Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Suicide by train

Someone died early this morning on the rail line near Anaheim CA. He stepped into a crossing in front of a Metrolink commuter train around 6am, stretched out his arms and waited for the train to hit him. The engineer couldn't stop in time.

Nearly 100 miles away, when I was getting on the first northbound Amtrak of the day, I read a message crawling across the information sign that the first southbound service was delayed due to a "passenger train trespassing incident". I didn't really think much about it; it wasn't my train, it was miles away. Maybe someone had gotten obstreperous with the conductor, or someone had been seen along the track. It didn't even cross my mind that those words were railway code for a fatality.

But as we left Oceanside at 7am, the man behind me got a call on his cellphone. "Well, then I'm screwed," he said, sounding annoyed. Then I got a call from a colleague who takes Metrolink from Irvine, the midway point. He told me that both lines, southbound and northbound, were blocked north of Anaheim. My colleague expected a prolonged delay, so he turned around and went home to telecommute. The man behind me said his caller told him authorities were waiting for the coroner up in Anaheim.

No one had any internet (or thought to use it). There is internet on some trains, but the low speed connection is spotty and unreliable even if you sit on top of it. I don't have a mobile wireless plan so I'm blind on the train, with my only resource scavenging off any open networks I find with my laptop as we stop in the stations. The little FM radio on my iPod nano couldn't pick up any news stations --coastal Orange County is a notorious dead zone for public radio (figures). And at some level, what did it matter what happened? All that mattered was what Amtrak was going to do about it, and in regrettably typical Amtrak fashion, they said absolutely nothing at all.

For me, by the time I learned this, choices were few. If the lines were closed, there would be no southbound Amtrak back to San Diego: they'd all be stuck north of Anaheim. So even if I got off at an intermediate station, there's nothing to get on going south, at least nothing that would go all the way. And I'm sitting on the first northbound train, so there's no Amtrak ahead of me to be turned around. Besides, I had meetings in LA today. So I sat it out, and my train kept going north.

The lines reopened after about 3 hours, after the business of death swarmed around the tracks: policemen with yellow tape, railway workers in hard hats, the cleanup crew with bins and tarps. Once north of Anaheim, my train inched its way along with frequent long, sighing stops. Even so, we got to LA with only a 45 minute delay. Much faster than usual, said my Irvine colleague, who has more grim experience than I.

This is the 2nd death that I know of on the LA-San Diego corridor this summer; in June, a man was killed by an overnight freight train near San Clemente under rather creepy circumstances (at 2am, it appears that a group of teenagers watched him get hit). Other lines in the region have also had a number of deaths; sometimes suicide, sometimes stupidity (like walking along the line, or trying to beat the gates). They are depressingly common. I wonder why anyone would choose such a horrible way to die.

I sorrow for the victim today who suffered such despair, and for his family. And I feel for the engineer, at the controls of his massive machine, who was made an unwilling accomplice and saw it all. I hope that help is available to him.

One of my other commute friends told me that in the 4 or 5 years she's been doing this trip, her train has killed 6 people, most of them suicides. I find that quite shocking. So I know that it is inevitable that one day I too will be an accomplice of sorts, a few hundred feet away from death, a passenger on a train that kills a person.

Photo: first train on the re-opened line Orange County Register

Cross posted at Friends of Jake, Surfliner Stories, Daily Kos, and StreetProphets


Jay L Myers said...


Another excellent, compellingly written blog entry. You cut right to the point and the feelings of the matter, with a journalist's eye. I can only imagine how well written your treatises on micro-biology must be!

In my 39 years of riding Amtrak, I have never been involved in a fatality (knock on wood). I've had lots of different events occur, but fortunately no suicides. As you mentioned for yourself, I also feel for the locomotive engineers . . . .

Keep up the great blog. I enjoy your entries (and photos) very much.

Jay Myers

IT said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jay. Nice to know I have a reader! :-)