Can blue light make Britain's railways safer?

 

If you’ve caught a train to or from Gatwick Airport in the past month or two, you might have noticed an addition to the platforms – bright blue LED floodlights.

It’s an unusual choice for railway station lighting, but there’s a compelling reason behind it: this has been the worst year for suicides on train lines in the southeast of England.

Apart from the personal tragedy of deaths on the railway, this causes enormous disruption, delay and cost to train companies and travellers.

‘We’ve seen a fair increase in rail suicides over the past year and in recent months especially,’ says Terry Denyer, a senior asset engineer for Network Rail. ‘It’s a hugely traumatic thing, first and foremost obviously for the person doing it and their family. The expense and trauma involved is massive – closing the station, stopping the trains, turning off the electricity… There are millions in costs never mind the disruption to people trying to catch trains and so on.’

Station staff are trained to try to spot the signs and help people, but unfortunately it’s almost impossible to predict when or where these incidents will take place.

And as well as preventing suicides, Network Rail is looking at ways to reduce anti-social behaviour and littering at its stations, and has looked to Japan for a solution.

‘We looked at what they’ve done around the world,’ says Denyer, ‘and the leaders on this are the Chinese and the Japanese. They have a much higher suicide rate than us.’

On Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, blue lights were installed on platforms, starting in 2009, in response to a spate of suicides. There are several theories about why blue light reduces suicides (as well as crime, littering and anti-social behaviour) including its biological impact on our mood, the association with the emergency services, and simply the effect of something new and different.

 ‘After they installed the blue lights, suicides fell by 85 per cent,’ says Denyer. ‘They’ve also used them at level crossings, and anti-social behaviour and vandalism are down. They’re now looking at using it in motorway service stations.

‘They’ve done a lot of work on these blue lights, so rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, we followed their line.’

Network Rail’s own version of the blue lighting has been introduced to the platforms at Gatwick Airport, which are open 24 hours a day. ‘We realised you can’t buy a solution like this so we had to get one made,’ says Denyer. The 120W floodlights, which bathe the platforms in blue light but are carefully positioned to avoid dazzling train drivers, were custom made by Minimise Energy.

‘Our safety team has put a lot of work into making a better environment, a calmer environment,’ says Denyer.

Changes have also been made to the platforms to make them more pleasant and to introduce elements that distract and engage people, including more plants, and decorations including children’s drawings.

Denyer accepts the science behind why it works in Japan is hazy, with a number of possible explanations. But the results in Japan are clear. ‘The science can come later,’ he says. ‘It’s proven, in a way – it works in Japan. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if it stops one incident, then brilliant.

Monitoring the effects of the lights won’t be straightforward. ‘It’s difficult to measure whether it works – obviously we’re looking for fewer incidents, but they come in peaks and troughs,’ says Denyer. ‘We can record the number of incidents year on year, and if we’re able to get CCTV in there it might be able to tell us if someone has turned up to commit suicide but thought better of it. But it’s a hard thing to quantify.’