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Unprecedented wave of railway suicides hits France

The French returned from a national holiday on Tuesday to news of 12 railway suicides in just four days, sparking “grave concern” from rail authorities, who said they have almost no way of preventing potential copycat incidents.

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Twelve people committed suicide on French railways between Saturday and Monday, causing lengthy delays for travellers and concern for railway authorities who say there is almost nothing they can do to prevent people from taking their own lives by jumping in front of trains.

Coupled with a technical problem late on Sunday, some 30,000 passengers were reportedly affected. The 12 people killed took their lives in separate incidents across the country between late Friday and early Monday. Information released by the police detailed a miserable chain of events.

One of the victims was a 34-year-old man who leapt to his death with his 19-month-old baby, who also died. The police said that the man was suffering “a relationship breakdown” and had written to his parents to explain his actions. In a separate case, the victim lay across the tracks of an oncoming train from Lille.

France’s state railway, SNCF, described the weekend as a “dark period”. “We’ve never seen so many suicides in such a short period of time,” SNCF spokesperson Michel Pronost told French radio Europe 1 on Monday morning. “This is a trauma for the drivers, the passengers and the railway workers. Everyone will be wondering why such a thing happened at a time like this [the French were celebrating a three-day bank holiday weekend from Saturday to Monday].”

On Sunday night some 10,500 Paris-bound travellers were affected, forcing the Parisian authorities to put in place an emergency operation to assist thousands arriving into the capital in the early hours of the morning with food supplies and heavy taxi reinforcements (the metro does not operate during the night). The majority of French web users who commented on the suicides seemed more concerned by the traffic delays than the deaths themselves, which were described as “selfish” by many online commentators.

Fears of copycat suicides

The “worrying progression” of suicides as described by Pronost sparked concerns that the victims may have somehow been linked. Michelle Funk, a mental health researcher from the World Health Organisation (WHO), told FRANCE 24 that it was “very unusual indeed” to have so many of the same kind of suicides over such a short period. “It might even suggest that there may have been some form of communication between the victims,” she said. “At such a high rate, it’s something that would need assessing”.

But her major concern was that the incidents might spark “copycat” suicides around the country. “If these deaths are sensationalised by the media then they’re sadly likely to lead to more deaths. People who are feeling desperate may hear about this and think ‘they’ve done it, so so can I’.”

For SNCF and the railway authorities, there’s no easy solution for preventing further potential incidents. “One of the ways we try to address suicide is by preventing the means,” Funk explained. “That means preventing access to guns, for example, or to pesticides. But in this circumstance, there’s very little you can do.”

France has a higher rate of suicide than its European neighbours, with more than 16 people per 1,000 falling victim to the disease according to 2007 WHO study, compared with around 7 per 1,000 in the UK and Spain, for example.

Pronost said on Monday that the SNCF would take into consideration the 30,000 kilometres of French railways that are not fenced off. But he also admitted that the two-metre fences that border high-speed lines are not entirely foolproof. “This is something we seriously need to consider,” he told Europe 1 radio. “Not just from a technical point of view, but from a human point of view too.”

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