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Rail Trespass Prevention Countermeasures: Empirical Evidence of Effective Behavior Modification


Every year in the United States over 700 individuals lose their life on the rail system as a result of trespass or suicide. This accounts for over 70% of the fatalities which occur on the US rail network. Dedicated efforts to reduce fatalities have been tremendously successful. The number of grade crossing fatalities was reduced by 59% over the past 30 years (609/year from 1983-1987; 251.6/year from 2013-2017). In contrast to grade crossing fatalities, trespass fatalities increased by 11% over that same time period (428.2/year from 1983-1987; 475.6/year from 2013-2017) and that doesn’t include suicide because those data were not collected until 2011 (and add another 300+/year)[1].

The positive safety gains at crossings were a result of a number of individual factors, but in large part were driven by an awareness of this problem and a decision to allocate resources to address it. To see progress in addressing trespass and suicide, a similar focus is likely to be required. One key aspect of that process is to identify the strategies that are available for carriers or communities to implement to address these issues.

Often trespass or suicide countermeasures are implemented in a reactionary way – an incident, or string of incidents, occurs and the carrier reacts by implementing something quickly. While such a reaction is reasonable, without the time to consider alternative options the chosen path is often to increase or re-enforce existing strategies. If rail carriers and communities had objective evidence of the effectiveness of a range of countermeasures this might help carriers to be more strategic about which countermeasures may most effectively address their particular issue. They would still be able to act quickly, but could be better informed to implement a strategy more likely to be effective.

[1] This type of study will evaluate whether countermeasures reduce the observed incidence of trespassing. However, countermeasures that keep people off the rails or detect them when they are in peril may also reduce the incidence of rail suicide.


To provide empirical evidence, based on observed changes (or an absence of change) in trespass behavior, of the effectiveness of a selected trespass prevention countermeasure.

  • Stakeholders, including rail carriers and communities, would be better equipped to implement countermeasures that are known to be effective.
  • Stakeholders, including rail carriers and communities, will understand how to implement such a countermeasure effectively.
  • ·
  • Stakeholders, including rail carriers and communities, may be more likely to try a countermeasure they had previously not considered because they better understand how it works or what the cost might be.
Related Research:

Existing Related Research falls into two categories:

  • Establishing the need for empirical testing of countermeasures for trespassing and/or suicide

  • Identifying a range of potential countermeasures to test

Establishing the need:

Several published literature reviews on rail trespassing and suicide prevention discuss a lack of empirical evidence, especially for trespassing:

“Despite more than 35 years of research into rail-pedestrian safety, current prevention practice lacks consistent empirical support for effectiveness and relies on general recommendations or mere assumptions. The actual effect of most measures on the number of railway suicides and trespassing accidents is not clear, and this calls for more research on the whole range of proposed measures...” (Havârneanu, Burkhardt, & Paran, 2015)

“The third category of railway train-related accident research, and the one central to this discussion, concerns train-pedestrian collisions in which a train collides with a person. As noted at the beginning of this review, there appears to be very little published research investigating this type of accident. A literature search in preparation for this review turned up just 14 studies referring to train-pedestrian accidents, although there are doubtless other less accessible reports held by railway companies and local and national government bodies around the world…”(Lobb, 2006)

“Research on preventing railway suicide and trespass is limited. A few studies (Gabree et al., 2014; Havârneanu et al., 2015; Lobb, 2006; Mishara and Bardon, 2016; Rådbo et al., 2012) have provided systematic reviews on the effectiveness of potential measures to prevent railway suicides and trespassing accidents. These studies have emphasised the lack of evidence and empirical data regarding how effective existing measures are, as well as the lack of systematic lists of effective measures that could be implemented against railway suicide and trespassing…”(Havârneanu, Burkhardt, & Silla, 2016)

Identifying potential countermeasures:

The International Union of Railways (UIC), a worldwide railway organization (www.uic.org) established a project (RESTRAIL- REduction of Suicides and Trespasses on RAILway property) to investigate rail trespass and suicide. One of the products that came from this project is a “toolbox” that identifies potential countermeasures carriers may implement to mitigate trespass or suicide. The toolbox, found at www.restrail.eu/toolbox/, is a great resource for potential countermeasures to consider studying.

