Riding the ripples: railway suicides and the infrastructural imperative
April 18, 2012 Leave a comment
So wrote Georg Simmel in a 1903 essay considering the strategies by which the human individual defends himself against the domineering (and numbing) effects of urban living and its systems. But what if we turn this on its head and consider the strategies by which such systems adjust to individual human interventions which may threaten to disrupt their processes?
In this essay I will try to explore this systemic adaptation in the context of railway suicide events.
Is it possible to write respectfully about the infrastructural impact of railway suicides?
I hope so. The following is not intended as insensitive. I’m heartened that the Samaritans, the UK’s suicide counselling charity urges writers to engage with suicide and break down its taboo, and that the subject is also an established fertile ground for medically inclined researchers (Samaritans 2008).
But linking railway suicide and its knock-on logistical and infrastructural effects risks the opprobrium incurred by contrarian journalist, Jeremy Clarkson who declared on BBC TV’s The One Show last December that those who seek to end their lives via railway suicide are ‘selfish’ due to the ensuing travel disruption, and the distress caused to those who must witness and deal with the aftermath of such incidents.
Clarkson’s comment was first made during the same TV appearance on in which he also remarked that strikers engaged in the recent UK public sector pensions protest strike should be shot in front of their families, as punishment for the disruption caused by their strike action to public services. Whilst Clarkson’s strikers comment was to ultimately cause greater public outcry, it was actually his comment on suicide that triggered an instinctive on-air apology to viewers by the presenter.
In reaction the Samaritan’s Chief Executive attacked Clarkson’s comment, as revealing his ignorance about research into the motivations of those who seek to end their lives. She pointed to research that many who attempt suicide, do so in the belief that their families (and the world in general) will be better off without them – and that therefore the act may be seen by the perpetrator as self-less rather than selfish (Coleman, 2011). But Clarkson’s comment cannot be fully defeated by such research on motive – for his comment was about the effect of the suicide, the consequential disruption caused to the railway network in the aftermath of the incident. And this effect does exist, even though we may struggle to find a comfortable way to talk about it.
The annual cost to the network of the railway suicide related disruption is £50 Million, with around 200 railway suicides per year (Samaritans 2011). A crude apportionment therefore suggests that each suicide ‘costs’ the network £250,000 (plus the non-financial emotional cost to those touched by suicide events). But it is unclear how the £50 million is made up – does it include ‘security’ costs? Is it purely response and aftermath of actual incidents? What of near-misses? And how far does the calculation trace the knock-on effects, the ripples into the lives and activities of the affected travellers?
Railway suicides and infrastructural ripples
This essay was prompted by my experience of a recent journey from Sheffield to Devon. Our train arrived at Sheffield on time – but was two carriages short. The guard soon explained that this was a hastily despatched replacement train – the full length train having been halted earlier between Darlington and York ‘due to a fatality.’ Indeed having subsequently looked into the incident this portion of the line was closed to all traffic for a period to enable physical and forensic response to the incident.
In the crowded journey that ensued, it was interesting to listen in to how, over the course of our four hour journey, successive train crews and the ebb and flow of passengers joining and leaving the service made sense of the train’s (slight) delay, its overcrowding and cancellation of seat reservations. In ‘passing on’ the story of this journey to new arrivals as the journey progressed, passengers dispensed with the carefully framed phrases of the guard and increasingly confidently announced – matter of factly – to their new companions that the travel problems were due to a suicide, before moving on to trade stories of consequential disruption to onwards connections.
The passengers’ succinct discourse upon the cause of this journey’s character saw language attempting to bridge the humanitarian and the logistically frustrated. Here were people with disrupted journeys, missed connections, no seats trying to be both respectful to the suicide – in abstract and increasingly remotely –but also emoting against their predicament (and in a circumstance that blocked off the easy option of railing against the train operator).
This got me thinking about the suicide’s ripple effect. The journey transmitted the very local, and very personal, fatal event in North Yorkshire down the backbone of the country, such that it could reverberate 300 miles away via missed connections in Plymouth. It also amplified the event in terms of the cast, the number of people involved. As travel plans were re-jigged, these ripples played out across a railway-day, the system’s equilibrium only being restored following the ‘down-time’ of the night.
Yet, as with ripples on a pond the energy of the wave reduced as it fanned out. By mid route, most passengers had accommodated to their discomfort in this shorter-than-normal train. The suicide as root-cause became an abstract passing comment. The suicide event saw a life converted into a message on the line, but a message quickly attenuated by the system that it had caused some momentary perturbation to. The railway system transmitted the event, but in a way that stripped, normalised and ultimately absorbed it.
To underscore my point, I’d like to contrast these observed ripples-at- a-distance with a depiction of the ripples at a point closer to a similar event (but still not actually present there). My example is an account of the spread along the carriage line of the news of MP William Huskisson’s fatal trackside contact with Stephenson’s Rocket as recounted by a passenger one carriage away from the event, at the 1830 opening ceremony of the Liverpool to Manchester line:
“Presently a hundred voices were heard exclaiming that Mr Huskisson was killed; the confusion that ensued…the calling out from carriage to carriage to ascertain the truth, the contrary reports which were sent back to us, the hundred questions eagerly uttered at once, and the repeated and urgent demands for surgical assistance, created a sudden turmoil that was quite sickening.” (quoted in Garfield 2002: 157-158)
I have no reason to doubt that even in today’s numbed world, such ripples would be similarly felt by those at or near to the event itself (although I do share Simmel’s general concerns about the numbing effect of metropolitan life – the ‘death of affect’ as J.G. Ballard termed it, the rise of a pervasive ‘ambivalence’ theorised in similar terms by Zygmunt Bauman). But, add 300 miles (and the time taken to travel on that distance) and voices become more muted, and themes more fractured, as the event fades in its visceral specificity.
