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Blood on the Tracks

In sunny Southern California, a cloud of despair lingers above a 22-mile stretch of railroad track that runs from Downtown Los Angeles to the port city of Long Beach.

The Metro Blue Line, one of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s six public rail transportation lines, has claimed the lives of 33 suicide victims since it began operating in 1990.

Ten of these incidents have occurred in the last three calendar years, the most recent on Sept. 5, 2013. Shortly after that suicide, Metro officials held a press conference to ask the public for help.

“They keep happening on the Blue Line all too frequently, and we need to shine a spotlight on that,” said Metro Board of Directors Chair Diane DuBois. “This has to stop.”

Suicide-by-train is a complex subject about which little is known in the public sphere. The Federal Railroad Administration does not track the annual number of incidents, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention muddles train suicide data with other transportation fatality statistics.

Additionally, there is a generally observed media blackout on the issue. Many studies — most recently one conducted by the German Research Center for Environmental Health in 2010 —  have shown that press coverage on suicide methods increases the likelihood that “copycats” will pursue similar approaches.

On occasion, however, reports will make their way to the public eye.

An October article from NorthJersey.com found that 21 suicides had occurred on all New Jersey trains to that point in 2013, and a New York Magazine piece identified 40 on New York City’s subway system through August.

Recently released data from the American Association of Suicidology shows that California — in which the overall suicide rate is lower than the national average — has the most suicide-by-train incidents in proportion to total miles of track.

But from such sporadically released reports that offer little more than jumbled statistics, it is impossible to determine if the Blue Line incidents are isolated or truly part of a larger trend.

“It is difficult to draw much in the way of conclusions when there is so little data – and no one has any interest in increasing the quantity of data,” said Thomas A. Rubin, an independent mass transit consultant.

In Los Angeles, however, Metro officials do know that the Blue Line is by far their deadliest line. In the history of the organization’s rail transit program, there have only been 13 other intentional fatalities. 

Interactive map of all Metro rail transportation suicides
View Los Angeles’ Light-Rail Suicides in a larger map
“The Blue Line is one of the busiest in our country, transporting over 30 million passengers a year,” said DuBois. “But we’re still seeing suicides that are just not justified by the length or the number of passengers.”

Without any clear explanations for why the Blue Line attracts so many suicide victims, an 80-minute ride along its tracks gives the best insight into this dark and sensitive issue.

Five minutes after a Blue Line train departs Downtown’s 7th Street Metro Center, it enters the outskirts of Skid Row on Washington Boulevard. Men urinate in the street, their backs turned to shuttered storefronts, liquor stores and the makeshift tarp colonies they call home.

Strip clubs and public health clinics pass, melting into cold, gray office buildings as the train makes its second and final 90-degree turn onto Long Beach Boulevard. Passengers see rows of apartment complexes advertising federal housing assistance between glimpses of scrap yards and abandoned lots.

Approaching Compton Station, a torched, crumbling church with boarded windows comes into view. At its peak, black graffiti reads: “Save me from life.”

The train scrapes along the tracks through neighborhoods condemned by urban decay for nine more stops until it reaches Long Beach. Another load of passengers boards, and the Blue Line loops back to Downtown.

Data collected by the Los Angeles Times’ interactive “Mapping L.A.” project confirms that the Blue Line travels through the city’s most oppressed areas.

Of the line’s 22 stops, four are in the neighborhoods of Watts, Willowbrook and Compton. The median household income of these districts is $35,514, which falls in the 20th percentile for the LA County.

An overall lack of education and high crime rates accompany the economic woes. Between 51 and 64 percent of the region’s residents have less than a high school diploma, and rates of violent crime — classified as homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery — are among the highest in LA.

 

Courtesy of the L.A. Times' "Mapping L.A." project, the map shows the city's most impoverished neighborhoods. The Blue Line runs directly through the areas with the most households living with less than $20,000 annually.
Click on the map for more data and statistics.

 

Fifteen suicides, nearly half of the Blue Line’s total, have occurred on the small strip of track that traverses those communities. But as Metro classifies the identities of its suicide victims, there is no way to definitively prove they resided in Watts, Willowbrook or Compton.

However, data from a 2013 Railroad Research Foundation (RRF) report supports that argument. Seventy-six percent of the suicide-by-train victims sampled in the study lived less than a mile from the site of their deaths.

“It’s about the systemic issues in the community that perpetuate one to take their own life,” said Yolanda Washington, the LA County Department of Mental Health’s district chief for South Los Angeles.

Washington, who has lived in the district for 15 years, said sex trafficking, homelessness and substance abuse are among the factors responsible for regional oppression. Faced with these problems, many residents see suicide as the only escape.

“Somebody living in an environment where there’s not a lot of resources, where there’s a lack of family support or there’s trauma, domestic violence, gang violence or things of that nature — that can certainly increase someone’s [in]ability to cope in life,” said Lyn Morris of the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center. “It could increase suicide.”

Why so many people in these communities decide to kill themselves on the tracks of the Blue Line is uncertain, however.

The most comprehensive study on suicide-by-train was that of the RRF. The organization identified 466 train suicide cases in the United States between 2007 and 2010, finding that few differences existed between people who committed suicide by train and those who committed suicide by other methods.

