Atlantic Cities

Why Doesn't Every Subway System Have Suicide Prevention Barriers?

Why Doesn't Every Subway System Have Suicide Prevention Barriers?
Flickr/Phil Wiffen

MEXICO CITY—Since the invention of fast-moving trains, people have probably been killing themselves on train tracks.

A 50-year study of the London Underground recorded 3,240 incidents of suicidal behavior, and similar problems are widespread throughout the world’s urban rail systems.

Yet, despite this common threat, most transport systems have not aggressively sought to curb these deaths, especially in the U.S.  Throughout Europe and Asia though, and in a smattering of other places, train stations have "platform screen doors" or "platform edge doors."

Mexico City, also known as the Federal District, is one of the newest metropolises to add this technology. Its Line 12, scheduled to open in 2012, will feature two stations with platform barriers, or doors that open when trains arrive. Metro officials here have reported that between 23 to 35 people have tumbled into train pits annually over the last three years, including recent numbers for 2011.

Enrique Horcasitas, general director of the Metro project, says that early plans for Line 12 called for six Metro stations with sliding doors. But the budget ultimately permitted just two. The chosen stations are predicted to handle a larger volume of passenger traffic than other stops on the line. One station, Mixcoac, is expected to see 80,000 passengers on a daily basis.

But if the sliding doors’ objective is to stop suicides, then what’s the point of having just two outfitted stations? Couldn’t a suicidal person just hop a train to the next barrier-free station for his final act?

While early press about the platform doors claimed they were "measures to prevent suicides," Horcasitas says that’s not their primary function.

"There’s a great fear within the Federal District government relating to security on the Metro, more than with suicides," he says.

In a high-use, bustling rail system like that of Mexico City, people tend to jostle each other on the platforms. During peak hours, sometimes passengers wait for three or four trains to pass before they can enter. It’s easy to imagine impatient crowds or a group of rowdy teens joking around, and people pushing each other as the train arrives, says Horcasitas.

One could envision “not just two or three people fall into the train’s path, 15 people could fall in,” he says. “The Metro, yes, can stop. But in certain moments, it’s so close, it can’t stop.”

Earlier this year, one female passenger tried to push another woman into an incoming train’s way. The wrestling pair tumbled into the pit as the driver halted his train. Both women narrowly escaped.

It makes sense that cities in other parts of the world have addressed the suicide/fall issue before U.S. cities, says Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. 

"When you think about Europe in particular, you’re talking about much more densely populated areas, where the rail system is part of the fabric of everyday life," he says. Real suicide occurs at a greater rate, given the small populations. "So it’s just been much more within their consciousness."

Rail systems have implemented or at least considered various other suicide prevention methods, says Berman. A few examples: training staff to spot pre-suicidal behavior, increasing lighting in stations, and slowing down trains as they approach stations.

"If the train is entering at 20 miles an hour or 30 miles an hour, it’s perceived as a lethal object. One that slows down to five miles an hour before it reaches the station, this is perceived as far less inviting as a way to die."

Image courtesy Flickr user Phil Wiffen

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance journalist. She previously worked at Washington City Paper and her writing has also appeared in Global Post, The Washington Post, Fox News Latino, The Washingtonian, and the Houston Press. All posts »

Join the Discussion