Railway suicide in Canada

Incidence of railway suicides and extent of the problem in Canada

Over 10 years of records, we can estimate that there is an average of 43 railway suicides per year, with an increase in the last 3 years of records (2005 to 2007).

In Canada, between 2000 and 2009, the most common methods of suicide were hanging (44%), poisoning (25%), and firearms (16%) with important variations by gender and age. By comparison, between 2005 and 2007, rail suicides accounted for a mean of 1.55% of all suicides in Canada.


  • There are 43 completed suicides on average annually commited on railway rights of way
  • There appears to be an increase in the number of suicide over the last 3 years of record, this tendency will have to be validated as data is obtained in the coming years.
  • The proportion of railway fatalities which are suicides has been increasing: suicides accounted for 30% of railway fatalities in 1999 and 53% in 2007
  • For each suicide, at least 6 individuals are confronted with potentially traumatic situations (2 engineers / conductors, at least one police officer from the railway or the community, at least one first respondent, a local manager and replacement crew)

When and where do suicides occur?

When and where do suicides occur

  • Suicides occur more often on open tracks (66.7%) than at crossings (29.1%) or in stations (2.2%). 
  • This means that prevention strategies aimed at identifying at risk people in stations and promoting help by posters placed in stations will not have much impact in Canada. However, the situation is different in urban metro and subway systems where the only easy access to tracks is in stations and trains enter stations at a much higher speed.
  • Suicides occur more often in urban areas (85%) than in rural areas (15%) which accurately reflects the population density. Railway suicides are an urban phenomenon because more people have access to the tracks there than in rural areas.
  • Most of the Canadian railway suicides occur in Ontario (56.1% of all rail suicides), which also is the most populated province of Canada
  • Commuter lines seem to be more at risk of having suicides. Passenger trains are also often involved in suicides. There are 3 explanation of this : Passenger trains trains are more likely to run in more densely populated areas, they are faster so they may be more attractive to suicidal people and they run on a schedule so they are easier to access.
  • Class one companies and urban trains are more likely to be involved in rail suicides
  • Suicides occur when weather conditions are mild
  • This may be explained by the fact that people may not want to venture to uncomfortable environments to commit suicide
  • 40% of suicides occur at night
  • Critical incident that occurs at night may have a stronger impact on crew members
  • There are no clear hotspots in Canada. However, we were able to identify sensitive areas where more than one suicide occurred during the period covered by the study. A large portion of suicides took place in a sensitive area (45.2%). These areas were often located near a mental health facility (35.3%).
  • Strategies that would limit access to a specific area or which target a specific area will not be useful.

Who commits suicide by train?

Who commits suicide by train

There are several well researched risk factors for suicide in the general population, including mental health issues, substance abuse, social isolation and critical events occurring in the previous days. People who committed suicide by train show similar characteristics. However, due to the inconsistencies in data collection, we have to be careful in interpreting some of the findings.

  • Railway suicide is an adult phenomenon. Our sample only contains 6.9% adolescents.
  • This means that most of railway suicide prevention should be concerned with adult mental health and support systems.
  • Railway suicides vary according to gender. There are more men who commit suicide (3.3 men for 1 woman). However, when we compare the number of suicides among overall fatalities by gender, we observe that the percentage of female suicide among female fatalities is similar to the men’s (47.8% and 44.3%).
  • Women usually tend to use less violent methods than men, such as medications and men more often use more violent methods, such as a gun. A train suicide is considered to be a violent method.
  • Suicidal people are more likely to be living in delicate living situations. A relatively high proportion of suicides either lived alone (17.9%), in communal living (6.9%), in institutions (7.5%) or in temporary living situations (2.3%), for a total of 34.6%.
  • They are less likely to be employed (43% out of work)
  • They live with a partner as often as the general population, which is not the case for other suicidal populations. It is also interesting to note that men and women who committed suicide do not have the same pattern of marital status in our sample. As we find in the general population of people who die by suicide, more women who commit suicide by train are in a relationship (45.9%) than men (40.0%).
  • They do not live alone as much as the general population.
  • This means that there are people close to the individual at risk who may be able to identify a suicidal crisis, whether it is in a family or an institutional context.
  • People who commit suicide often live either very close to the tracks (less than 1km for 27.8%) or very far (more than 15km for 24.6%)
  • It is difficult to make sense of this data, because people who live further away may also be familiar with the area for other reasons
  • As is the case with most suicides, people who commit rail suicide usually experience problem situations in the day preceding their suicide, most often relationship problems, conflicts with parents and family, justice and police, financial difficulties, and substance abuse.
  • Mental health issues are often present, although probably underestimated as data on mental health problems is not systematically collected. Only 22% of individuals were under care for a mental health problem at the time of death.
  • A promising prevention strategy may be to provide better training of mental health professionasl to help them better identify patients at risk of suicide. Since there are more suicides when tracks are near mental health facilities, those facilities should be the focus of educational prevention efforts.
  • A high proportion of suicide victims made threats to kill themselves in the days before their death, of which almost half had said they would do it by train. A significant number of victims had made a previous attempt by train.
  • People who die by railway suicide resemble people who die by suicide using other methods. Therefore, universal suicide preventive strategies that target all suicidal persons should impact railway suicides. Since Canadian journalists have been exercising great restraint in reporting on railway suicides, in Canada the choice of a train as a suicide means probably is related to the accessibility of this method more than anything else.

The suicidal person's behaviour before impact 

The suicidal person's behaviour before impact

Information on the individuals behaviour around the tracks prior to putting themselves in front of a train could help devise strategies to limit access to tracks or identify at risk people in the areas around tracks and access points (legal and illegal crossings). However, this data is not available at the present time and may be very difficult to obtain in the future. Our description of behaviours immediately before impact does not suggest specific prevention strategies since the time between people putting themselves in front of the train and the time of impact is too short for effectively avoiding the impact.

Behaviour within 24 hours 

In order to better plan prevention strategies, it may be useful to know what people did in the hours before they died. The following table summarises information available in the coroners’ files about the whereabouts and behaviours of the suicidal people prior to their death.

Behaviour during the 24 hours prior to death N %
Substance use 116 45.8%
Contact with own social network 31 12.3%
Came with belongings or left belongings near the tracks 28 11.1%
Dispute with family or significant other 23 9.1%
Sudden emotional changes 22 8.7%
Stopped taking their medication 11 4.3%
Put their affairs in order, gave things away, left letters 10 4.0%
Problem with police or unlawful behaviour 7 2.8%
Fight or dispute 5 2.0%
Played chicken 1 0.4%
Had not slept 1 0.4%



Suicide victims are mainly pedestrians (94.4%) but this proportion varies by province, with the highest proportion of suicides involving a car in New Brunswick and Québec.

Behaviour on tracks

This information comes from descriptions by railway crew members when this information was included in the coroners’ reports. Since most suicides occur in places where there are no other direct witnesses, there is little information on this aspect of the incidents. However, reports indicate that suicide victims tend to run in front of the train, stand or sit on the tracks, lie down across or between the tracks, face the train and look at the driver or turn their back to the train. Some put their head on the track or put their arms out in a cross position. Some were observed walking along the tracks before stepping in front of the train. Activating the whistle does not entice them to move away. The following table gives some indication of the occurrence of the varied observed behaviour.