Rail Suicide-A Train Driver’s Struggle to Return to the Tracks

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By Hauke Goos

Each year in Germany, 800 people throw themselves in front of speeding trains, transforming the drivers into involuntary killers. Stephan Kniest has run over four people so far in his career – and fears that a fifth could do him in.

Where does someone who has killed four people in relatively quick succession seek peace? And where might such a person even find a bit of happiness? Stephan Kniest is searching for it in Rotterdam at Slag Maasmond 10 – where the mighty Rhine flows into the North Sea, and where a man who everyone just calls John has set up a snack bar on the beach called the Smickel Inn.

Stephan Kniest is sitting at a table by the window. A boyish-looking 36, he is wearing a contemporary goatee and rimless glasses; his short hair is spiked with gel.

In front of him on the table is a Canon 5D with a huge lens, and next to it is a plastic bowl with the “Frikandel speciaal,” a grilled meat roll with chopped onions, fries and ketchup. On the wall behind him hangs a photo that he took himself – a tanker, photographed diagonally from the front, an immense black hull in the twilight.

He finds peace by the sea, Kniest says. This is where he is able to shed the burden of work, the burden of the past few years. He can “drown the stress in the sea,” he says, referring to his memories of what he calls “events.”

His first “event” occurred on a straight stretch of track through a wooded area. A young woman had laid down across the tracks. It was early evening and Kniest was driving a local train at 120 kilometers per hour (75 mph). Dusk was already falling. “It looked like a trash bag,” he says. He’d only been a train driver for a few weeks. He slammed on the brakes immediately.

His locomotive weighed about 80 tons, with the additional weight of the railcars pushing from behind. When traveling at a speed of 120 kilometers per hour, it takes 600 meters to bring the train to a standstill.

Six-hundred meters translates into 18 endless seconds during which the driver stares at the person in front of him – a person who has suddenly become an obstacle. In training, train drivers are advised to look away and cover their ears. “But it doesn’t work,” says Kniest. “It’s impossible. You don’t have time to look away.”

Kniest has heard about train engineers who pull down the blinds because they know what’s coming. Kniest didn’t think of doing that. Instead, he just stood there and stared. To his astonishment, all he could think of during those 18 seconds were operational matters. There is a chapter in the Railway Training Manual titled “How to Behave in the Event of Danger.” In those 18 seconds, Kniest remembered every single step he had read in that chapter. Place emergency call. Have track shut down. Warn other engineers. Secure the train so it doesn’t roll. Notify control center and dispatcher.

He remembers the sound of the collision, a dull thud.

Not a Garbage Bag

He didn’t see a face, says Kniest. He doesn’t know whether the young woman was lying on her stomach on the tracks or on her back. When the train finally came to a halt, Kniest climbed out of his cab. He wanted to go back to the accident site to avoid potential charges for failure to provide assistance.

At some point, an emergency response official from the railway arrived, as did a public prosecutor and a coworker who had been called upon to replace him. Later, Stephan Kniest, 21 at the time, a licensed locomotive driver for only a few weeks, found himself sitting in a taxi on his way home. A friend came to stay with him so that he would not be alone with his thoughts and with the image of the garbage bag on the track that had not been a garbage bag.

What he can’t forget is how long it took him to get back to the accident site. It’s amazing how many thoughts can go through one’s mind on such a walk.

Kniest pokes at his fries as seagulls circle outside the window of the Smickel Inn. “I didn’t know what I would find.”

On this Saturday morning, he left home shortly before 5 a.m. It’s just under 200 kilometers from his home in Weeze, in Germany’s far west, to Rotterdam. Just two hours and then he is at the seaside.

Kniest is meeting two friends, Malte Kopfer and Thomas Braun. The three of them spend the entire day standing together on the dike, facing the North Sea, with their backs to the giant port of Rotterdam. They stand there in their thick jackets, waiting for ships to arrive and waiting for them to depart. And waiting for the perfect moment when a ship comes into view, for the perfect position of the sun, the clouds, the shadows and the cargo. Waiting for the perfect light.

Rotterdam is a long way from Kniest’s hometown, and the seaside is even further away from the route he travels with his locomotive every day. Being a locomotive driver, says Kniest, is still his dream job.

A Purpose for Everything

Kniest’s story began with a cousin of his father’s, who was a train dispatcher. One day, he took the boy to work, and that was all it took. The trigger? The technology, says Kniest, the powerful and precise machinery. And the beauty that lies hidden in the functional, where every lever, every button, every switch has a purpose – and where every button, every lever and every switch looks exactly as it should look, so that it can fulfil exactly this one task.

