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Feds looking to reduce number of suicides on rail lines
Published: July 8, 2008
Source: Canadian Press
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Dan Shewchuk is still chilled by the image of people jumping out in front of his train, trying to commit suicide.

It happens far more often than people think, Shewchuk says, leaving him and other train engineers to suffer nightmares and heartache. The federal government is preparing to spend up to $382,000 to try to reduce the number of such incidents. But the answers may not come easy.

"It's one of those things where you wake up in the middle of the night with sweat on your brow, thinking and recalling ... the person's eyes as you look at them and you can see them over the top of the locomotive through the window," Shewchuk, now the head of the Teamsters union branch that represents Canadian railway workers, said Monday from his Edmonton office.

"That still haunts me."

During his time driving trains in British Columbia, Shewchuk remembers three incidents in which people scrambled onto the track and stared straight at him as he tried in vain to brake. Two survived. One did not.

"It's pretty hard to take when you have somebody walk out in front of you at 60 or 70 miles an hour and there's absolutely nothing you can do to stop," he said.

There is no exact record of how many people commit suicide each year on rail lines. There are dozens of trespasser fatalities each year, but it's not clear how many are accidental.

Between 1993 and 1996, 39 per cent of such deaths were apparent suicides, while 10 per cent were clearly accidental, according to Transport Canada documents. In the remaining half of all cases, the cause was unclear.

Transport Canada is looking to hire outside help to stem the tide. The contractors will "develop countermeasures, including aspects addressing educational and community-based measures and infrastructure design," according to a department request for proposals issued Monday.

On a much smaller scale, the City of Toronto has prevented a dozen or so suicides each year on its Bloor Street viaduct by erecting a fence with netting, at a cost of $6 million that was split with the private sector.

Doing something similar on the country's railways would be unworkable, according to a transportation expert at the University of Manitoba.

"What have we got, 40,000 miles of railway tracks?," said Barry Prentice, director of the university's Transport Institute.

Even if the physical barriers were limited to densely populated areas, the task would be enormous, Prentice said.

Transport Canada has managed to cut down the number of accidental injuries and deaths caused by children and other walking along rail lines, thanks to a decade-long public awareness campaign warning people about the safety hazards.

But the campaign appears to have had no effect on the number of suicides, according to the request for proposals.

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