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Death by Train

by Nomad Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 10:39:08 AM EST

Always the sounds, haunting.

The thud made me pause in midsentence. Not because the sound was loud or sharp, but because it was so unknown - there was a softness to it, almost cushioned. I'd never heard it before; the cabin of the train lightly swayed.

We were discussing nonsense, the design of cookies, and the fast train to The Hague had accelerated to top speed since leaving Leiden. Outside the window I could see the concrete platforms of a local train station rushing by. The sight condensed fear already jumping my mind.


Next, a micro-second later, the confirmation of horror. A noisy rattling, like stone pebbles tapping underneath at the floor of the train. And above that, a sharp, piercing grinding, glass marbles ground underneath by great weights.

The train was braking sharply. Sitting across me, my girlfriend mirrored my own posture; hands clasped before mouth and nose below eyes reflecting the same knowledge, the same horror. It wasn't pebbles, marbles.

The sounds faded, the train halted in the dark night. Blissful silence. Definite silence.

The night and dark outside was welcome now. The mind flutters while the heart pounds. My first instinct was to seize my bag and pace further back, into another cabin. Walk into ignorance, into a cabin where I wouldn't know what was underneath me. Even touching the floor with my shoes revolted me.

Passengers around us began to complain about the idiocy of people throwing rocks at trains. S. read the bafflement on my face. ,,They don't understand,'' she apologized for them, standing up. ,,It's denial. The mind can't take it." But why could our minds?

Ahead, the driver had come out of its steering cabin. Head bent, he was leaning against the passenger doors of the train, rubbing his temples. S. was about to go to him, when the conductor passed, a woman in her early forties. Large, hasty steps, jaded look. She ignored the burble of questions raised at her; I pitied her immediately.

Every year more than 180 people in the Netherlands commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of a train. Death by train forms over ten percent of all registered suicides per annum.

Numbers differ per assessed organisation about the exact amount of suicides. Statistics Netherlands (CBS), the national register, reports different numbers than the inspecting agency of the responsible ministry (ILenT). The European Railway Agency (ERA) also uses these figures, likely provided by the ministerial agency.

I'm lost to explain why CBS counts suicides differently; their numbers of suicides by train are consistently lower.

CBS noted a total of 1500 suicides in 2003, of which 163 by train or metro. The ministerial inspection, the official body to register suicides by train in The Netherlands, noted 175 cases of suicide that same year.

While in the past 20 years there is little to no trend in the total number of suicides or in the number of train-suicides (from either dataset), data from the last available years (2010 and 2011) show the highest total number of suicides in 20 years. Subsequently, 2011 also was the year with the highest number of suicides by train in nearly 20 years.


Total suicides and suicides by train over the period 2003 - 2011. Source: Statistics Netherlands.

For train personnel, experiencing a suicide is a lottery. One driver never experienced one suicide during a career of forty years; another once had two in one week. It's always the eyes that haunt them, they say. People always look straight at you, the driver, when they jump.

There's a strict protocol when dealing with 'a collision with a person', as the euphemistic term puts it. On a passenger's train, it's the conductor who has a legal obligation to open the doors, climb outside, confirm the collision and walk back to search for the hit person, to establish if medical assistance needs to be offered or cover the remains before the clean-up team arrives. The driver, already exposed to psychological trauma, stays inside and warns the authorities.

Recently, a Dutch conductor raised a brief protest about this practice. He had experienced suicide by train 14 times now and was sitting at home, traumatised. In some instances of suicide, you can already know on forehand there can't be any help offered anymore, he argued.  The same news show also presented research numbers that more than a fifth of the personnel, having experienced a suicide, suffers psychological traumas.

One issue is that there are also people who jump in front of a train and survive, brutally inflicted and wounded. Whether they want it or not, they require medical assistance. From the over 6000 attempts to commit suicide since the 1980s, more than 500 survived.

The intercom crackled. We heard the conductor's voice, a bit too steadfast to be true, confirming the collision. Passengers voiced protests of disbelief and dismay. When the conductor reappeared, her face was taut. A young man, early twenties, began to fire urgent questions at her: he really needed to be in The Hague soon, when could they leave? S. intervened, brought the man to his seat, told him the reality that it could take hours. His mother was in hospital, he explained. He had had no idea.

Time passed. The rush from adrenalin wore thin, the heart slowly quieted. Faster than expected, the men in reflective clothing passed our windows outside the train; I could hear their footsteps. Big men, men with moustaches and loud voices, men with eyes that have seen too much.