Published research identifying types of countermeasures:

“Research on interventions to reduce train-pedestrian accidents is very limited indeed. Various authors have proposed interventions such as limitation of pedestrian access to the rail corridor, public education about risk and illegality, or reward or punishment for safe and unsafe railway crossing behavior, as means to prevent unsafe pedestrian railway crossing behavior (e.g., Blazar et al., 1997; Lerer & Matzopoulos, 1996), but few have evaluated the efficacy of any of these interventions…”(Lobb, 2006)

The paper presents a discussion of each countermeasure according to various intervention points along the path to complete suicide on the railroad right-of-way. These intervention points include: preventing individuals from reaching a suicidal state, making the railroad environment appear to be a less viable means for attempting suicide, deterring access to the right-of-way, avoiding collisions with trespassers and pedestrians, reducing the lethality of a train-person collision, and improving the quality of data and reporting standards. Each of these intervention points provides an opportunity for a countermeasure to potentially divert the individual from the path towards a suicidal act…” (FRAReport, 2014)

“Primary preventative methods have included erecting physical barriers, posting warning signs with telephone numbers for hotline crisis counseling, using video surveillance on platforms, and training key personnel to identify and intervene with at-risk individuals. However, little or no evidence has been reported to demonstrate the efficacy of these methods…”(Sherry, 2016)

Recommendations for prevention strategies include continued efforts to identify hotspots and to erect barriers to reduce access to the railroad right-of-way, and for installing signage with warnings and contact information for crisis services. The use of drones equipped with video monitoring systems working in tandem with trespasser intrusion alert technology could be one way of dealing with more remote locations. Training programs for railroad employees designed to increase their confidence and skill intervening with suicidal individuals is also needed. Additionally, railroads should maximize their prevention efforts by partnering with other groups devoted to preventing suicide as well as with government agencies. Suicide is a community-wide concern, community residents feel some responsibility for prevention, and railroads should not be expected to be the sole source of preventive activities for intentional fatalities by rail…”(Sherry, 2016)

FRAReport, D.-14/36. (2014). Countermeasures to Mitigate Intentional Deaths on Railroad Rights-of-Way: Lessons Learned and Next Steps | Federal Railroad Administration. Retrieved from http://www.fra.dot.gov/eLib/details/L16102#p1z25gDktrespass

Havârneanu, G. M., Burkhardt, J.-M. M., & Paran, F. F. (2015). A systematic review of the literature on safety measures to prevent railway suicides and trespassing accidents. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 81, 30–50. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2015.04.012

Havârneanu, G. M., Burkhardt, J.-M., & Silla, A. (2016). Optimizing suicide and trespass prevention on railways: a problem-solving model from the RESTRAIL project. International Journal of Injury Control and Safety Promotion, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/17457300.2016.1232275

Lobb, B. (2006). Trespassing on the tracks: A review of railway pedestrian safety research. Journal of Safety Research, 37(4), 359–365. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsr.2006.04.005

Sherry, P. (2016). Remedial Actions to Prevent Suicides on Commuter and Metro Rail Systems | MTI. Retrieved from http://transweb.sjsu.edu/project/1129.html

  1. Solicit carriers with significant trespass activity
  2. Qualify and select carrier for the research
  3. Determine and coordinate countermeasure (materials, methods, and/or personnel)
  4. Determine the research design
  5. Identify strategy to collect trespass behavior
  6. Perform baseline trespass data collection
  7. Apply countermeasure
  8. Perform short-term trespass data collection
  9. Perform long-term trespass data collection
  10. Analysis and conclusions

  11. Research report write-up


This effort will likely be a single case study of a particular strategy tested with one or more rail carriers. While the following is intended to describe one such case study the hope is that multiple researchers will be able to test different countermeasures, each one contributing to the body of knowledge. The general tasks suggested include:

