london-underground-lf7uI don’t know how often this happens on subway systems elsewhere in the world (seemingly most dramatically in Japan, based on this movie I saw when I went through an extended J-Horror phase), but as someone who only takes the tube or rail once a week or so, it seems disturbingly frequent.

You thunder down the escalators and push through the crowd to your platform, barely listening to the station announcements in the background, until your ears pick up:  “There will be delays on the Piccadilly line, due to a body on the tracks.”  Which I suppose is the sedate way of saying:  “Some poor bastard’s thrown himself in front of a train and, man, is it a messy scene.” 

In the two or three times I’ve heard this unfortunate announcement, I’ve noticed an interesting reaction in myself, which is often visible or audible among my fellow travelers.  First is, “God, how terrible.”  And then seconds later, “Fuck, I’m going to be late.”  I think this is a fascinating, alarming, and ultimately natural reaction, but how weird when you think about it.  You’re hit first by empathy, almost dizzied by the pathos of the human condition, and then so quickly and practically the focus turns to how this unknown person’s initially unrelated tragedy is affecting you.

According to an article in Time from 2008:

Last year in the U.K., 194 people killed themselves on the tracks of mass-transit systems, with some 50 of those choosing the sooty tunnels of the Tube. New York City’s subway averages 26 suicides a year. In Paris, 24 died on the tracks of the Métro last year. While it is a fallacy to imagine any suicide as a solitary act — even the tidiest affair leaves survivors stricken — death by train is a particularly declaratory form of killing oneself.  It makes the act a form of theater — for the driver, watching it all from behind his windshield, and for the rest of us.

And I suppose what the contributor to Time (who wrote the piece after her own train was stopped by a track suicide, or a “one-under”), has really summarized in the last two sentences above, is the third reaction I experience.  That would be:  “Why?”  You don’t know what gender, age, or ethnicity this “body on the tracks” is, so you can’t begin to speculate as to the circumstances that lead to that moment.  So I start to wonder why someone has chosen this particular method of suicide – was it a split-second decision?  Was it planned?  If it was planned, did they select a particular platform?  Was it because it had meaning, or because they thought they would have a better chance of completing the act?

An article from a June 1994 issue of The Independent explains, gruesomely, that only 40% of attempts result in immediate death (this was in 1993, the number may be higher now).   Quoting a report undertaken at the time:

The researchers were asked to determine the characterics of ‘high-risk’ passengers so that staff could better understand the problem. They found that of the high-risk group, 64 per cent were men, most 15 to 34 years old. The peak time for jumping was between 10am and 4pm, although there was a slight variation for women (10am to 1pm). The high season for jumpers was spring. The highest number of incidents occurred at King’s Cross. Mile End and Tooting Bec came next; both stations have psychiatric hospitals nearby. Archway, Oval and Clapham North followed close behind.

The article further details the scarring effects these events have on the drivers, which I imagine could be grievous.  This concern ignited a huge debate over a recent movie, Three and Out, in which a train driver attempts to cash in on a fictional rule stating that if three people are killed under your train in a month, you’re awarded retirement and ten years’ salary as compensation.

Hearing the “delay” announcement, without the sad benefit of details, it does seem like something of a massive, “Fuck you, World.”  There you are, Everyday People, going to your jobs, drinking your coffee, reading your papers, while my life is in shreds.  And I’m going to make you aware, however briefly, of the pain I’m in as a fellow human being.  Even if you don’t know me and only think of me as an irritation and inconvenience, I’m going to jar you out of your complacency for a day by throwing my body quite literally in your path.
Or maybe it’s just an act of desperation from someone who can’t think of any other option, and this is one that appears to be failsafe.  I suppose that if 200 people a year end their lives on the railways, and 50 of those on the Underground, then it must seem a sensible option.
Although, I believe the self-centered “Fuck, I’m going to be late” reaction is, as I said, entirely human, at least it is a bit delayed.  My most recent experience with this made me thoughtful, and a little bit grateful that compassion would appear to, at least, be the first reaction.  Whatever inconvenience we are suffering is so minor in comparison.  Please, fellow Travelers, have a good day.  Ride safely, because we’re all in this together.  And mind the gap.