In the land of watches, trains arrive and depart on time. The SBB, the Swiss Train Authority, takes pride in stating that 96% of trains do so.
Last Friday, like many weekdays, I left my house at 9:37 and caught the bus across the street at 9:39. I was heading to the studio to edit a short video about a car show in Milan. The bus arrived at the train station at 9:46 giving me plenty of time to hop on the 9:55 train to arrive at my destination at 10:01, a short and fast six-minute ride. This precision is taken for granted by folks living here. Everyone knows that showing up one minute, sometimes just seconds, after the scheduled time, means reading emails and messages while waiting for the next train.
The white, red, and blue train roared into the station and quickly came to a stop to open its doors on time. One more to maintain the 96% statistic. Since the ride is so short, I do not sit. It looked like the train came from zombie land where people are programmed to only look at their phones and do nothing else. Many folks with earphones rode to the sounds coming from their mobile devices. No interactions among passengers, only a mother entertained her child in a carriage. The ding-dong from the loudspeaker followed by a mildly cheerful female voice announced the next stop: “Wallisellen.” Her warm voice, which sounds human, reflects a more upbeat mood than the average passenger. I think it is meant to bring a little sunshine to the daily overcast routine.
The train cruised smoothly and the industrial landscape played like a fast motion film. Suddenly, deafening grating noises came from underneath the train. I gripped the steel bar. The train vibrated arrhythmically and shook sideways. Was it a sabotage job to derail the train? I was afraid. It sounded as if it had ran over a large tree trunk and several thick branches. As the scraping sounds abated, some passengers awakened from their cellular stupor. “That didn’t sound good”, I said in German to a woman standing near me. She lifted her shoulders and raised her eyebrows.
For a moment, in the land of watches, time lost its tempo. The film switched into slow motion, the noises became gravelly, and the train stopped. Earphones were unplugged, eyes unglued from phones, and the catatonic passengers came to life. Fear descended upon faces like a curtain of fog. The sweet announcer went silent, and a distorted male voice, too loud for the small speakers, took her place and broke the eerie silence to report the obvious: “Dear passengers, an accident has occurred and the train has stopped. As soon as we determine the cause we will notify you. Thanks for your understanding.”
Time returned to its normal beat and fear mutated into duty management. Multilingual voices filled the air with reports of delays and postponements of appointments. It was a horizontal Tower of Babel: Hindi, Swiss German, Albanian, English, Serbian, French, German, Italian, Russian, and my loud thoughts in Spanish.
The male voice returned to inform us that there had been a “Personenunfall”, (personal accident), a term meaning the train ran over a person. The branches were not branches and the trunk was not from a tree. This silent realization sent a loud signal which changed everyone’s expression to a sad sinking face. Time stood still again. Cancelling an appointment became a nonissue. A person whose watch had stopped too early, made the conductor and every passenger participants of his own death.
Statistics favor men over women in suicides by more than two to one. This is in Switzerland, the fifth happiest country in the world according to the World Happiness Report, and the eighteenth in the list of highest suicide rates by country with 17.2 suicides per 100K people, according to the World Health Organization. Lithuania is number one with 31.9 per 100K people. The lowest suicide rates in the world are found around the Caribbean. It is odd, but there seems to be a direct relationship between quality of life and suicide rates. I wrote about suicide in Switzerland more than six years ago, and today the statistics are practically the same.
Suicide is usually done in desperation and not always as a premeditated act. It has been largely decriminalized and it is one of the reasons we should not use the word commit before the word suicide. It is not a criminal act. Yet, it is perverse that I, along with about seventy other people, was forced to be part of an act in which I didn’t want to play a role.
Within ten minutes of the accident, the police and a rescue team had already parked their vehicles near the tracks. Carrying two long yellow zippered-bags, rescuers briskly walked toward the rear of the train. We didn’t need Sherlock Holmes to figure out what they were going to do. I asked one of the rescuers who had boarded the train how long it would take before we would be on our way. He couldn’t say for sure. The conductor had turned off the engines and thus the heating. It took the end of someone’s life for passengers to talk among each other, a rare scene in Swiss trains. While lively conversations filled the cold air, I wrote a text message telling Petra about it.
About ninety minutes later, a rescue train slowly aligned itself on the other track to one of our doors. Some of us slightly jumped on board, while others went down and up a short set of metal stairs. Our fateful train would sit there for another two hours until a thorough investigation and cleaning was completed. The rescue train had several cars equipped with air cylinders, masks, goggles, and helmets that were not needed. We sat across from each other on two long white benches. Some passengers took photos of the state-of-the-art train while others did selfies. The train took us to the Wallisellen station, a one minute ride from where we were stuck for almost two hours.
The clock had never really stopped. Not wasting a minute, the train authority had already deployed emergency personnel at the station to inform riders of the available transportation options. Buses had been dispatched and awaited for the stranded passengers. It was Swiss efficiency at its best. Imagining how USA authorities, with their claims of greatness, would have handled a similar situation, was the only funny thing that came to mind during this tragic episode. I left the video editing for another day and took a tram back home.
Because it happens almost daily in the Swiss railroad network, conductors train to protect themselves from the emotional after effects of such grisly events. They learn to plug their ears and duck down under the console to avoid hearing and seeing the horror. They also get time off. On average, they will be forced to contend with three railroad suicides during their careers. Avoiding the sight will prevent some nightmares, for sure, but plugging the ears won’t block the vibrations and noises that rattle the train.
Three days later, I was full of trepidations riding the same train again. Like the criminal who goes back to the scene of the crime, my eyes visited the location where the suicide had taken place, while the train hurried away as if it had a memory of the event and wanted to leave it behind as quickly as possible. I caught a glimpse of a wheelbarrow by the side of the tracks right where it had happened. A macabre feeling took hold of me as I pictured the rescue workers, with shovels and the long yellow zippered-bags, still cleaning up the mess from three days ago.
More than two weeks later, I can still feel and hear the sounds under the train. Hopefully, one day soon, I will forget this unforgettable train ride.