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."
"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).
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