On a track to the right of our train, another train had come to a stop. Passenger doors of both trains had opened, we were carried across from our train into the other, a big step across the night without touching the dark ground. Nearly two hours later we reached the empty platforms of The Hague. All the connecting trains had parted.

Per year, some four to five million Euros are lost because of train suicides in the Netherlands, the Dutch ministry has calculated. Apparently, they've only tallied the costs of the clean-up and the undertaker. Whether there also is a figure on the financial damage the train companies and network operator ProRail suffer remains unknown to me. Information on the psychological damage under their personnel seem to be kept guarded.

End last year, network operator ProRail, responsible for the Dutch train infrastructure, repeated its (annual) intentions to redesign accessibility of specific high risk locations which are infamous as a spot for jumping in front of trains. The operator fenced with a sum of three million Euros for redesigning accessibility the coming years. The infamous locations were kept secret.

I'd bet that one of these infamous locations is a local train station, halfway between Leiden and The Hague. It was the third suicide at that location in 2012.

The grinding noise had lodged inside my head, repeating over and over again; I would hear it for days on end.

Display:
past November. It took me a number of weeks to feel the stress slowly drain away; it helped to write down the experience and do some research on a rather grizzly topic in an attempt to rationalize a phenomenon I can barely fathom.
by Nomad on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 10:46:51 AM EST
I sympathize, I cannot imagine how it feels, how you feel.

But a good diary about a subject we would mostly pretend didn't exist.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 11:01:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What is the point of writing diaries on ET?

Excellent writing, as usual, but I'm sorry about the harrowing experience.

I distribute. You re-distribute. He gives your hard-earned money to lazy scroungers. -- JakeS

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 02:34:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I did the same five years ago, after I sat on a train that hit a car, when I wrote a diary on how running over people is experienced by locomotive drivers. This was after a little more than one year of being a daily commuter by train. Since then, I sat on the train during two suicides, and passed a third. Then one evening late last year, my train stopped on open track with emergency braking, then first the driver and the conductor, then police walked along its entire length with a flashlight, only to conclude after half an hour that the driver must have been mistaken because there was no corpse to be found (the conductor told me later). I think I grew jaded after so many events.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 05:15:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Those are some nasty experiences DoDo, sorry to hear. I do remember reading your first post, I was still rumbling around in South Africa at the time, but it looks I missed reading the ones that followed.

I tried responding about your comment about getting jaded, but it became an incoherent ramble. Perhaps a next time I can outline my tumble of thoughts...

by Nomad on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 09:22:46 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I should note that (1) my jadedness goes along with that "these aren't suicide victims but suicide culprits" attitude in one of my old comments, (2) I'm in no doubt that doing what the locomotive driver and the conductor have to do, checking for remains, would be a real shock.

BTW, you having mentioned South Africa, here is something completely different: have you heard of Rodriguez (or just heard his music) while there?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 02:54:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting bio, interesting voice too. But no, he was completely unknown to me until now. Sounds like the kind of music popular for on the road, and enjoyed mostly by Afrikaners.

With all due respect, it sounds old school, and most Afrikaners I met were all hooked on the popular international pop/rock bands, with the whole spectre of familiar names - from Muse to The Killers and what not. I found (South) African music, including a pinch of artists performing in Afrikaans, more interesting to explore. And if you use taxi's for transportation as I did, there's no escaping kwaito in all its eardrum rupturing manifestations...

by Nomad on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 07:24:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I remember a documentary on TV about train drivers who couldn't hold down their jobs anymore because of the trauma. Among other things they talked about the memory of the barbecue-like smell produced by the hot brakes. Apparently people need time off and counseling right away. Conductors too.

Once I sat in a train that was just starting when the driver hit the emergency brake. Some imbecile, a guy in his late twenties (he really seemed mentally deficient), tried to catch the departing train by crossing the tracks right in front of it. The driver or the conductor (don't remember exactly who), extremely agitated, started yelling at the idiot's face, something about having to pick up human pieces, and threw his keys around. He had just been back from some time off after a deadly incident. The idiot was left with the police who had been called and after a half an hour the train left.

by epochepoque on Sat Jan 12th, 2013 at 02:55:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I think I've smelled that too - but wasn't sure whether it was a nasty figment of my imagination... My girlfriend has a better nose than I have, and didn't notice it at the time.

