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What locomotive drivers rather don't talk about

by DoDo Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 10:55:06 AM EST

Yesterday, I was on a train that hit a car. The driver certainly died, but from the sparse reports, it is still unclear whether his passenger, who flew 50 metres, made it. From asking around I learnt however that we got into this accident after avoiding another.

I didn't write yesterday that a few stations back, our train was held up twice for five minutes and then sent on the opposite track. Now I'm told that that was because an old man, apparent suicide candidate, was spotted sitting on the rails of the correct track. (I am also told that there was a mass fight between passengers at another station after our accident.)

I thank everyone who expressed sympathies in the OT, but, as I tried to suggest there already, my shock must be minor compared to that of the locomotive driver. In this spirit, I dug up a quote from a documentary book.

Some context first.

From the sixties, for reasons the interested could read up on in my The 1956 Hungarian Revolution - Aftermath diary, media control in the dictatorship in Hungary wasn't total. A "support/tolerate/ban" classification was in place.

Documentary writer György Moldova got to swing between the first two categories. He never opposed the system, but he wrote 'undercover' reports about social misery that didn't officially exist in 'real-existing socialism', and that, unlike sociologists' papers, in a style well-readable for the wide public.

In 1975, he set out to explore the lives of railwaymen, at a time the railway was still not out of the steam age but already long in decay. The resulting book had a big impact, its title, Akit a mozdony füstje megcsapott... (c. "Who were hit by the locomotive's smoke") became a common catchphrase.

I quote two passages, then add stuff I was told on a railway forum yesterday. WARNING: these may be uncomfortable reading.

...At station Rákos, an old man sits on the rails, eating something from a canteen, he stands up without haste as the train nears, walks to the side, the locomotive's front passes by him at a distance of centimetres. Driver Tusor's nails are white from clenching his handle, but his face is almost unchanged.

"They're like this!" says K., the maintenance engineer.

"Is there some life-saving equipment on the locomotive, like the saving board on old trams?"

"No, there aint', and it would be hopeless anyway, the person would be hit so hard by the locomotive's front. It happened only once that a drunkard fell under the locomotive, we got off to check how many pieces the wheels cut him into, but he had such a damn luck, that the depression in the concrete sleepers was deeper than usual, and he had room in it. With phlegm, he took out his cigarette pack, and reached it out from under the train: 'light up one, chief!' "

The old locomotive driver swings his head:

"But against those who want to commit suicide, there is no defence against. Once, before Tatabánya, an old woman walked up and down besides the rails, we warned each other, four-five locos stopped for her, but the sixth ran her over."

"How many people have you hit?"

"Ten, none was my fault, but if only I would never get to remember them."

"But how people mention it!" says the train driver [a railwayman who is the boss of the train when in a station]. "After the disaster at Mende [1968, two trains collide], where thirty people died [43 actually, of which many children], I took a train which we couldn't properly heat, the passengers froze. We arrived in [Budapest] East Terminal, an old woman comes up to the drivers' cabin, knocks for me to open the window. 'What do you wish, Ma'am?' 'What I wish? That you fare like those guys at Mende.'

I should note, that at this time, Hungary led suicide statistics worldwide.

Suicides aren't included in the railway's mortality statistics, it's police matter, at most the bare numbers are recorded: in 1973, hundred-twenty-four, in 1974, hundred-twenty-one people finished their lives on railway right-of-way.

The Pushkin [express] runs towards Záhony [gauge-changing border station to the then USSR]; up in the driver's cabin, we talk about suicides.

"When do the most happen?"

"April–May, because of spring love-hurt, and after grape harvest, because of the wine."

"And where?"

"Everywhere in the whole country. But if I have to pick one area, then Tatabánya [then new coal miner city West of Budapest] and environs. Block 21 before Tatabánya is suicide den – the mine hires all kinds of people. Just the other day, a young man was coming towards us, with his coat pulled over his head, pacing between the rails, I even said to the train driver: 'This guy comes with such a force, he'll push us back to Komárom.' Then he died. I asked about him later, but policemen said I shouldn't care, it is enough to know that he had to do with them earlier."