In contrast to road traffic, the railway is, above all, orderly: a repetition of the same processes, unfolding as smoothly as possible and expressed in the miracle of the timetable. On Monday, on Tuesday and on every other day, a train leaving the Hamburg main train station at 11:38 a.m. arrives in Berlin’s main train station at 1:21 p.m.

When Kniest was six years old, his parents gave him a model train for Christmas. By the time he was 12, he knew he would become a train driver. He finished school, completed a traineeship, and then he sent his application to the German rail company, Deutsche Bahn.

Before potential train drivers begin training, applicants must first undergo testing. A train driver must be able to concentrate, work under pressure and withstand stress. The rail operator knows things about the job that the applicant cannot even imagine.

During one of those tests, Kniest was seated in front of a monitor wearing headphones. He saw colors and heard sounds and he was supposed to respond by pressing two buttons with his hands or pushing two pedals with his feet, depending on whether a color appeared on the monitor or a sound was played. Then, the speed was increased. Afterwards, he learned that the objective was not to hectically press buttons and pedals but to have the wherewithal to take a break in the middle. The sequence of colors and tones became slower as soon as the candidate elected to wait.

In the course of their training, they also talked about suicides, of course. About 800 people die on the tracks each year in Germany, a form of taking one’s life officially referred to as “rail suicide.” Train passengers perceive a “rail suicide” as a disruption of the timetable, as an annoying delay. The train crews use terms like “personal injury” and “emergency medical response on the tracks.”

Eight hundred suicides a year amounts to an average of more than two a day. Every train driver, in other words, can expect to run over a person once or twice in their working life.

Things You Can’t Prepare For

Stephan Kniest bought a book before he set off on his first journey as a train driver at the end of 2004. An older colleague had given him the tip. The book was called “The Fear is Always With You…” and it contains many charts and tables.

It’s a book about train drivers, and precisely because it summarizes the horror of rail accidents in statistics and diagrams, it is above all a book for train drivers. At the time, Kniest wanted to know what to do when it happens, what happens afterwards and who helps you. He wanted to be prepared. He couldn’t know that there are some things in life you can’t prepare for.

Four weeks after the first “event,” Kniest wanted to drive again. “How are you?” his team leader asked him on the phone. If Kniest had told him that the incident was troubling him, he would have been given an appointment with a company psychologist. But he felt good and was confident that he was back to normal.

Plus, a visit to the “company psychologist” sounded like weakness. At the time, Kniest didn’t know of any coworkers who had gone to the psychologist, and he hardly knows of any today either. Train drivers don’t talk about “events.”

Driving trains is a profession for loners. Those who are enthusiastic about the precision of processes must be able to enjoy their own company. If a train driver comes into contact with people at all, it’s almost always because someone has disturbed the process: by behaving badly on the train, or by jumping onto the track in front of the train. A good driver has to forget about people to the degree possible. The ideal world of a train driver is deserted: in front of him the tracks, behind him hundreds of passengers, and beneath him 10,000 HP of power.

Does he feel the power? “Sitting down,” says Kniest with a smile. “You feel it in your seat.”

A freight train travels at 100 kilometers per hour, a local train 160, and long-distance trains can reach speeds of up to 300 kmh (185 mph). An ICE 3, designed for 450 passengers, is a 200-meter-long projectile with a dead weight of at least 400 tons.

A train like that traveling at 300 kmh requires more than three kilometers to come to a stop.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stephan Kniest discovered his love for ships around the time of his first accident. Until then, he had mostly photographed trains, a hobby that requires speed. You can’t get more than two photos of a passing locomotive before it’s gone again. Increasingly, Kniest found taking pictures of trains to be stressful.

Ships, by contrast, are slow. A ship follows a particular course as it comes into sight and approaches. And if it changes its course, the photographer has plenty of time to react. Ships move in extreme slow motion compared to trains.

His second “event,” almost exactly one year later, was over almost before he knew anything was happening, says Kniest. This time, it was a man jumping in front of his train, and Kniest only saw him at the last moment. And this time he didn’t run back to the accident site. Someone else did it for him. “I couldn’t have done it either.”

Again, a taxi drove him home, again he was on sick leave for four weeks, and again he thought he was strong enough in the end. “I didn’t think the incident had affected me.”

‘Why Me Again?’

Almost every train driver learns over the years to differentiate among the various sounds of death. The higher the impact, says Kniest, the louder the bang. Drivers learn to distinguish a fox from a dog, a hare from a rabbit, and a dove from a buzzard. A person lying on the rails sounds different from a person who is standing up waiting for death. “If they act the fool and stand up,” says Kniest, “it’s a pretty loud bang.”

The second “event” turned Kniest into something of an expert. Instead of just conducting the train from point A to point B, he began reading the tracks and recognizing the opportunities that people wanting to commit suicide might see.

