MUNICH – After soccer star Robert Enke took his own life in November 2009, public dismay at the news was considerable. At a memorial service in the Marktkirche church the next day, followed by a funeral march in Hannover attended by some 35,000 people, fans were out in force for the German national soccer team’s goalkeeper.
Unknown to the general public, Enke had suffered from severe depression for years. The mood of the march was also characterized by intense sympathy for his family whom Enke had apologized to, asking for forgiveness for taking his own life in a farewell letter addressed to them.
There was little sympathy expressed, however, for the man driving the regional train from Bremen that ran Enke over at 6:25 p.m. on November 10. The spot was near Enke’s home in Empede: Enke was waiting for the train. At its approach, he threw himself onto the track – so that instead of, strictly speaking, taking his own life, he forced somebody else to do it for him.
Every year in Germany between 800 and 1,000 people die this way. (Statistics globally vary: In the United States, an estimated 300 to 500 deaths are attributed to train suicide, while in Japan it is considered a major social problem.)
Though it is sometimes unclear to those keeping statistics whether those killed by an oncoming train are accidental deaths, a locomotive driver on the other hand can tell when a person walks out deliberately onto the tracks to be run over. He knows what it feels like when he realizes that’s what’s happening. He puts on the emergency brake in the full knowledge that it won’t work in time. On straight tracks the time between seeing a person on the tracks and the time for emergency braking to complete can take up to one kilometer.
That’s about 30 seconds, and in those 30 seconds the driver is often left to look into the eyes of the person they are about to run over. That half-minute seems to last forever, drivers who’ve had the experience report. And those 30 seconds will never be forgotten.
It is likely that at least once in a driver's career, if not of two or three times, he or she will be involved in the death of someone whose life they know nothing about.
It depends on the lines they drive, the number of years they’ve been driving trains – and pure luck. Andreas Eckhardt, an instructor for the Berlin transportation company BVG, has been luckier than many of his colleagues. The 51-year-old has worked as a conductor, signalman, and supervisor, and he was a witness to one apparently accidental death, when a man waiting in the station tripped and fell onto the tracks in front of the train.
"When the accident actually happens you’re in functional mode, so what’s actually happening doesn’t seem that great,” he says. “You’re busy with sending out the alarm, turning off the current, securing the accident site."
Soon after the man was killed, Eckhardt was sent home. "It was only later that I fully realized that I had been involved in something I didn’t choose to be involved in," he recalled. "I found myself trembling and in a state of shock for quite a while even though I was just a bystander. When you’re the train driver it’s all a lot worse."
No boot camp
Eckhardt needed 14 days of sick leave to absorb the shock, and eventually recover. Other colleagues haven't had it that easy.
Some of them have been involved in multiple track suicides, one as many as 12 times on a line particularly prone to the practice. "Some are extremely resistant psychologically, others not so much," Eckhardt says.
The risk of being unintentionally involved in someone’s suicide is not something that most train drivers are told about when they beginning training for the job. Says Christian Gravert, the doctor who heads health management for Deutsche Bahn, most have not been prepared for such a situation until it actually happens, unlike policemen, soldiers and rescue workers who are trained for such eventualities.
Reactions vary. Intense fear mixes with outrage, a sense of helplessness and sometimes even strong physical reactions like bouts of trembling and sweating. An alternating sense of being both perpetrator and victim means that if they don’t get proper care after an incident a good one-third of drivers end up suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Images of the incident keep cropping up unbidden in the driver’s mind, and many are unable to get to sleep as a result," adds Doris Denis, a psychologist who has treated a number of train drivers involved in such incidents. "Just the thought of having run over another person and killed them is terrifying."
But possible long-term reactions don’t only affect the quality of life of actual drivers. In worst-case reactions, post-traumatic stress disorder makes then no longer able to perform their job. Hence the German union for train drivers, GdL, is in negotiation with Deutsche Bahn for better conditions and compensation for drivers following an incident which incapacitates them in the performance of their job.
"Most train drivers value and love their work a lot," says Denis. Whoever is not able to work again after an incident suffers from feelings of great loss, even though their employer may go to great lengths to find them a job in another area of the company.
But even those who resume driving do so with heightened stress levels, says Denis. "Many of them get more cautious, sometimes too much so," she says. "They don’t ever recover the kind of composure they had before."