Without pointing fingers, I've been surprised since that the train company had so little to no outreach to passengers on possible trauma. Nor did I get the impression that there was a ready-made script for the passengers transported away from the scene - hundreds of people were dumped on a deserted train station, all connecting trains had left, not announcements or supervision were made, it took another hour (3 hours after the incident) before an alternative shuttle was arranged. For a company that deals with hundreds of suicides per year, it all took me as surprising, in retrospect.

by Nomad on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 09:30:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The lack of a psychological approach towards the passengers is indeed surprising, if there is a (however imperfect) policy for crew. But the traffic situation might be an indcation of other things: a lean operation with little or no emergency consists where the default is to expect stranded passengers to board the next train (even if it is already full), a system in which those stranded with the last train of the day fare especially bad.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 03:13:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In addition to suicides and crazy drivers, the third group of casualties I'm more angry at than symphatetic is people with total disregard of basic traffic and safety rules, so basic I remember learning them in first elementary. Almost five years ago, I wrote another diary on this with some case studies (thankfully none of them personally witnessed). I'm still non-plussed about most of those cases. Then again, having re-read the 1975 book quote in my above linked diary from a year earlier, I see such basic disregard is not exclusive to the youth of today (I mean that old man having his meal sitting on the rail and standing up just in time).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 03:03:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I remember reading a steam driver's reminiscences once and he remarked, rather darkly, that the advantage of steam was that, particularly at night, you'd often not even be aware you'd hit anyone.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 11:03:12 AM EST
It sounds the same in NJ Transit.

Information on the psychological damage under their personnel seem to be kept guarded.

You might want to check early retirement figures. I remember reading a long time ago a claim that this is the reason for the very high figures for the DB.

by gk (g k quattro due due sette "at" gmail.com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 11:03:58 AM EST
I was about to suggest comparing to combat veterans (where the Americans have compiled a rather compelling statistical base for drawing conclusions). But your idea is probably better.

- Jake

Austerity can only be implemented in the shadow of a concentration camp.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 11:28:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I seem to recall being told the London Underground had a policy of immediately getting the driver out of there.

Not the same situation as an overland train: there's always someone else around (and close) to handle things.


-----
sapere aude

by Number 6 on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 12:09:57 PM EST
The French railways have the same policy, after an accident happened to a driver who had similarly witnessed a suicide.

As far as I know, for Paris Metro drivers, seeing a suicide in a career is pretty much a certainty.

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Jan 13th, 2013 at 07:08:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
DoDo wrote about this some years back: What locomotive drivers rather don't talk about.

I contributed in that thread, a brief account of my own experience. Not from within the train, but waiting on the platform not far away. Not a memory to dwell on.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 12:17:49 PM EST
Doesn't sound pleasant.

Just like DoDo's comment, your comment also reminds me that I could've perused ET as well as source. After so many years, ET is not just a place for analysis and learning, it also has become a resource for information.

by Nomad on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 10:15:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
for the Union Pacific in the Winter of 1965-66 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We seemed to kill one or two folks per week at unmarked, ranch-road crossings - not suicides apparently. 100-car freight trains going 120 km/h take over a kilometer to stop on level ground.

I was based at the Cheyenne yard so wasn't personally involved, but, while I was training on the Denver to Cheyenne run, a train ran through a gasoline tanker truck. My recollection is that two crew died, too.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 01:15:55 PM EST
There's a strict protocol when dealing with 'a collision with a person', as the euphemistic term puts it. On a passenger's train, it's the conductor who has a legal obligation to open the doors, climb outside, confirm the collision and walk back to search for the hit person, to establish if medical assistance needs to be offered or cover the remains before the clean-up team arrives. The driver, already exposed to psychological trauma, stays inside and warns the authorities.

There doesn't appear to be such a protocol in Hungary. In the first train suicide in which I was 'involved' as passenger, it was the driver who climbed down but only took a glance at the front of the train, the rest was for police/ambulance (then again, this was in a town). In the second case and the "third case" (when the driver was mistaken, see upthread), the driver and conductor both got down to check for remains.

End last year, network operator ProRail, responsible for the Dutch train infrastructure, repeated its (annual) intentions to redesign accessibility of specific high risk locations which are infamous as a spot for jumping in front of trains. The operator fenced with a sum of three million Euros for redesigning accessibility the coming years. The infamous locations were kept secret.

