The Long Island Rail Road has launched a public campaign to directly address a tragic problem that for years was a taboo topic - suicide by train.
LIRR president Helena Williams, who also is interim chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Wednesday announced that the agency has joined with two Long Island suicide prevention organizations to create a pilot program aimed at combating the number of suicides on the railroad's tracks.
"Needless to say, this is a terribly traumatic event for any family involved," said Williams, who called the program the first of its kind on the LIRR, the nation's largest commuter railroad. "It can also be very traumatic for our engineers," she added, noting that train operators sometimes make eye contact with suicide victims moments before those people are struck.
There have been five suicides this year on the LIRR system through May, according to the LIRR. There were seven in 2008 and 16 in 2007.
The LIRR has begun putting up posters at its 124 stations that include the number of a free suicide hotline set up by the agency - 877-582-5586. The poster features a set of train tracks and the message "Suicide is not the route."
It was the Long Island Crisis Center that first approached the LIRR last year with the idea to create the program, after a volunteer with the organization happened upon a suicidal person at an LIRR station platform as the volunteer waited for a train.
"A gentleman approached her and handed her a phone number and told her, 'Would you do me a favor and call this number? It's my mother. I'm about to jump in front of a train,' " Long Island Crisis Center executive director Linda Leonard recalled.
The volunteer persuaded the man to allow her to get him some help. He was taken to a hospital later that night, Leonard said.
"That led us to think that railway suicide is an issue and that something as simple as a prevention poster, so people could realize that there is an alternative, was something that could be done," Leonard said.
Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said reliable national figures on train-track suicides are unavailable because railroads are not required to report suicides.