Is it possible to identify people considering self-harm at train stations? James Grubel finds out.

Railway suicide is a problem rarely discussed in public, but one that has been around since the early days of rail.

It’s a problem around the world and one that continues to grow across Australia, leaving huge social and emotional scars on thousands of people across the country each year.

Researchers at ANU have now picked up the challenge — they hope to find a way to reduce the number of railway deaths with a world-first project that tackles the problem from several angles.

Led by Professor Byron Keating at the ANU College of Business and Economics, the project will combine the latest monitoring technology with the best evidence and research from experts in business, operations management, psychology, mental health, information systems, computer science and communications.

“We have one simple aim — to find a way to reduce the number of incidents which clearly have devastating impacts, not only on the individuals, but also on their families and friends,” he says.

“But we also want to reduce the wider repercussions, such as the impact on bystanders, station staff and emergency personnel who have to respond, and the impact on train drivers, some of whom never fully recover.

“If we can make even a small difference here, the results of this sort of project can be really profound.”

Industry, ARC support

The project, Preventing railway suicide: An open-systems perspective, is being run in partnership with Sydney Trains and the national TrackSafe Foundation, which was set up by the rail industry to reduce rail-related injuries and fatalities.

The project is also supported by a $450,000 Linkage grant from the Australian Research Council.

Railway suicides have been the subject of considerable research since the first reported case in England in 1852, but never before has the problem been the subject of such a comprehensive, multidisciplinary investigation.

The latest figures show around 150 to 200 people a year die by self-harm in and around railway stations in Australia, with the rate significantly increasing since 2002. Authorities estimate the problem costs the economy around $1 billion a year.

But it is the personal and social costs that most concern Keating, who believes advances in technology now provide promising new opportunities to address the problem.

His research project will be split into three key areas.

Patterns, hotspots

The first phase will analyse available data on rail suicide and injuries to identify patterns such as hotspots — particular platforms or stations — the weather and specific times.

The second phase is a close examination of past incidents to identify physiological behaviours and behavioural cues from people at risk. The aim is to work with mental health experts to find the signs to identify a person at risk.

The research will involve working with colleagues in the computer sciences and at the University of Canberra to develop automated ways to identify people at risk. A new video detection system could then be set up to monitor 148 stations across Sydney to help pick up any warning signs.

“We’re aiming to develop the world’s first automated system to identify suicide risk behaviour in real time,” Keating says.

“We’re trying to develop a system that will assess, flag and then point monitoring staff to a potential situation. Then trained staff can directly intervene if needed.”

The third phase of the Preventing railway suicide project will bring the elements together in a more holistic approach to the problem.

By examining the issue of rail suicide from a diverse range of perspectives, Keating hopes the findings can be integrated into practical measures to prevent future incidents.

“We’ll be looking at all sorts of angles. For example, there is research suggesting that things like lighting, noise, music, smell and signage at train stations can all be sensory cues that can help influence behaviour,” he says.

“An intervention could be as simple as changing the lighting at a part of a station, making an area more visible, putting up a fence to restrict access to some areas of the platform or increasing monitoring.

“We want to understand the nature of different interventions, and to examine ways to improve them so they can have a more positive effect.”

It is planned to use the improved monitoring as the basis for measuring the impact of different interventions and combinations of interventions.

“Our goal is to come up with a way of measuring in real time the things that lead to or are correlates of suicide. If we can understand the risk factors and the physiological indicators, as well as a whole range of environmental cues, then we have the scope to intervene,” he says.

The first phase is due to start in early 2017.

For 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

Top image: ninekrai/Shutterstock.com

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