Suicide by rail is nowhere near the #1 method in the U.S., but that’s cold comfort for commuter rail lines. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)
Caltrain, the commuter rail service that runs between Santa Clara County and San Francisco, doesn't lead the nation or even the state for suicides on its tracks, but the numbers are troubling enough. There have been 10 suicides already this year. The average for an entire year is typically 10.
Here's a statistic that's just as startling: Last year, Caltrain stopped 40 people from killing themselves on the tracks. For every suicide that does happen, there are four that don't.
San Mateo Deputy Sheriff Michael Baron agreed to talk with me at the Palo Alto train station. Many people think of Palo Alto as the nexus of this crisis. There has been a highly publicized cluster of teen suicides here, and there are more suicides in Palo Alto than in any other city Caltrain serves. Suicides in this city account for 27 percent of the total since 2009, when suicides began to spike on Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto.
Baron is part of the transit police bureau, whose members show up here and other places along the rails when a call comes in. He's part of the system in place to catch those in distress before they try to kill themselves.
Deputies get dispatched if a person is spotted standing at a boarding platform for too long, conspicuously not catching a train, or smoking cigarette after cigarette near an elevated crossing. The system is waiting in a heightened state of awareness, watching for any sign of suicidal intent, in a way that brings to mind the Homeland Security campaign, “If you see something, say something.”
"First, I just try to have some kind of casual conversation with them," Baron says, "so I can establish some kind of rapport. You know? 'Oh hey, I notice you’ve got a Metallica patch on your backpack. You really into the band or what? Have you ever seen them in concert? Oh yeah, they’re really great. I went to a concert several years back and really enjoyed it.' ”
By the time a deputy arrives to strike up a conversation, train conductors in the area have already been told to slow down or stop. If it’s determined the person in question is suicidal, there will be what emergency responders call a 5150: a three-day involuntary hold and psychiatric evaluation. Family will be notified.
Better that, Baron says, than the other kind of notification. "I tell them, from personal experience, I don’t want to have to tell your parents that you’re dead. There’s someone out there that loves and cares for you, and you will be missed if you’re not here. And that, at least for me, seems like a reason to live."
By the time somebody is standing near the tracks, he or she is often at the tail end of a long thought process. Some will have planned their deaths for weeks, carefully reviewing train schedules. Others pick the tracks because it’s what’s convenient, close at hand. And maybe they do want to get caught.
"People might come here contemplating suicide and not have the actual plan to carry it out, but maybe their actions are kind of crying for help a little bit," Baron says. "And they go to a place that’s populated, where people might notice them, where we’re out doing station checks or walk-throughs, where we might have a chance to intervene."
Young, old. Rich, poor. Day, night. Caltrain hasn’t been able to identify a pattern, other than the easy proximity of its rails and the steady stream of trains between San Francisco and Gilroy.
“Rail companies and operators all across the country are grappling with this," says Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten. "Passenger and freight.” The Southern California commuter rail line sees about 15 suicides a year on average.
Metrolink operates over 512 route-miles. “We have a very large system, a very open system," Lustgarten says. "We do everything that we can, but it’s a challenge, to say the least. If someone is really determined, they’re going to find a way onto the tracks.”
Suicide by rail is nowhere near the No.1 method in the United States. According to the American Association of Suicidology, far more people pick firearms, suffocation or poison -- but that’s cold comfort for urban and suburban commuter rail lines.
Metrolink employs the same set of prevention strategies that Caltrain does. BART recently moved in the same direction, boosting its budget for fencing, signs and community outreach with local mental health care providers.
Caltrain has spent $9 million on new fencing over the last decade. But holes can be made in fences, and are regularly made by those seeking to cut across the tracks with greater ease, or homeless people seeking places to camp.
Palo Alto has asked Caltrain to: improve the fencing along the 4 miles of tracks that run through the city; install motion-detection cameras to alert Palo Alto's Emergency Operations Center to potential trespassers; and clear trees and shrubs that block visibility along the corridor.
"We've already done the vegetation clearance," says Jayme Ackemann, spokeswoman for Caltrain. "Now we're lining up a contractor to do the fencing."
Caltrain balked at the city's initial proposal to fully fence the corridor in Palo Alto up to 8 feet. The price tag on that would have been $1.2 million. Both sides eventually agreed to more modest upgrades. As for the cameras, several manufacturers are engaging in a "proof of concept" phase, providing free cameras for testing in the hopes they'll win a contract at the end of the process.
Stephanie Weisner runs Wellness and Recovery Services at StarVista, a San Mateo County nonprofit. Weisner credits Caltrain with sending its employees into the community to participate on boards and committees focused on suicide intervention.
"We have monthly meetings," Weisner explains, "where we all sit around and brainstorm, and we work closely with other counties, including Santa Clara County."
Does she want more fencing and security cameras? Yes, she says. But she adds that none of that frees the rest of us from having to pay more attention to the people around us: in school, at work, at home.
Weisner says, "People often give out signs that they’re thinking of really hurting themselves, or taking their lives, and there’s things that we can do -- reducing the stigma around getting mental health services, and encouraging people to reach out for that."
That's no small challenge. A recent Rand survey of California adults experiencing psychological distress found only 41 percent of those surveyed believe other people are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illnesses -- while 81 percent believe people with mental illness experience high levels of prejudice and discrimination.
"I wish I had a simple answer," says Baron. "If I did, I certainly wouldn’t be keeping it to myself."
In the meantime, he's on patrol, watching for an opportunity to step in and offer a kind, distracting word that just might stop the awful impulse.
If you're feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal, call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor.