The railway workers trained to stop suicides
- 25 November 2013
- From the section Magazine
Nearly every day someone tries to take their life on Britain's railways, but thousands of rail staff have now been trained to spot the signs before it is too late. What are they looking for and what impact does suicide have on the network?
"He just poured his heart out to me, saying he hated life, he hated everything and he wanted it to all just go away and it was going to go away tonight."
Sharon Willett was eight hours into her shift for East Coast Trains when she noticed the teenage boy sitting alone on a platform bench.
He was cocooned in his hooded top and looked like he might be crying, but as he was hiding his face she could not be sure.
The boy had not boarded any of the trains that had passed through, so she had started to become concerned and her training kicked in.
Willett tried to talk to him about his trainers and whether he liked trains, but he launched into a barrage of abuse before breaking down crying.
It was then that the 15-year-old started to soften and she found out he had been bullied at school. She also realised that she was going to be able to help him.
Willett is one of 5,000 staff to have been through a Samaritans programme which teaches staff about suicide, what signs to look out for and how to help those who may be at risk.
New figures given to BBC Radio 5 live show that between April and October 2013, 313 people thought to have been planning to take their lives on the railways were stopped from doing so after someone intervened.
An exact breakdown is not available, but some were helped by those who had been on the scheme, others by regular rail workers, transport police and members of the public.
It is a problem that has knock-on effects. Last year Network Rail, which has invested £5m in the scheme, paid out £33m to train companies to compensate them for disruption caused by rail suicides. They led to about 5,000 hours of delays for passengers.
But the programme is about more than saving money, says Neil Henry, chair of the rail industry's National Suicide Prevention Group.
"This is people's lives we're talking about, rather than a balance sheet." What's important, he says, is that the programme is "having an impact on reducing suicide".
Signs that something is seriously wrong might include sitting on a platform for long periods and failing to catch any of the trains that stop, says Steve Tollerton, one of the Samaritans' trainers.
Other behaviours are more immediately apparent: "People might be wearing nighties, dressing gowns, slippers, hospital gowns. Sometimes they might take their clothing off and fold it neatly on a platform."
Conversation is key, says Tollerton.
"Once that person starts to talk, it's amazing how forthcoming they can be about their problems. This could be the first conversation that person has ever had," he adds.
It is hoped that the scheme will spare many train drivers the experience faced by Don Stewart, whose train struck a man at a station.
"It didn't hit me for a couple of days. You sit in the house and you're like: 'I'm off work, something's wrong. It can't be what I think it is. It can't be why I think I'm off work.'
"Regardless of whether you want to say you didn't kill someone or not, the train you were driving, you were in control of it. It hit someone."
Stewart, who had been a train driver for three years in South Wales, ended up having a year off work and some drivers never return.
The sense of guilt can be overwhelming, says Tollerton: "Drivers in particular often feel guilty and responsible. It can bring to the surface such painful emotions and those are images that you'll never forget."
Despite the interventions of Network Rail staff and others, suicide on the UK's railways remains a serious problem.
Last year 238 people took their lives in front of trains, an increase of 20% since 2010.
"We are seeing a rise in suicides, as is society nationally," says Henry.
"Just to put [it] into perspective, earlier this month there were seven consecutive days without any incidents whatsoever and that is the first time since 2010 that we've had that length of time with no incidents."
The training scheme is important, he says, because it "gives people confidence of how to approach people, what to say, what not to say".
Willett, who has since talked another person out of taking their life, says: "It's just finding the right trigger, to get these emotions out and these feelings and these issues.
"And once they start coming through, the situation starts to dissolve, and that's when you can then take the next step to move them on to a place of safety."
For the teenage boy who had been sitting on the station bench, speaking to Willett was the first time he had shared his problems with another person.
"Sometimes, people share with strangers more than they do with their friends and family," she says. "But that was the first step to him getting on the right path, to get to the better place that he is now."
Three weeks after Willett's experience, she received a letter from his mother.
"Your connection, words and compassion saved his life and indeed ours too. You made this new chapter in his life be possible. Thank you is not a big enough word. Our family look upon you as an angel, our angel in fact."