I'd bet that one of these infamous locations is a local train station, halfway between Leiden and The Hague. It was the third suicide at that location in 2012.

Of course, fencing won't help in the case of the station platforms among the high-risk sites. On metros at least platform doors help.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Fri Jan 11th, 2013 at 05:30:16 PM EST

An example from the London tube. Skip to 5:50.

by epochepoque on Sat Jan 12th, 2013 at 03:22:15 PM EST
I wish it were subtitled... I can understand maybe every third word.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sun Jan 13th, 2013 at 09:33:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I forgot: the suicide case is shown at 46:30.
by epochepoque on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 02:42:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It seems to me that there is an interesting phenomenon here that applies across a wide range of topics. Basically, what was an acceptable risk level in the past may not be acceptable in the future.

  • Sailing ships. 100 years ago there were still square-rigged ships where people had to climb hundreds of feet into the air to work the lines, in bad conditions--night, winter, storms--without safety lines.

  • War. Western soldiers now expect to have body armor in addition to helmets and boots.

  • Railroad locomotives. Sure, a big old steam engine is "fun," but would would actually want to work in one nowadays, with no cab temperature control, lousy signaling, no visibility whatsoever...not to mention the problem of people on the tracks.

  • Cars, where the death rate in the 1930s was astounding.

So a technical solution like a subway platform or a railroad ROW or a highway or the observation deck on a skyscraper or the failsafe system in an elevator--anything related to safety--that might have been acceptable in the past now becomes unacceptable. That cost must be taken into account for future designs, and as a retrofit cost for existing systems.

New subways have barriers so you can't fall on the rails. You could do that with train platforms, also. The ROW could be protected throughout its length--at considerable cost. If there's enough money, you can always find a way to improve the safety of a system.

I wonder whether this effect is going to be the end of cars. Since they are so deadly, at some point--maybe as a result of the gun debate in the U.S.--the question will come up "why are we building more of these slaughterhouse roads when we could build trains instead?"

Not to mention football/soccer; the game will change considerably when heading is inevitably outlawed...

by asdf on Mon Jan 14th, 2013 at 05:31:27 PM EST
Interesting.

In Sweden, deaths by cars has gone down considerably the laste decades as a result of a zero (deaths) vision. It has been a pragmatic policy that has aimed at reducing the most dangerous areas first, and with a wide range of options on actions. Roads with lots of casualities has been rebuilt on a large scale, there has been more sobriety checks and speeding cameras and also physical safety improvements in cars.

I think it was around 1500 dead in traffic a year in the 60ies, which has come down to 296 last year (think that is all traffic). Trains kill around 100 a year and a similar policy has gone into affect there, aiming as a first step to cut that by 50% between 2010 and 2020.

In general I would say that the success has stimulated demands for a zero policy in other areas like suicides which remain around 1000 a year. Sweden has btw an average suicide rate, contrary to myths anyone might have read.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Jan 15th, 2013 at 07:47:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Though Sweden does have a new approach to attempted suicide by train.
A cleaner stole an empty commuter train from a depot and drove it to a suburb of Stockholm where it derailed and slammed into an apartment building, officials have said.

The woman was seriously injured in the early-morning crash and was flown to a Stockholm hospital, police spokesman Lars Bystrom said. No one else was injured.

by gk (g k quattro due due sette "at" gmail.com) on Tue Jan 15th, 2013 at 07:51:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Technical inquiry is done, and though still unconscious the cleaner has been cleared of all charges. The prosecutor is now proceeding with an investigation into breach of worker safety regulations, but says it will crucial to question the cleaner. So not much will happen before she wakes up. Union says it is not the first time the company has jumped the gun.

Since breaches of worker safety regulations are less exciting then someone stealing a train, I guess this will not make the international media.

A vote for PES is a vote for EPP! A vote for EPP is a vote for PES! Support the coalition, vote EPP-PES in 2009!

by A swedish kind of death on Sat Jan 19th, 2013 at 05:05:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"War time mentality" is what office racing enthusiasts call it. Was around until the 1970's at least.


-----
sapere aude
by Number 6 on Tue Jan 15th, 2013 at 07:54:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A very close buddy of mine lost his fiance to this method in Switzerland, fall 2011. Too terrible to contemplate. It took him a long time to recover from this...but he is feeling better, moving forward. A very sad story this...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Jan 16th, 2013 at 11:26:38 PM EST


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