I still can't get it:

"He walked towards the train between the rails, with coat on his head?! How could he have wanted death so much?"

"It's the most determined suicide jumpers who pick the railway, here they can't get through it with a stomach-pump."

"How many people have you hit so far, Mr. driver [<-common railwayman phrase]?"

"Eighteen or twenty over twenty-five years. The last time I hit a twenty-year-old woman before Tápiószele, she walked besides the rails, then suddenly threw herself before the train."

"Does a man make a big thump?"

"It can be barely felt. The locomotive is very strong [structurally], cuts them up or presses them together. The machine usually undresses those hit, their coat hangs on the locomotive."

"Can a driver ask for replacement after such a run-over?"

"He can, but I won't get myself nervous. The railway's way of thinking is that only the train has its place between the rails."

"But were you never shocked by an accident?"

"Once in my life. I drove towards Békéscsaba, the weed grew high near the right rail, I didn't notice that a third-year-old girl was playing in it. I couldn't stop, passed her, and ran back, to look after her: she was unhurt, she only cried after her doll, which the train's wind tore from her hands."

"Why was it just this one that had an impact on you?"

"Because my daughter was around three at this same time."

All the other drivers I asked were more taken by suicides and run-overs. Some don't eat for days after the accident, others show their nervous tension later. A locomotive driver from Szeged ran over a dispatcher on station B. who jumped between the rails hand-in-hand with his lover; then nothing could be seen on the driver, he continued with the train, but two weeks later, he ran over a hare, and then he got a nervous break-down, and tore at his own face with his fingernails.

If such affairs come up, the drivers go white while talking about them, even years later:

"When the machine came, the old man sat there on the right rail, throwing an elongated shadow, but he couldn't get up in time. the train threw him against an electric pylon."

"A man lay down on the rails, I noticed it two-three hundred metres in advance, but I couldn't do anything any more, I took the train with hundred-twenty [km/h], brake distance is almost a kilometre. The man knew that, he looked up at me in the drivers' cabin, and put out his tongue at me."

Linca said yesterday that in France, after a train driver still under the effect of hitting someone caused another accident, it was made a rule that drivers involved in a deadly accident must take a break.

I am told there is no similar rule in Hungary, it's only that drivers themselves can ask for a break. However, that's still better than until two decades ago, when drivers were supposed to be psychologically strong and get over it, and if someone requested a break, his bosses would try to find a health reason to fire him permanently. And that not for the lack of events similar to the French one.

One guy wrote me about investigating a still not fully explained collision in 1966. Two days earlier, one of the drivers ran over a railwayman. It happened that his train driver knew the deceased, and confronted the locomotive driver about it. Who explained he couldn't do anything about it, but was at the end of his nerves. In 1966, that was enough to chose him as the culprit for the collision.

The same guy also wrote about an exception: a driver who hit two men at a road crossing, then continued to his destination, then took another train back, and hit a third man at the very same road crossing. The bosses had the sense to immediately remove this driver from active duty and give him a depot job.

However, the physically unhurt driver of the locomotive that hit a German tourist bus that ignored the red lights, killing 33, is a nervous wrack to this day (it happened four years ago).

:: :: :: :: ::

Check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.

This is on the margin of this discussion, too.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 11:00:42 AM EST
I decided not to mention this yesterday, but, at a station I was at from time to time three or four years ago, I witnessed a suicide like that. "Witnessed" doesn't mean I saw the impact, it was a hundred or so yards from the station on a crossing and it was twilight. Just the incoming train braked suddenly and stopped on the crossing. The police and fire brigade were called, the line was closed both ways, lights were set up. A good hour went by while traffic built up at the crossing, and passengers in the station. Cars honked and passengers complained about the delay and called home on their mobiles to say they didn't know when they'd be back. Someone, one of those people who always knows everything, said it happened quite often on that crossing, it was easy to stay hidden and jump out at the last moment. Then it took time for the rescue team to be sure they had all the pieces. And they also had to wait for a new driver, because the one that had just happened to would be replaced.

