TRESPASSING and suicides on railway lines resulted in more than 3600 fatalities on Europe's railway network in 2012, representing 88% of all deaths. Excluding suicides, unauthorised persons accounted for 58% of all people killed that year, and in Finland eight people were killed on average every year between 2006 and 2011 after trespassing on tracks, which is around 50% of the country's total accidental railway fatalities.

Level crossing FinlandTrespassing accidents are defined as accidental collisions resulting in death or injury between trains and people whose presence on the railway is not authorised. Trespassers cross railways at places not marked for that purpose (away from level crossings) or are walking or loitering illegally on the tracks or the railway outside of designated pedestrian areas.

Preventing trespassing is a challenge. While it is illegal and punishable with a fine in Finland, with a largely-unfenced 6000km network, and with railways often dividing communities, shopping areas and schools in urban communities, people are regularly tempted to cross the tracks. Clear and regularly used footpaths across railway lines have emerged in many places, making it safe to assume that trespassing is frequent.

While countermeasures have been introduced to deter people from trespassing, there is little published research evaluating the effectiveness of these interventions. As a result, two pilot tests led by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland were conducted within the framework of a European Restrail project, which was coordinated by the International Union of Railways, to look at a warning system and enhancing education to prevent trespassing. This research initiative, which concluded in October 2014 and formed part of the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme, aimed to reduce the occurrence of suicides and trespassing on railway property and the costly disruptions to services that tend to follow these events.

The first project looked at introducing a system of camera enforcement and sound warnings in areas where illegal crossings have developed due to pedestrians routinely taking a short-cut across the railway. The system was implemented at two sites in southern Finland where trespassers were detected by cameras equipped with motion sensors. Upon detection the person was given a warning by loudspeaker: "Attention! You are illegally in a railway area. Please leave immediately!" The aim was to reduce the number of pedestrians crossing at that location to reduce the risk of people being hit by a train.

The effect on the frequency of trespassing was calculated by comparing trespasser counts before and after the implementation. Trespassers were observed by automatic cameras that took a series of pictures whenever movement was detected on the footpath crossing the railway. Observations were made 24 hours a day, at location A for 47 days before and 67 days after the implementation, and at location B for 15 days before and 54 days after.

At location A, 829 trespassers were observed during the period before and 688 in the period after. At location B the respective numbers were 267 and 782. Following the installation of the system, the average number of trespassers per day at location A was reduced from 17.6 to 10.0, and at location B from 17.8 to 14.5. In other words the calculated effect was a 44% reduction at location A (-38%/-50%) and an 18% reduction at location B (-6%/-30%).

Clear reduction

These results show a clear reduction in the frequency of trespassing at both sites and indicate that the measure worked as intended. However, because no control site was included in the study, the effect reflected not only the intervention but included the effects of other possible factors such as changes in people's needs to cross the railway due to the time of the year and the weather. It seems likely that the detected effect represents the upper boundaries of the real effect of the measure rather than the long-term effects of possible similar installations. We assume that this is because at both pilot tests sites the conditions for walking were less favourable because of fewer daylight hours and colder weather in the after periods than in the before periods.

The large difference found between test sites also indicates that the effect depends greatly on local circumstances, and perhaps also on the safety culture of the society in general. For example, the effect can depend on the motives for illegal crossing and the distance to alternative safe and legal crossing facilities.

Several previous studies from Silla (2012), Lobb et al (2001) and Pelletier (1997) acknowledged that people have a variety of reasons for being on railway land. Pedestrians who take the short-cut as part of their daily exercise can be assumed to change their route more easily than people who hurry to work in the morning. It is also easier to take another route when a safe and legal crossing place is nearby than if it is far away.

Camera enforcement combined with a sound warning is best suited to locations where trespassing is concentrated in a limited area, such as a footpath across the railway. Here trespasser detection is more reliable and sound warnings are less likely to disturb people who are not trespassing.

As a result, anyone considering implementing a similar measure is advised to use an expected effect of the reduction of trespassing of between 10% and 30%, depending on local circumstances, especially the distance to alternative legal crossing facilities.

Improving education

The second project emphasised improving education and awareness of level crossing safety in schools. This involved a 45-minute lesson on safe behaviour in a railway environment for 8-11 year-olds attending four schools located near railway lines in Tampere. The underlying message was that railway lines are only meant for trains. Following the lesson the children should have understood the main characteristics of railway traffic, that trespassing, playing and loitering in railway areas is forbidden, and that they are responsible for behaving safely in a railway environment.

The effect of the school education campaign was evaluated based on a short survey directed at pupils before the lesson (base level) and around 2-3 months later (post-lesson). The short surveys were delivered by teachers based on instructions written by the researchers and measured three variables which are considered as strong determinants of actual behaviour: behaviour intention, estimated dangers of the behaviour, and level of knowledge on the legality of the behaviour. The questions were linked to three locations and the children were allowed to respond anonymously. The answers (base line and post-lesson) were matched at class level, with only the answers of classes that had participated in both surveys included in the overall analysis.

The matched dataset included 496 answers - 248 base level surveys and 248 post-lesson surveys. The results show that railway safety education in schools has a positive effect for all the measured variables. Specifically, the following changes were obtained:

  • behaviour intention: the share of "correct" answers was fairly high already in the before phase (72.2%-94.8%), and rose no more than 2.5 percentage units in the after phase
  • estimated danger: the proportion of "correct" answers in the base line survey varied between 75.4% and 93.9%. In the after phase this rose by between 2.4 and 6.9 percentage units, the highest change relating to the location with a level crossing, and
  • knowledge on legality: the share of correct answers in the base line survey varied between 64.2% and 98.4%, the highest share concerning the crossing of railway lines at the location with the hole in the fence. The rise in the share of correct answers varied between -1.1 and 6.0 percentage units, with the highest change concerning the location with a level crossing.

 According to the results, a sizeable majority of the children had a reasonably adequate perception of the dangers, and their behaviour reflected their perception even before the lesson.

Even though the positive changes were rather small the results indicate that these changes can reduce the frequency of trespassing and as a result trespassing accidents in that area. It may well be that the size of the effect depends on the children's base level understanding of the dangers related to railway lines; in schools located near railway lines it is expected to be better than in schools located further away. Nonetheless it is always useful to review the topic so children maintain their awareness of these dangers.

A similar railway safety education programme could be implemented in other European countries, given that the main safety message is valid everywhere. However, the material should be adjusted to comply with local circumstances.

The results of these Finnish pilot tests show a positive impact on reducing trespassing. Together with the results of other Restrail pilots, they will be displayed in the Restrail toolbox, which will include a wide variety of measures for the prevention of railway suicides and trespassing accidents in different circumstances.