Caltrain address concerns over increase in suicides on tracks

SAN CARLOS, Calif. (KTVU) – A Caltrain board of directors meeting on Thursday addressed the issue of suicides on the tracks, along with safety, education, and prevention efforts.

The meeting was held at the Bacciocco Auditorium in San Carlos by the Caltrain Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.

The meeting focused on the troubling and growing statistic that 10 people have died on Caltrain tracks since the start of 2015. According to Caltrain, the agency averages about 13 deaths on their tracks per year.

"One life lost is too many, but certainly to have lost 10 souls in the beginning of the year is concerning to all of us," said Jayme Ackemann, Communications Manager for Caltrain.

Malia Cohen, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for Caltrain, said it can be expensive to improve stations by adding fencing, signs or grade separation between the boarding station and the street, but she said she refused to let money be a roadblock to saving lives. Instead, she said the agency should have a budget that is representative of their values.

"We need to put our money where our mouth is," Cohen said. "If we care about protecting people and ensuring that the rails are safe, then we need to prioritize that."

Sometimes fencing and signs are not enough. It's why Caltrain has transit officers dedicated to suicide prevention.

Deputy Sheriff Jim Coffman trains those transit officers on crisis intervention. He said he teaches them to spot people who hang around the tracks looking sad or anxious. He also teaches officers to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

"And instead of just walking by, the deputy will start a conversation," Coffman said.

That talk can likely turn the tables, "With some gentle coaxing and maybe even a direct question like, ‘do you want to hurt yourself,' the deputy could make an intervention to save a life."

According to Ackemann, transit officers prevented 40 possible suicide attempts by taking the persons into protective custody and transporting them to an emergency treatment facility, but she said they can't do it alone.

"At the end of the day, the problem is bigger than just the suicide on Caltrain, it's the issue of suicide in our communities," she said.

Caltrain said their community outreach had increased since 2006. They work with Project Safety Net, San Mateo County Suicide Prevention Committee, and the Santa Clara County Suicide Prevention Task Force.

In addition, Caltrain said they, along with Union Pacific Railroad, participate in Operation Lifesaver, a national public awareness campaign to change people's behavior around railroad tracks and crossings.

BART is also taking note of this issue, and plans to launch a suicide prevention campaign in about two weeks, according to spokeswoman Alicia Trost.