It's easy to understand how drivers can be haunted by this. It's clear that in most cases they are not going to be able to stop the train in time so they are helpless as someone gets splattered. And the thought of the mental state of a person who is willing to use subterfuge to be sure of getting the death they are aiming at, and why that particular one, the crushing by the juggernaut, which would repel most people, attracts some.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 12:42:41 PM EST
Certainly here, we are more likely to read about children who have been killed when playing on the tracks or people taking short cuts, but suicides are rarely mentioned unless the family of those who have died try to raise awareness. I suppose it makes me think that it isn't much of an issue here but that isn't necessarily the case at all, it just remains hidden.

Thanks for the diary DoDo.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 12:59:23 PM EST
I think the problem for drivers has become worse since steam. On a steam loco the visibility forward wasn't actually very good; I am aware that many drivers would never know anything about an impact till the police would come around a couple of days later.

Now the driver has a good view down a mile of track and can see the impact, be helpless to prevent it in the few, but seemingly endless seconds before impact. And often at the speeds of moden expresses, a person is not merely felled by the impact, they explode covering the windscreen with blood. Drivers who experience such things are rarely left without trauma.

there was a programme broadcast about the issue a couple of years back in the UK, it showed one suicide  captured on a security camera. I wish I had not seen that: however much tho' I felt for the person killed, I simply couldnt' imagine how the driver felt in that instance, he must have seen her for fully 15 seconds. apparently he couldn't work for a month.

Awful. It's abad business

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 01:29:42 PM EST
Thanks for highlightening this DoDo.

Here in Belgium we have a very dense railroad network and  suicides occur frequently.

Train drivers here, notwithstandig the big words of the big bosses, are to often treated like shit. It starts already with the brutal and unsensitive police-interrogation as if they blame the drivers for the (over)work they have to do.

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)

by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 01:56:08 PM EST
This is quite a problem in Germany too:

Eisenbahnen der Eifel: Strecke Euskirchen - Bonn Railroads in the Eifel: Euskirchen - Bonn Line
Nicht weniger als drei Personen begingen statistisch jeden Tag
auf den Schienen in Deutschland Selbstmord, so der Bahnsprecher. "Im August
waren es allein in Nordrhein-Westfalen 29, im September 25 und in den ersten
Oktobertagen zirka 15."
Statistically, no less than three people commit suicide on the rails in Germany every day, the railroad spokesperson said. "In August [2001] there were 29 in North Rhine-Westphalia along, 25 in September and around 15 in the first days of October."

My understanding is that the drivers receive counseling, but I can't find a reference right now.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt t gmail dotcom) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 02:07:57 PM EST
I recall a figure of just about one suicide per locomotive driver per career for Germany. But it may have worsened. The above figure looks similar to those seventies Hungary figures (there is an order of magnitude difference between population, train and locomotive driver staff numbers).

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 05:06:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Doing a quick off-hand calculation, 30,000 drivers, 30 year careers, 1000 suicides/year would give oe hit per driver per career.

Here is an interesting study for those who can read German. It analysed the 5731 railway suicides from 1997 to 2002. Intersting factoids:

  • While East Germany has a higher suicide rate, for railway suicide, it's just the opposite
  • there is indeed an increase in railway suicides over time
  • 75% of the 16 chronic spots along the network were near psychiatric institutes

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 05:17:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That last point is the same everywhere, I'd guess. At least the Dutch track that passes Castricum and Heiloo is infamous as well. Don't know if there's research on that, just something I heard a lot.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 06:05:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
one hit per driver per career.

Recently saw swedish statistics and they were about the same.

Speaking of statistics I started to wonder about suicide statistics and checked wikipedia.