The infrastructural imperative
Watching this ripple-fade effect at a vantage point remote from the suicide event itself, left me wondering whether this muting effect is inevitable, necessary and/or appropriate. I have no clear answer, other than a managerial gut feel that there is a systems logic (a homeostatic effect) at work here, via a playing out of a utilitarian moral equation – that the ‘train on-time’ benefits for infrastructure users (small for each person, but large in aggregate across an entire journey’s user-population) and the enormity of the suicide event for those (in relative terms, few) emotionally or physically proximate to it, interact and ultimately resolve to produces plot points at which the extra-ordinary domain of the suicide event must progressively yield to the mass transit imperative. I’m left thinking that it is inevitable that people treat the event in an increasingly abstract and dispassionate way as time and distance work there attenuation effects such that the system (the rail network) and its users strive to restore equilibrium as quickly – and as respectfully – as possible.
Clarkson advocated that trains involved in suicide incidents should continue their journey as soon as the line itself was physically cleared (and he graphically declared himself unconcerned with the fate of matter beyond the track: see Mirror, 2011), and I recall a BBC documentary last year on an Indian railway upon which fatalities appeared an almost daily occurrence, and a dispassionate ‘clear the track and carry straight on’ ethos appeared very much to the fore. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that, but accept that the system must carry on and maintain equilibrium.
But where should the precise point of balance be struck? How much delay is respectful? How much is a careful causal, forensic site analysis worth? How utilitarian should the calculation of the imperatives of continuation be? How much should travellers pay towards addressing suicide and other incursions to the railway network? All are questions with no right answer – yet making no decision upon them is not an option. The UK approach represents a set of operational and policy decisions, embodying explicit and implicit judgments about how the individual vs system rights and benefits can best be balanced. It is one balance-point, but as the Indian example shows (and as Clarkson contends), it is not the only possible balance-point.
Countering railway incursions
Simmel wrote in his essay of the strategies developed and deployed by the individual to resist being “levelled, swallowed up in the socio-technological mechanism” (70). This Simmel quote can also be flipped, and applied to the railway system’s own defence against the incursive acts of the human individual, and whether as metal thief, urban explorer or potential suicide.
Railway intrusion incidents and fears contributed greatly to the evolution of both railway safety legislation and occupiers’ liability jurisprudence during the twentieth century (on the latter see Bennett 2011). On the policy side, the House of Commons Transport Committee’s recent recommendation of a specific new offence of trespass upon railway property (prompted by rail cable metal theft); the earmarking of railways as ‘critical national infrastructure’ (e.g. by CPNI) ; and, at EU-wide level, the major collaborative RESTRAIL (REduction of Suicides and Trespasses on RAILway property) research and best-practice promoting project which commenced in 2011 (www.restrail.eu) are all examples of a heightened current focus upon defending railway infrastructure against incursions and their ripple effects.
And there are some signs that this heightened focus may be bearing fruit in relation to suicide related railway incursions. In 2010 Network Rail announced its £5 million partnership with the Samaritans aimed at reducing railway suicides by 20% by 2015 via a programme of public awareness and ‘front line’ staff training and support (Network Rail 2011). Review of the first year of the programme suggested that the programme had contributed towards the 11% fall in the UK rail suicide rate reported in the Railway Safety & Standards Board’s official data (Samaritans 2011) – although it should be noted that the baseline year (2009/10) was 13% higher than the nine year average presented in RSSB 2010, so any conclusions on the ‘success’ rate of such programmes have to be tentative at this time.
Bennett, L. (2011) Judges, child trespassers and occupiers’ liability. International Journal of Law in the Built Environment, 3 (2), 126-145 (Also see draft available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/2862/ )
Coleman, J. (2011) “Backlash against Jeremy Clarkson after he calls railway track suicides ‘selfish’” The Guardian, 3 December. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2011/dec/03/jeremy-clarkson-people-trains-selfish
CPNI (n.d.) Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure website: http://www.cpni.gov.uk/about/cni/
Daily Mirror (2011) “Jeremy Clarkson blasted for ‘selfish’ train suicide comments”, Daily Mirror, 3 December. Available at: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jeremy-clarkson-blasted-for-selfish-train-280159
Garfield, S. (2002) The Last Journey of William Huskisson, Faber & Faber: London.
Network Rail (2011) Network Rail Infrastructure Ltd Annual Reports & Accounts 2011, Network Rail: London.
Railway Safety & Standards Board (2010) Annual Safety Performance Report 2009-10: a reference guide to safety trends on GB railways, RSSB: London. Available at: www.rssb.co.uk.
Samaritans (2008) Media Guidelines for reporting suicide and self harm, Samaritans: Ewell. Available at www.samaritans.org.
Samaritans (2011) Reducing suicides on the railways – Samaritans’ partnership with Network Rail – Media Briefing, available at: www.samaritans.org.
Simmel, G. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in Leach, N. (ed) (1997) Rethinking Architecture – a reader in cultural theory, Routledge: Abingdon.
NB: The Samaritans’ 24/7 UK helpline for anyone contemplating suicide or self-harm is: 08457 909090 and via email at email@example.com