The death of a bicyclist at a Salt Lake City rail crossing Thursday night, July 19, marks the 26th fatal incident along the FrontRunner commuter train system in the last 10 years.
Records obtained from the Utah Transit Authority show the leading causes of death involving FrontRunner trains are suicide, 17 (65 percent), and drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians attempting to beat a train or otherwise violating safety warnings, 6 (23 percent).
The other three fatalities among the 26 were a motorcyclist who crashed into the path of a train at the Ogden Second Street crossing in 2015; a pickup truck passenger who died after her vehicle got stuck on the tracks in Lehi, also three years ago; and a pedestrian who became distracted in American Fork, just last week.
With a largely open 90-mile right of way from Pleasant View to Provo, UTA says it is dependent upon the public to obey access restrictions and mind gates, signs and other warnings at crossings.
The victim of Thursday’s incident was one of several dozen bicyclists in a 999 Ride group making the crossing on 900 South at 600 West at 11:15 p.m., said UTA spokesman Carl Arky.
“One train cleared and a FrontRunner train was coming on the other track and he tried to beat it across,” Arky said of the bicyclist.
The operator had no time to stop the train, which was moving about 45 mph.
On FrontRunner’s extended stretches of open right of way between crossings, there’s only so much the agency can do to prevent access by people experiencing suicidal thoughts, Arky said.
“We can’t dig a hole in the ground for 100 miles” to provide a subway system or an elevated system, he said, adding those options would be “cost prohibitive.”
Those thinking of harming themselves have several resources available:
Weber Human Services 24-7 Crisis Line, 801-625-3700
National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah, 801-323-9900
Family Counseling Service of Northern Utah, 801-399-1600
Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital Behavioral Health, 801-387-5600
Thursday’s FrontRunner fatality was the third in five weeks.
On June 16 at a crossing in Roy, a male teenager was struck by a northbound train. It was an apparent suicide.
In American Fork on July 13, a man became distracted, stumbled and had his back turned to a locomotive.
The years 2015 and 2016 were the worst on record, with five fatalities each year. Eight of the 10 were suicides.
Eleven of the deaths over the 10-year span occurred in Davis County. Three happened in Weber County, five in Salt Lake County and seven in Utah County.
Nationwide, there are about 250-300 suicides in the railways each year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, which began tracking numbers in 2012.
Studies by the FRA in 2014 and the Mineta Transportation Institute in 2016 recommended how rail systems might better prevent suicides:
Identify hot spots and erect barriers to reduce access to the railroad right of way.
Install signage with warnings and contact information for crisis services.
Use drones equipped with video monitoring systems working in tandem with trespasser intrusion alert technology.
Training programs for railroad employees designed to increase their confidence and skill intervening with suicidal individuals.
Partnerships with community groups and other government agencies to broaden suicide prevention efforts.
The Mineta report touted the use of blue lighting in rail stations. Experiments in Japan and the United Kingdom are being conducted to see whether the lighting has a calming effect on train passengers.
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UTA’s 2018 budget includes $2,276 for pedestrian crossing updates, $140,602 for corridor and right of way fencing, and $120,060 for other security and safety projects, said Robert Biles, vice president of finance.
The URA oversees the FrontRunner system for the federal government. It has no record of any investigations related to fatalities on the system.
Local police agencies usually investigate the deaths for their agencies, and UTA conducts its own internal investigations.
Another agency, the Federal Transit Administration, investigated a death on a UTA TRAX line in West Jordan and issued a report blaming both the pedestrian who was killed and the UTA.
On June 8, 2011, a westbound light-rail train struck and killed a woman at the 3200 West-8600 South crossing.
UTA was testing a new TRAX line, but controllers were not told “Look Both Ways” signage had yet to be installed at the crossing, according to the investigative report.
“It was clear that UTA knew line of sight was a concern at 3200 West and other locations,” the report said. “There were plans to install additional pedestrian treatments and UTA failed to take steps to adequately protect movement over the crossing until the treatments were complete.”