1) Selection of a rail carrier, countermeasure, and appropriate location(s) for testing.

a) Select a qualified and cooperative rail carrier: A qualified carrier is one that that has significant trespassing behavior. Ideally, the carrier would be aware of multiple areas where trespass is significant, providing an opportunity to compare the two locations.

b) Identify location(s) where trespass behavior will be addressed: Work with the rail carrier to identify locations where trespass behaviors can be addressed. This may include multiple, similar, locations only one of which will receive the experimental treatment. If the study design will compare similar locations (only one of which receive the treatment), other potentially con founding factors should be carefully controlled.

c) Select a countermeasure appropriate for the identified trespass issue: A countermeasure should be selected which is best suited (as decided by the experimenter and rail carrier) for the identified trespass behaviors. Countermeasures may involve engineering, education, enforcement, or another strategy aimed at reducing trespass activity (consider referring to www.restrail.eu/toolbox/ for potential mitigations). To ensure that the countermeasure selected is appropriate, the experimenter will need to consider likely trespass motives as well as the constraints placed by the environment and rail infrastructure. This will be a critical step and will likely require field research and close collaboration with the selected rail carrier. The same level of care should be invested in the selection of both the treatment and control sites, if such a method is employed.

d) Determine whether the cooperation of a third party is necessary: There may be situations where a third party is necessary to accomplish the goals of the study. This may be driven by a need to access a certain population, such as school children, for education or it may be to obtain cooperation from local land owners or the local media. It may even be possible that the countermeasure itself will be implemented by a third party, such as local law enforcement.

e) Select a method to collect information about trespass activity: Trespass activity may be collected by a human observer or by technology, which is later interpreted by a human. Regardless of the method chosen, it will be important to ensure that what qualifies as trespass activity is well defined in advance of the study. The amount of rail trespass at the selected location will likely play a role in the method of collection used and the amount of time required to obtain adequate behaviors for analysis.

2) Baseline trespass data collection - Obtain a quantitative measure of the extent of the trespassing behavior at all chosen sites at comparable times and days of the week. If possible, supplement the counts with qualitative, but significant observations, such as especially egregious behavior or close calls. Judgment should be used to determine the appropriate period for the baseline measurement, and will depend on the amount of trespass activity in the selected locations. Care should be taken as to not influence the baseline or subsequent measures (e.g. measurement should be inconspicuous). Only in cases of imminent harm should the observer, if human, intervene in the situation. Researchers may also wish to consider evaluating positive behaviors at a nearby location (e.g., a legal crossing) during the study period to assess if positive behaviors increase while negative behaviors are decreased.

3) Countermeasure implementation - Implement the countermeasure at the test site in the manner deemed appropriate for the trespass behavior being mitigated. If the countermeasure involves education, enforcement, or another strategy which is implemented in a fixed time window, develop a plan for how to implement this countermeasure consistently during the test period.

4) Short-term trespass data collection - Immediately after the application of the countermeasure, or within the first few weeks, perform a data collection like the baseline. This short term collection will assess changes from baseline shortly after implementation.

5) Long-term trespass data collection - A second trespass behavior data collection (same method as the baseline) should be taken after a period of time has passed. The researchers will need to balance the limiting factors of budget and availability of observers with the ability to ascertain the lasting effects of the countermeasure.

6) Analysis and conclusions – Conclusions from this study should include, at least, the short- and long-term impacts of the countermeasure. If a treatment and control method was employed, it should also compare the treatment site impacts to that of the control site.

7) Research report – Document the findings, including any notable changes to the countermeasure that occurred during the study timeframe and may be a beneficial finding for other carriers.


Research could fit well with Masters or PhD programs.

Sponsoring Committee:AR080, Highway/Rail Grade Crossings
Research Period:12 - 24 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Scott Gabree, Kurt Topel, Joyce Rose, and Bianka Mejia
Date Posted:09/21/2018
Date Modified:09/25/2018
Index Terms:Pedestrians, Trespassers, Behavior modification, Countermeasures, Suicide, Pedestrian safety,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Public Transportation
Safety and Human Factors

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