List of countries by suicide rate - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

This list should be used with caution. Little data is available documenting suicide rates in Africa, and the Middle East. Even in countries where cause-of-death data is collected systematically, differing societal attitudes toward suicide may impact the recorded figures (e.g., misreporting a suicide as an accidental death out of deference for the bereaved). Also, due to the highly corrupt police forces in Eastern Europe, many murders are written off as suicides.

I thought there was something fishy with the egyptians never commiting suicide.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 05:58:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, due to the highly corrupt police forces in Eastern Europe, many murders are written off as suicides.

Heh. Someone should plaster this full with [reference needed] tags...

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

by DoDo on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 02:39:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I recall a report a few years ago in similar vein, about East Asian countries, with some first disclosed statistics quoted from China that put it in undisputed first place.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 02:41:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
BTW, just checked: the suicide rate of Hungary today is about half of the maximum in the late seventies-eighties.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 02:45:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dodo, thank you for the diary. I'm sorry to hear about what happened yesterday (just catching up on diaries now).
by lychee on Sat Nov 24th, 2007 at 07:56:56 PM EST
A train hits someone every two hours in the U.S.

Almost always, suicide victims peer into the locomotive cab in their final moments. They stare right into the eyes of the engineer, perhaps reaching for a last human connection.


A related problem in the U.S. is accidents at level crossings. In rural areas there are frequent unprotected road crossings, and train-car accidents are pretty common.

I was on a train a year ago that hit a car; luckily the driver was only slightly injured (the front of the car was completely demolished), but the train crew had to fill out police paperwork and we were delayed for several hours. I looked at the front of the engine afterwards and there was one small scratch on the snowplow. Accident report is at

On my trip from Chicago to Denver today, we only had the problem of a freight train derailment ahead of us, which resulted in an unexpected 50 km bus ride...

by asdf on Sun Nov 25th, 2007 at 07:14:12 PM EST
On my trip home to Chicago this summer, a train hit & killed someone.  We were delayed for hours before they finally informed us of the tragedy & said we could not move until the police were done with the investigation.  It was a very long night...

"Pretending that you already know the answer when you don't is not actually very helpful." ~Migeru.
by poemless on Mon Nov 26th, 2007 at 01:06:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
On a side note, references to this Mende accident is almost inexistent on the net. It was published it the papers in its time in 1968, or it was swept under the carpet?
by Deni on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 12:18:15 PM EST
No, that accident received high publicity, little coverage is more due to sparse archived material and limited for-free access to it -- plus the under-development of web presence in Hungary relative to Western Europe.

For example, railfan magazine Indóház's Dec 2006 issue had an article on it, but the web version is just a short abstract and the photo below:

Tis MS Word document, a summary of rail accidents from 1961 to 1970, has more than a page on it (in Hungarian).

I know of one major accident that was swept under the carpet: the tragedy of Herend/Veszprém on 22 January 1983. There were a lot of wild rumours spreading around -- I first heard of it from a taxi driver a few years ago, who used to be a railway accident specialist back then, but even he relied partially on rumours, as the soldiers kept them away until the corpses were removed -- he only saw the bloodied walls. But I now found an authoritative account.

It happened at the end of a major Warshaw Pact military exercise in the Bakony mountains. Recruits were loading equipment back on railcars at station Herend. A unit of c. 100 that finished faster was allowed by rule-breaking political officers to go to sleep in three crew cars. But those weren't secured yet, and began to roll downhill. Dispatchers began feverishly to clear its way, but they were too late with a freight train arriving to station Veszprém 14 km downhill. The latter drove at c. 30-40 km/h, the escaped cars rolled with 130-140 km/h (e.g. 100 km/h collision speed), with most onboard asleep and those awake not unsuspecting what happened.

9 dead on the spot, many seriously hurt, unknown number dead in hospital. The sparse official report admitted five dead. The accident specialist turned taxi driver assumed dozens of dead, and told the rumor that the victims were high-ranked Soviet officers -- but apparently less was enough for secrecy.

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

by DoDo on Wed Nov 28th, 2007 at 01:24:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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