The dark at the end of the tunnel

On average three people a week try to end their lives by jumping in fro nt of Underground trains. Angela Patmore looks behind the statistics
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The Independent Culture
"For whatever reason, we've had a spate of them recently. For a couple of weeks it seemed to be one after another." John Self, manager of London Underground's Victoria Line, is referring to four suicides in rapid succession on his turf alone.

This is unusual, but not particularly surprising. Suicide clusters at particular stations have been linked by research and anecdotal evidence to the proximity of hostels and mental institutions in the area. There is speculation that when they close down,numbers go up.

Trevor Dowens, operations manager of the Tyne and Wear Metro, says, "My own research showed a connection between suicides at Gosforth station and the nearby St Nicholas Hospital. People there have been discharged for the day and jumped straight in front of a train."

London Underground Ltd believes the recent cluster of suicides on the Victoria Line might be linked to the location of shelters near Vauxhall station (Centre Point and the Lord Clyde). Research it commissioned 18 months ago showed previous "black spots"

at Tooting Bec, Tooting Broadway, the Oval and Archway. These all serve nearby mental institutions and psychiatric units (the Springfield at Tooting, the Maudsley near the Oval, and Whittington Hospital's Waterloo Unit, as well as the Old Friern Hospitalnear the Archway). Thanks to "care in the community", this pattern no longer holds true; former psychiatric patients are free to wander the network.

There is a classic "jumper". He doesn't mingle on the platform with commuters, fearful perhaps that they may "put him off". Instead, he stands poised in a passageway or on a staircase, listening for the distant drone of a Tube engine. There is a momentumto the jumper's last act; once set in motion, he hopes it cannot be stopped. As the familiar rattle and boom approaches its climax, he launches himself into the path of the oncoming train, looking for the dark at the end of the tunnel.

In the excitement, he has overlooked certain facts. First, according to statistics, only 50 per cent of jumpers are killed. John Self, fresh from witnessing a death-dive outside his window: "What happens is that the person is knocked down into the [undertrack] pits. They may be trapped, conscious, while the ambulance services carry out minor surgery on site."

What about those 25,000-volt rails with the terracotta pots? "On a four-rail system you have a positive rail and a negative rail, and it's the current that kills you rather than the voltage. You can bridge the gap and be electrocuted, but generally speaking people are killed or maimed by the train.

"Our message would be: Whatever problem you have, this is not going to solve it, because first, a lot of people don't die, and second, they may get maimed and end up with a much bigger problem."

To irritated passengers whose journey is disrupted by the incident, the jumper is known as the "person on the line". To Underground staff, he or she becomes a "One-Under". Ghoulish stories of amputated limbs and splattered windscreens abound. One severe d arm, awaiting collection, was allegedly dragged down a platform by a feral cat.

A degree of Schadenfreude surrounds the grisly task of cleaning up the mess. PC Derek Rule, a British Transport Police spokesman, says: "Police officers call it the John Wayne syndrome. The last thing that anybody wants to deal with is a fatality. We te n d to think we can't show our weaknesses. You front it out. Even a body in one piece is not nice, and if you see something which is in pieces, it's not nice at all."

John Self has seen many such incidents. "The age range is from 16-year-olds to people in their eighties who perhaps have some illness. There are homeless people, kids who have come to London expecting the streets to be paved with gold, people who have embezzled money and spent it all. Then there was the young woman who jumped under a train at Oxford Circus. She was OK, but she was taken to hospital because they were concerned that she may have damaged her neck. They let her out after she'd been checked over, and that evening she jumped under a Northern Line train at Warren Street. This time she was killed."

The incident rate varies depending on which authority is interpreting the figures. Professor Richard Farmer of Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School has carried out extensive research for London Underground: "It averages out at three a week over the past 10 years, and although there's a mythology that the numbers are increasing, there's been no significant change." The British Transport Police have a computer message system which was alerted 143 times in 1993, and 128 times in 1994 (although somemessages are about the same incident).

PC Jim Russell, the coroner's liaison officer, provided the following breakdown of verdicts on deaths over the whole Underground system, including, but not isolating, suicides. "In 1993, 22 `killed themselves' - they don't use the term `suicide' now - s e ven accidental deaths, four deaths by misadventure, 12 open verdicts, two `natural causes', 25 `sudden deaths', 18 cases of `struck or run over by a train' but not killed, and seven of people on the line but uninjured." The total, 97, was "about average "

. Verdicts for 1994 were 91, although the year's figures had not been finalised. "Sudden deaths" refer to cases such as heart attacks. "Natural causes" may refer to head injuries after a fall.

And "misadventure"? "That can happen if you're standing too near the edge of the platform, and you bend down to pick up your case as the train comes in." Open verdicts are often returned when there are no independent witnesses.

One witness, almost inevitably, is the driver. Stephen Milton, a London Underground spokesman, says: "Some choose to carry straight on driving after the incident. Others will be stood down for that day and the following day. We offer them confidential

counselling to help them through it. A lot of drivers feel guilty. We try to explain that it wasn't their fault. They couldn't have stopped that 300-ton train any quicker."

Drivers are routinely breathalysed after an incident, and have to relive the carnage in a full statement to the police. If all they noticed was a strange thump in the tunnel, the whole line must be searched, causing delays. If the victim dies, the drive r must relive the incident a third time in a coroner's court. Some are so traumatised that they never drive a train again. London Underground tries to find them other jobs.

"Some ride around with the cab light on. They have this theory that somebody is less likely to fling themselves under a train if they have made eye contact with the driver," says John Self.

Station staff may crawl in the pit to hold down a maimed victim while the train is moved away on back-up power (the current generally having been shut off) by an incident officer. The injured person may yell out. Last year, an elderly couple from the West Country, landing up on their fifth wrong platform, had an almighty row which ended with the husband throwing himself on the line. Having failed to die, the unfortunate man shouted "Don't hurt me!" as rescuers struggled to free him. His wife sat on a platform seat throughout, unnoticed and unidentified.

Professor Farmer's study revealed that worldwide, London Underground's suicides are "around average". Singapore Underground, on those sections where the central heating system requires platform-edge screens, has none. The Paris Metro has similar screens,and the new Jubilee Line extension will have high perspex barriers too. They are hugely expensive. There is also a time penalty on the service, because the train doors must stop in the same spot every time.

The scope of Professor Farmer's work did not include follow-up research on failed jumps, and nobody knows what happens to the failures, or why they tried. PC Rule says: "We're not trained counsellors, but when someone is killed on the line we have to explain it to the family. We're always asked for reasons. We can't supply them."

A spokesman for the Samaritans says: "It's the feelings behind the facts that concern us: the despair, frustration, isolation. We would hope that these people would take the opportunity to talk to someone like us in complete confidence before they do such a thing."

The Health of the Nation White Paper in 1992 set a target of reducing suicides by 15 per cent by the year 2000. One initiative might be the after-care of One-Under survivors, some of them maimed for life as well as by it.

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