Before long, Kniest knew where people would cross the tracks illegally and where there are switch shacks someone could hide behind. He knew how a train’s braking distance was affected by frost on the tracks. Passenger transport, says Kniest, is more dangerous than freight transport. Undeveloped land is more dangerous than residential areas. Men are more likely to commit suicide on the tracks than women, and young people are more common than old people. The danger is particularly high when a psychiatric hospital is close by. Kniest learned that the headlights on the locomotive are no help when it comes to detecting an obstacle. They are so weak that train drivers call them “tea lights.”

Stephan Kniest had his third accident at the end of 2006. “It was the dark season again,” says Kniest, adding that he had had a “queasy feeling” as fall arrived that year.

He no longer knows whether the victim was lying down or standing up. He has suppressed the sound of the impact. Kniest doesn’t want to know anything about the victims; not knowing protects him. A face, a name or, worse, a victim’s personal story would make it even more complicated for him.

In the taxi home, he found himself wondering: “Why me again?” Stephan Kniest was now above the statistical average. And he was just 24 years old.

‘Extremely Sharp Focus’

He now knows that a timetable is nothing more than an optimistic assumption. Something can always get in the way. A person who seeks death on the tracks disrupts the order of the railway. The freedom of the person committing suicide to create chaos, wherever and whenever he or she wants, means a lack of freedom for the train driver.

Kniest didn’t get professional help this time either.

By this time, he had already experienced three traumatic events, incidents that the brain is unable to process. They are always present, especially the details, the sounds, the smells. “I remember everything,” says Kniest. “Everything is in extremely sharp focus.”

“A trauma often renders people speechless,” says Bruno Kall, a senior physician at the Buchenholm Clinic in Malente, located in northern Germany. Two decades ago, the clinic began specializing in the treatment of traumatized train drivers. The victims are literally speechless with horror.

A person who seeks death on the tracks doesn’t just destroy their own life, they also disrupt the life of someone else. They turn train drivers into a perpetrator, someone who is forced to kill. They transform train drivers into murderers who are not guilty of their actions.

The Buchenholm Clinic is situated under tall trees on Dieksee Lake. The dining room offers a panoramic view of the water and it is a good place to find peace. What prompted the clinic to specialize in the trauma of train drivers? The clinic is a subsidiary of the Deutsche Bahn health insurance fund. In 1996, by which time Kall had already begun working as a doctor in Malente, a train driver being treated at the clinic began complaining of diffuse heart pain. Doctors performed an ultrasound but were unable to find anything causing the symptoms. At some point, the patient said that he had driven his locomotive into a group of workers. This led the doctors to conclude that the cause of his heart problems was not physical.

Proof of Existence

Kniest has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, at least since the third suicide. PTSD has been recognized as an affliction since 1980 and in Kall’s experience, approximately 15 percent of train drivers who have run over a person develop the condition. That puts train drivers in the same risk category as firefighters, paramedics or police officers. “The less influence you have over a traumatic experience, the more difficult it is to process,” Kall says.

Stephan Kniest tries to process the trauma he has experienced by taking pictures of cargo vessels. The ship photos become more important with each “event.” He stands by the sea in Rotterdam as often as he can. He takes photos, up to 1,500 a day, and when he returns home, he looks through the new batch, editing, labeling and archiving them. As though he were trying to combat the pictures in his head with the pictures he takes.

Kniest makes two backups of every image that is sharply in focus. His biggest fear is that an error or a technical glitch could erase everything. The photos that he has taken thus far use up nine terabytes of memory on his hard drives, but he can still remember almost every ship, the weather, the day, the light, the circumstances. The photos are proof that each individual day existed, that progress was made, that there is an order and a sequence to life.

For eight years everything went well, at least that’s how it felt to Kniest. He had some near misses, but no disasters.

But even during that period, friends began to notice a change. He became increasingly withdrawn and rarely went out. When they had made plans, to go to a party, for example, he often found an excuse to avoid coming along.

“I dodged a lot of questions,” says Kniest, adding that he stuck largely to himself “to avoid stupid questions.” Stupid questions were the ones he was unable to answer.

Then came Jan. 23, 2015, a Friday. This time, it was a man who had chosen to end his life with the help of Kniest’s train.

‘Looking at Me’

It was his fourth “event,” and it was completely different from the others. Kniest could tell that the man had dark skin, and he wasn’t lying on the tracks. It was impossible for Kniest to mistake him for a bag of garbage. Instead, the man was walking on the tracks. Toward the oncoming train.

There is one thing Kniest cannot forget to this day: “He was looking at me.”

