I made it to Brighton last night, safe and well and in good time. It seems the flooding was finally fixed early yesterday morning and my train was neither delayed nor re-routed. I even got here in time for dinner. Having a look at facebook while I was on the train I saw a friend of mine had posted a story from the Independent about suicides on the railways, which are sadly on the increase, and the cold and unsympathetic response they often receive from the travelling public.
A few years ago when I was external examiner, I was on a train from Nottingham to Cambridge going to an examiners meeting at the University of Cambridge. I had a window seat near the front of the carriage on the right hand side. Just outside Peterborough, the train was on a curved stretch of track so I could see the line in front of us. There was a level crossing with the barriers down and cars waiting either side. I could see quite clearly a female figure standing in the middle of the crossing but as the train got closer to her she vanished from view, obscured by the train. I heard the train’s warning signal and, seconds later, the driver shouted out “Oh No..”.
There was a horrible thump and the train lurched as it travelled over something that had gone underneath. The gruesome sound of a human body being sliced apart by metal wheels is something I’ll never forget. The train came to a halt, and the driver opened the door to his compartment. I could see that blood had sprayed over the front window. The poor driver looked like a ghost. He sat down, shocked. He said that when he sounded the alarm the lady had turned and walked along the track towards the train. She looked directly into his eyes as the train hit her.
Eventually, perhaps an hour later, transport police and an ambulance arrived at the scene and a replacement driver was brought to us; train drivers can never carry on after such an event. Some even have to quit the job. A police chaplain came too. The police and ambulance people collected the remains, made measurements, interviewed various people who had seen what happened and declared it a suicide. We moved to the next station, March, and got off onto the platform, the front of the train quickly hidden from us by a large piece of white canvas.
There had been time for the transport policemen to talk to the passengers who were all, like me, rattled by the experience. They (the police) had been through this all before, they said. That particular level crossing was a place people came to specifically for that reason. Nobody could say why there and not somewhere else. Apparently it’s the same on the London Underground. Some stations have many suicides of people jumping in front of trains, others virtually none. Who can say why.
Suicides are not as rare as you might think. In the United Kingdom each year about one person in ten thousand takes their own life; we’re actually quite a long way down the league table for suicide rates. Men are about three times as likely to do it as women. My cousin Gary did it a few years ago. There are several per week just at railway stations or on railway lines across the United Kingdom, adding up to over 200 per year.
When I was told these facts I was completely shocked. It has never crossed my mind to take my own life, especially not in a way that seems designed to cause other people suffering too. And I’m not talking about the inconvenience of being delayed. Meetings can always be rearranged, plans can be altered. I mean the anguish such events cause to people who care about their fellow human beings, even strangers. Nobody really understands another person’s pain, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. If we don’t then do we really have the right to call ourselves human?Follow @telescoper