Recent train deaths spur call for SEPTA action

Posted: February 22, 2013

A recent rash of train-related deaths prompted State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks-Montgomery) to urge SEPTA officials Thursday to do more to prevent such fatalities, even if it means reduced train speeds or lost revenue.

Greenleaf, who sits on the SEPTA board, called for more warning signs and heightened vigilance by SEPTA employees, as well as increased education efforts in schools.

"I think it's important to see if we can do more to avoid loss of life," Greenleaf told top SEPTA officials gathered Thursday for board committee meetings. "Even if it means slowing trains down, even if it means losing money."

SEPTA trains have killed four people this year, the most recent being Claire Gillick, 50, of the 3400 block of Crawford Street, whose body was found Tuesday night along the Manayunk/Norristown Line in the 3500 block of Scotts Lane, near the woman's East Falls home.

The death was ruled a suicide by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office.

The numbers of train deaths have been rising, locally and nationally, in recent years.

Last year, SEPTA trains killed 12 people, up from 11 in 2011 and six each in 2010 and in 2009.

Nationwide, 417 people were killed by trains in the first 11 months of 2012 (not counting fatalities in accidents between trains and motor vehicles), up from 377 during the same period a year earlier.

Although there is no clear reason why train deaths are up, many of the fatalities are suicides, and SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said people may feel driven by economic pressures to take their lives.

"The economy, I think that is the main reason," Casey said Thursday.

Such deaths often receive scant public notice. Victims can go unidentified for months. Sometimes, though, the deaths shatter a community.

Three years ago, a double suicide by train devastated Delaware County's Glenolden Borough and brought renewed attention to the danger.

In that tragedy, Vanessa M. Dorwart, 15, and Gina C. Gentile, 16, students at Interboro High School, were killed by an Amtrak train as they embraced on the tracks near the Norwood station. The girls reportedly were despondent over a friend's recent death.

Because tracks often are accessible and unguarded, they can be magnets for those looking for a shortcut, an adventure, or an end to life.

"It's a problem that has frustrated us, always," said James Jordan, general counsel for SEPTA and the agency's former safety chief. "It's an open system that can't be fenced . . . and even at half the posted speed, it takes a long time to stop a train."

Casey said SEPTA employees regularly visit area schools to warn students about the dangers of walking along railroads. Signs are posted at grade crossings to warn pedestrians to beware of approaching trains, and SEPTA conducts "safety blitzes" at stations to distribute safety brochures to passengers.

But Casey said suicides were especially hard to combat. "If someone wants to do themselves in, there's only so much you can do."

Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or .

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