too aware that the next fatality he witnesses might be his last.

“I am never blasé about it. I never imagine I am the hard man, able to cope with anything and everything. I could have another suicide on the line tomorrow and end up going to pieces.”

Help at hand

Organisations that help prevent suicide or counsel familiesbereaved by suicide.

* Headstrong works with young people aged 12-25. 01 660 7343, info@headstrong.ie

* HeadsUp supplies helpline contact details and locations. Text ‘headsup’ to 50424

* The Samaritans offer around-the-clock support, 365 days a year. Text 087 260 9090

* Console supports people bereaved by suicide with support groups and listening services.1800 201 890, www.console.ie

* Suicide Bereavement Support 01 4553802


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