Saving lives: DuPage County's rail safety summit focuses on reducing rail trespass, suicide fatalities

Jon Rehg /

By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

Deaths due to trespassing on railroad tracks have evolved into a public health crisis in the United States, which is why the DuPage Railroad Safety Council (DRSC) titled its Oct. 20 rail safety summit: “Prevent Tragedy on the Tracks: Public. Health. Crisis.”

“To me, the crisis is the large number of people who are dying in rail-related incidents. Why is this a crisis? Because I believe that most of the deaths are preventable,” Steve Laffey, a railroad industry specialist with the Illinois Commerce Commission, told attendees of the summit, which was held virtually. The ICC administers the Illinois Grade Crossing Protection Fund, which provides grants to upgrade, close or improve existing grade crossings. 

The DuPage County, Illinois, coalition incorporated in 1996 to raise public awareness about the dangers near highway-railroad grade crossings and to work with law enforcement, civic groups and railroads to reduce injuries and deaths. As DRSC members have educated the public to reduce fatalities and injuries, they’ve also witnessed some progress made, such as the installation of four-quadrant gates and active warning devices that help reduce vehicle-train collisions at crossings. 

There’s been progress, but there’s a lot more work to be done, coalition members say. 

In 2016 the council turned its attention to raising awareness of fatalities related to trespassing on railroad tracks and suicide by train. While deaths caused by trains hitting vehicles have decreased, the number trespasser and suicide incidents have been on the rise, according to the coalition.

Thus, the title of this year’s summit, which was presented in three sessions: One focused on technological solutions; the behavioral health crisis as it relates to rail safety; and rail safety success stories in Illinois. 

In 2021, more than 610 people were killed while trespassing on rail property in the United States, and about 524 people were seriously injured. In addition, 166 individuals died by suicide while on train tracks, said Federal Railroad Administration Deputy Administrator Jennifer Mitchell, the summit’s keynote speaker. 

“The suicide rate in America was trending down in both 2019 and 2020, however it is very troubling to see that the overall suicide rate and the total number of suicides increased in the United States by about 4% between 2020 and 2021,” she said, noting the World Health Organization estimates anxiety and depression rates surged 25% since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Jennifer Mitchell “For the last few decades, we’ve seen the number of fatalities at railroads crossings decrease. We want to see the same thing happen with trespassing fatalities.” — Jennifer Mitchell, Federal Railroad Administration DuPage Railroad Safety Council

“Time will tell how this impacts the rate of suicide, but what is clear is that it’s very important to continue to provide support where possible, reduce risk and increase mental health resources and awareness,” Mitchell said.  

A sometimes dangerous fascination with trains 

To understand why such tragic events keep happening, it’s important to understand the “very special place” railroads have in the American public’s imagination, she said. 

“That fascination isn’t altogether a bad thing, but too often it turns fatal,” Mitchell said. “Our popular culture continues to dramatize and romanticize trains. We see this in visual depiction in print, TV shows, film and commercials. Some depictions effectively sensationalize rail while others trivialize it. The consequence is that many Americans don’t understand the risks and hazards associated with trains and tracks.” 

To help reduce suicide and trespass fatalities, the FRA earlier this year launched an online, interactive platform that enables users to learn about prevention strategies by the type or location of events.  

The “Trespass and Suicide Prevention Toolkit” is designed for people who work for railroad safety organizations, researchers, community members, suicide prevention groups or others with an interest in preventing trespassing and suicide on railroads. The platform allows users to find information on specific actions related to risk assessment; safety policy enforcement; training and education; public communication; physical barriers and deterrents; detection and lighting; infrastructure modification; and post-incident management. 

In addition, FRA staff have been holding workshops on grade-crossing safety and railroad trespass prevention in cities across the United States, Mitchell said. Workshops have been presented in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and cities in Florida, with more planned in Houston; Raleigh, North Carolina; and northern California. 

Workshop content is tailored to safety concerns specific to each community. However, all workshops also cover leading industry best practices, root causes, local strategies to reduce incidents, the effects of incidents on communities, recommendations for future actions to reduce incidents, and available funding solutions for implementing mitigation strategies. 

Mitchell praised the DRSC’s “ambitious” goal to reduce rail-related trespass fatalities and suicides. 

“So much of what drives trespass and suicide risk takes place away from the railroad and is largely outside the railroad’s direct control,” she said. “This is why partnerships and collaboration are so critical to addressing this problem at its root.” 

Effective partnerships can make a difference in a community as well as form relationships with other groups that will reduce rail safety risks over time. One group Mitchell mentioned is the Global Railway Alliance for Suicide Prevention (GRASP). Since 2014, the FRA has worked with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to host GRASP events that share best practices for rail suicide prevention from around the world, Mitchell said. 

In terms of suicide abatement, research has shown that training railroad employees to recognize warning signs and intervene appropriately can help prevent a person from harming themselves on rail tracks. 

“Many commuter railroads are using that strategy,” Mitchell said. A variety of surveillance strategies such as smart cameras and drones also are being deployed to detect unauthorized persons on tracks or in restricted areas, she added. 

“For the last few decades, we’ve seen the number of fatalities at railroads crossings decrease. We want to see the same thing happen with trespassing fatalities,” Mitchell said.  

An increase in federal funding available for railroad trespass and suicide prevention efforts could help. In June, the FRA announced the award of $207,000 in grant funds for several projects that evolved from collaborations between railroads, communities, law enforcement, educators and mental health organizations, Mitchell said.  

Also in June, the FRA announced nearly $2 million in railroad trespass enforcement grants for 25 projects across 13 states. The grants targeted communities and states at high risk of rail trespass-related incidents and casualties. The grants are used to fund hourly wages of law enforcement officers working trespass enforcement “hot spots.” 

“While the amounts are modest, we know they are very impactful,” Mitchell said. For example, as a result of the 2020 grant program, three lives were saved as a direct result of officer interventions in situations in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Florida. Without the grants, those three lives might have been lost, she added. 

Going forward, the FRA will consolidate those grant initiatives under the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) program. Thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the FRA will allocate over $1.4 billion in funding through the CRISI program this year; that’s up from about $369 million from last year, Mitchell said.

In this year’s program, a minimum of $25 million will be made available through development and implementation measures to prevent trespassing and reduce associated injuries and fatalities, she said. 

As the nation’s rail hub, the Chicago area has been a “high priority” for the FRA to partner with local, county and state government officials and other stakeholders, such the DRSC, Mitchell said. 

“FRA data indicates that Cook County continues to be among the top three in the nation for the most grade crossing, trespassing and suicide casualties,” she said. “By the same measure, DuPage County is 44th in the nation.” 

The FRA recently added a grade-crossing and trespass outreach inspector for the Chicago region. 

“This will allow FRA to maintain partnerships like the one we have with the DuPage County Railroad Safety Council, our colleagues at the ICC and many others,” Mitchell concluded. “By working together, we can create more tools, secure resources and assist local communities and railroads in saving lives.”