Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Suicide attempts on the Tube fall

The number of people jumping in front of Tube trains has almost halved since 1989, according to London Underground. The average number has dropped from 3 to 1.75 a week, while general suicide levels have remained constant.

London Underground says that people are increasingly put off by the particularly gruesome nature of this death and the prospect of surviving a failed attempt.

Steve Miller, a spokesman, said that in 1993, only 40 per cent of people attempting suicide by jumping in front of a Tube train succeeded. 'People are realising that jumping on a track is an unreliable way of killing oneself. Rather than risking a 100-ton train running over their legs in a failed attempt, they are going elsewhere.

In the Thirties, when the number of suicides on the Underground rose during the Depression - there was an average of 36 a year - a number of deep pits were installed on the lines, ostensibly to collect rubbish.

But the pits were also to protect rescuable humans until the train could be moved.

In 1989, when the suicide rate peaked at 99, London Underground commissioned a report into the rise from the community health department at Charing Cross Hospital.

The researchers were asked to determine the characterics of 'high-risk passengers so that staff could better understand the problem. They found that of the high-risk group, 64 per cent were men, most 15 to 34 years old. The peak time for jumping was between 10am and 4pm, although there was a slight variation for women (10am to 1pm). The high season for jumpers was spring. The highest number of incidents occurred at King's Cross. Mile End and Tooting Bec came next; both stations have psychiatric hospitals nearby. Archway, Oval and Clapham North followed close behind.

Sociologist Ian O'Donnell and epidemiologist Professor Richard Farmer suggested in the report that London Underground dig more pits on the lines and warn commuters that death by jumping in front of the trains is not guaranteed.

Also recommended was the installation of buffers similar to the cow-catcher bars fitted on trains in the United States.

The installation of platform curtains (sheets of glass, with automatic doors, placed between the platform edge and the track) was also suggested, but perhaps the most practical solution was the building of barriers along the first section of the platform, where the trains enter from the tunnel. Almost 70 per cent of the suicide attempts were made from the first one-third of the platform.

By the time the report came out, London Underground had already decided to install platform curtains on the Jubilee Line. However, there are no plans to fit screens at Westminster, Waterloo or London Bridge, as the report recommended.

Nor are there any plans to attach buffers (it is argued that they would only push a body along the track), build barriers (there is not the money), dig more pits, or run an anti-suicide campaign, which is believed would have the opposite effect.

Samaritans posters have been put up, and telephones are installed on many platforms. But the Samaritans said that they do not advise callers of the low success rate of Tube suicides. 'We try to tackle the problem, not the method, a spokeswoman said.

Kevin Rose, district secretary for the train drivers' union, Aslef, said London Underground had a lot to thank the drivers for. 'If drivers are suspicious of a person's behaviour, they contact a train operator and ask them to send a member of staff down to investigate. These warnings are now communicated in code, so as not to alarm passengers.

At the end of the day, drivers discuss their experiences, helping other staff to identify potential suicides.

The impact on the drivers of these trains, said Mr Rose, can be devastating.

One-third of drivers involved in such incidents suffer from psychiatric disorders afterwards.

Some give up driving, even after a 20 or 30-year career. Counselling is offered and compensation of about pounds 1,000 is awarded. But few of them forget.

After involvement in a suicide incident, drivers are not helped by a lack of procedural rules. Some just get out of the train, walk away, have a cup of tea, and go home.

Others insist on trying to help the clear-up operation, however nasty. The report by Charing Cross hos-pital said that a set procedure needs to be formulated. So far, he said, nothing has been done.

But the bad news for London Underground, its drivers and passenger is that Professor Farmer suspects the decreasing Tube suicide rate might be a statistical blip.

(Photograph omitted)