Besides conducting psychological autopsies on each Blue Line victim, there is no way to identify any similarities among the specific 33 cases.

The only known common denominator is the line itself.

“The Blue Line is by far the most dangerous light rail line in the U.S. when measured by fatalities,” said Rubin.

Since 1990, collisions with people and vehicles, intentional or accidental, have resulted in 123 deaths. Much of the 22-mile-long track runs at grade, or street level, with little separation from traffic or pedestrian walking routes.

According to transportation safety expert Dr. Najmedin Meshkati of the University of Southern California, the abundance of open street crossings are to blame for the high number of fatalities.

“The lax approval of the Blue Line’s more than 100 crossings back in the late 1980s … left us to live with the persistent dangerous condition,” he wrote in a 2009 op-ed to the Los Angeles Downtown News.

Long Beach Boulevard and Spring Street in Long Beach, Calif., the site of five Blue Line suicides.
Over those unsecured crossings, the three-car Metro trains, weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds, fly at speeds of up to 55 mph. Train operators can’t swerve or brake to avoid track trespassers, making the likelihood of collision fatalities very high.

“It would take a football field to stop the bad boy,” said former Blue Line train operator Cat Seale. “All you can do is apply all the emergencies that they have to get it to a complete stop. You have to consider the reaction time and the actual time to stop, it can take up to 1 minute.”

“Operators know that if they brake too hard, there is a good possibility of injuries to passengers,” added Rubin. “The person that the train is going to hit is standing there, looking directly at the operator, right up to the last minute.”

For those truly resigned to death, suicide-by-train means there is no turning back.

“Most often, you are not going to jump in front of a train and survive.” said Morris.

It is an unfortunate reality for those who are forced to witness the incidents firsthand.

Roman Alarcon, who spoke at Metro’s public forum in September, was operating a Blue Line train that collided with a suicide victim in the 1990s.

“It’s not a moment or an incident that doesn’t bring that memory back,” he said. “It’s a helpless thing when you’re coming at 55 mph, and the train doesn’t stop on a dime. People talk about walking on a cloud — it feels that way, but it’s tragic.”

Alarcon’s complete message
Unlike the suicide victims, Blue Line train operators, along with law enforcement officials and cleanup crews, must deal with the trauma caused by such collisions for the rest of their lives.

“It’s a lot,” said Seale, who has been at the scene of multiple accidents.“I still remember what I’ve witnessed, so what I’ve witnessed stays in my head as long as — I don’t know. It’s been a while.”

To protect its drivers, passengers and the community at-large, Metro has embarked upon an ambitious safety awareness campaign to curb the trend of suicides on its rails.

“Metro continues to invest substantial resources on the three ‘E’s’: Education, equipment and enforcement,” said DuBois. “We’re doing this to save lives. We’ve recently invested $7.7 million on safety improvements that include the installation of special, nearly impossible to crawl under four-quadrant gates and swing gates at several high-traffic pedestrian crossings.”

The company has also installed signs with a telephone number for the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center: (877) 277-4747. Operators with more than 100 hours of crisis prevention training are available to talk with callers throughout Southern California 24 hours a day.

“They are trained to not judge, they are trained to be that ear,” said Morris. “Usually crises are temporary, and by listening and talking, we can get people through.”

Since the signs starting popping up in March 2013, Didi Hirsch has received 29 calls from people who said they got the number while riding the Blue Line.

“These signs are also for people who are concerned about somebody who’s suicidal,” added Morris. “They might not be standing on the platform, but maybe they have somebody in their life [who] they know is suicidal. Now they know they have a number where they can reach and get some support.”

Metro has also assigned retired train and bus operators to strategic Blue Line locations where incidents have occurred in the past. These “safety ambassadors” are trained to look for warning signs in potential suicide victims.

“One lady came by, laid down on the tracks and the [train] was coming southbound,” said Theartis Blue, a safety ambassador who has personally saved two lives. “I didn’t have time to blow the whistle to get her up, so I had to run over and actually pick her up and take her to safety.”

Such preventive measures can only go so far, however. According to suicide psychology experts, the only way to attack suicide is to educate the public about mental health.

“People who are feeling suicidal typically have a mental health issue they are dealing with, usually depression,” said Morris. “If they haven’t gotten treatment, or if they have and it hasn’t been successful or they haven’t followed through … it can get worse and feel more hopeless.”

Throughout the country, stigmas associated with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses are a large reason why people refuse to seek that help.

“You don’t have to be alone … there’s nothing to be ashamed of,” said Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “It’s not your fault if you struggle with mental illness.”

Unfortunately, such words of support often fall on deaf ears.

“Because of the intergenerational systemic pressures, we’ve come to believe that this is a normal way of living and existing,” Washington said of the oppression and rail suicide trend in her South Los Angeles community.

With the pending construction of the Crenshaw/LAX Transit Corridor Project — a Metro line that will run through the same socioeconomically disadvantaged communities as the Blue Line — mental health professionals and Metro officials are facing an uphill battle.

“Because this has been normalized for us now, I think the greatest challenge is to educate [the public] about this being actually an abnormal circumstance, so that we can increase motivation and increase levels of awareness,” said Washington. “People then can really have a sense of hopefulness about getting out of their circumstances.”

Editor’s note: Data accurate as of December 20th, 2013