A train driver must execute three moves to bring a train to a halt as quickly as possible: he must pull the driver’s brake lever from the drive position to the emergency position; he must trigger the signal whistle with a pedal; and he must press a button that causes quartz sand to be poured onto the rails in front of the first axle, to provide the wheels with better grip when braking. Despite these three moves, by the time the train comes to a standstill it is almost always too late.

Again, Kniest was placed on sick leave. But this time, he didn’t return to work. He was unable to drive a train anymore. The images in his head were simply too powerful.

He couldn’t sleep well at night and he hardly ever went outside during the day. His memories would assail him without warning, anywhere and at any time, triggered by trivialities: sirens, braking noises, the rattling of a train, police lights.

In May 2015, he headed to Malente for the first time, for an appointment with Dr. Kall at the Buchenholm Clinic.

Eye contact, says Kall, makes treatment more difficult. “The train driver then believes that he was chosen by the suicide victim.”

In Malente, they tried to work through the traumatic event, to bring back the day of the “event,” the journey, the accident, the feeling.

Many patients come to Malente, says Kall, and say: “Get rid of it. Like with a Super 8 movie. Can’t you just cut out the sequence?” It usually takes a while for a trauma patient to realize that you can’t erase experiences. You can discuss the sequence of events, says Kall, in the hope that the patient learns to evaluate them differently. If all goes well, the pictures will eventually fade, but they don’t disappear.

The patient must learn that the train driver is not the perpetrator, but the victim. He may have been driving the locomotive, but he didn’t kill anyone; the people who committed suicide did so themselves. Anger is good, says Kall, anger at the person who put you in this position. Anger helps the train driver escape from the role of perpetrator.

A Second Stint

Kniest returned home after nine weeks. He felt better, but he still didn’t feel good.

When he was unable to sleep at night, he would sit at his desk and look at the ship pictures stored on his computer, spending hours correcting colors, contrasts and tones. As long as he was working on his ship pictures, he didn’t have to fight with the pictures in his head.

Before long, he developed tenosynovitis, a repetitive strain injury, in his hand. With his right arm put in a cast as part of the treatment, he ordered a mouse for his left hand.

Since he was unable to work, he risked losing his train driver’s license after one year. The closer the deadline approached, the worse he felt. At some point, he began thinking about killing himself. Just take some pills, he thought to himself, and you’ll have your peace.

In 2016, he went to Malente for a second stint, this time for 12 weeks.

Kniest learned to recognize his “triggers,” the sounds and smells that the brain associates with the “event.” It was only in Malente that he realized that he avoids walking in the forest because he cannot bear the smell of autumn leaves. It is the result of his walk back along the tracks on that November day many years ago after his first “event” to reach the dead woman. He learned to be patient and felt relieved when his train driver’s license expired. And he learned to go back to the train station and to take the train. He said he felt “like a small child learning to walk.”

It wasn’t until last spring that he decided to take the driving test again. He wanted to fight, says Kniest, and passed the test on his first try. Initially, he would drive the locomotive for two hours at a time, then four, and finally eight, accompanied by a trainer. It helped that the trainer had also hit somebody with his train. “He knew what I was talking about.”

His shifts are much more strenuous today than they used to be, says Kniest. In the first few weeks, he would see someone lurking behind every control box. When he drives at night or in fog, he is soaked in sweat afterwards.

Sometimes when he isn’t feeling well, he calls in sick. Then he spends hours sitting at his desk, clicking through his ship photos and going to appointments with the psychologist who tends to him. Kniest is afraid that a fifth “event” could destroy him for good.

On one occasion, he had to take a week off. Later, he learned that during that time, three people took their lives on the route he normally travels.

‘A Good Day’

Kniest forces himself not to think about the people who make his life hell because they can’t cope with their own lives. He has fought his way back into the train cab, which is a remarkable achievement; he thinks about the machine under his control and about the timetable; and he has learned that happiness can also mean the absence of misfortune.

When the day comes to an end in Rotterdam, after Stephan Kniest and his two friends have been standing on the dike for hours, making jokes, taking pictures or saying nothing, they drive, as the twilight rises from the North Sea, from the Smickel Inn back over to the promontory, where there is a magnificent hilltop view of the port and the Caland canal.

Using his tripod, Kniest photographs two white ferries docked under a remarkably yellow sky. The clouds are illuminated by the light from greenhouses where orchids are grown. “Today was a good day,” he says. It was a good sky, there were lots of ships, and there was good light.

That very same evening, at home, he looks through the pictures of the day on his computer. He begins by editing the picture with the yellow sky for 20 minutes. At 11:26 p.m. he uploads the result to Facebook.

A perfect picture, says Kniest. Two huge machines, moored one behind the other, the high yellow sky, everything in focus and correctly exposed.

There is nothing in the photo to disturb the eye, no motion. And there is not a single person to be seen.

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