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Railways: Suicides

Volume 767: debated on Monday 21 December 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they plan to reduce the number of suicides on railways, and to reduce the disruption they cause.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and remind the House of my railway interests declared in the register.

My Lords, the Government are fully supportive of initiatives which the rail industry is taking, led by Network Rail, in liaison with the Samaritans and other organisations, to reduce the number of suicides on the network. They are beginning to show results. The initiatives include measures to reduce the ease of access to platforms passed by fast trains and to train staff to intervene to help people near the railway who may be in a distressed state.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister will agree that it is impossible to exaggerate the distress and disruption caused by people taking their own lives on the railway to the bereaved families and friends, to station staff and passengers who may witness the event and to the train drivers affected, many of whom are so traumatised that they never drive again. British Transport Police tells me that fatality delays this year will amount to more than 455,000 minutes and that the number is rising. Does the Minister agree that the railway cannot tackle this problem on its own and that, while much is being done with bodies such as the Samaritans, which he mentioned, there needs to be a national campaign involving the Government, the civil police, mental health professionals, rail staff and the travelling public to identify people at risk and discourage them from harming themselves on our railways?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct to point out the challenges that we face on the railways in particular. Of course, any suicide is one too many. As he will be aware, the Government have been working very closely with the Samaritans and over the past 18 months have invested £1.2 million to finance suicide prevention initiatives. The newly formed suicide prevention duty holders group brings together the very multiagency partnership he talked about. There is more to be done, including bringing together those who are impacted. The noble Lord talked about the cost. The cost to the rail network and beyond to the economy is £60 million, but the loss of life is far too great. We need joint working, and the Government are moving forward on that agenda.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a trustee of a charity that deals with post-traumatic stress disorder among staff who witness these tragic events. The level of support offered to staff, who are often severely traumatised by the incidents they are called upon to witness, is pathetically low. Will the Minister approach the different unions and other actors to try to get a co-ordinated policy to help staff who are witnesses to overcome the problems they will often face as a result of these actions?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend is aware of the Journey to Recovery initiative, which was aimed specifically at rail drivers going through trauma. That has now been extended to other staff, with Back on Track being a particular initiative. On the issue that my noble friend has raised, there is already positive joint working. Network Rail, for example, is working closely with trade unions in this respect to ensure that those who suffer trauma are, to quote the report, put “Back on Track” as soon as possible. As I have acknowledged, though, there is more work to be done.

My Lords, suicide on the railways is a very public form of suicide. One of the risks of members of the public seeing a suicide is the possibility of copy-cats. As the rate is going up, I wondered whether there was any evidence of that happening. Given that suicidal thoughts are very common in the population at large, does the Minister consider that more could be done—for example, by the Samaritans—in advertising help on every single railway station to assist people who may be having suicidal thoughts at the time when they see such a death?

Part of the Government’s initiative is to work together with bodies such as the Samaritans on national public awareness campaigns. There are physical things that we have done: for example, dividers on platforms, which have resulted in a decline in numbers of attempts at stations where they have been deployed. However, the noble Baroness is quite correct: information to travellers, not just to staff, is an important part of this. She rightly points out that media coverage sometimes leads to copy-cat suicides, and we are working to ensure that that is kept to a minimum to discourage such practices from taking place.

My Lords, the role of the British Transport Police is crucial in dealing with these very sad events, and there are other events that cause disruption to the railway that the British Transport Police is also very closely concerned with. I was therefore very sad to read last week stories about potential cuts to the British Transport Police budget next year. Are those stories true? Will funding to British Transport Police be cut next year? If so, by how much?

We work very closely across the board with the British Transport Police on this issue. The noble Baroness may well be aware that initiatives are being taken—right here in the capital, for example—to increase police patrolling to ensure that we minimise not just suicide prevention, as she points out, but also hate crime that takes place on our networks. We seek to minimise that and we work together with the police on ensuring this.

The Minister has already made reference to dividers on platforms. If he is talking about the same thing that I am, he will know that on the Jubilee line extension from Westminster eastwards at stations below ground level there are barriers at the edge of the platforms that also have the effect of preventing people from jumping in front of an incoming train. Are the Government pressing for such barriers to be extended to more stations on the London Underground in a bid to reduce the number of suicide attempts?

The noble Lord is right to point out that those have proven to be successful prevention barriers. The prevention barriers that I was referring to, those within Network Rail stations, physically divide the platforms and manage commuter traffic. We are looking at ensuring that prevention measures can be accommodated where possible in existing stations to prevent suicides. As I said, one suicide is one too many.

My Lords, how many mainline stations have a chaplaincy service where priests and leaders of other faiths are available to talk to people who may be in such distress that they contemplate this awful final act?

In response to my noble friend, we are already working closely with the Samaritans, which I have already alluded to and who are the key providers of this support both to staff and to the travelling public. A poster campaign underlining that has also been launched.