Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Train Safety

Yesterday, I was standing on the Tokaido Line train, riding into work. To while the time away, I was using my nifty new Signeo SN-M700 media player (or iPod, as the kids are calling them these days) to listen to one of the early episodes of Alpha Rant, a podcast done by the authors of Alpha Shade, a webcomic that I regularly read (and I think I have mentioned here before). The podcast is done by two brothers, who are funny guys to start with, but what makes it really worth listening to is their witty back-and-forth; they have been talking to each other for all their lives (20-odd years, given that one of them is in his early 30s and the other in his late 20s).

So anyway, in the middle of the episode I was listening to, one of the brothers gets a phone call. The other one, instead of pausing the recording, decides to do a faux-dramatic, documentary-style commentary on the one side of the phone call that we can hear in the background. And what we can hear is the guy on the phone getting increasingly irritated. So when he comes back to the mic, he explains that it was one of his friends on the phone, telling him about some train wreck that just happened.

And why would his friend do that? Because the older brother (the one who got the phone call) is a locomotive engineer. As in he drives trains for a living. So he goes into this long spiel on how people are always doing stupid things like stopping on the train tracks, or driving up the tracks in a snow storm, or what have you. He advances the theory that you have to try really hard to get hit by a train, because they--wait for it--run on tracks, and thus go in a straight line. And oh yeah, you can see exactly where they will be going, because you can see the tracks. And so on.

And then he mentions that he actually had to pull an emergency stop just the other day (well, it would have been just the other day as of September, 2003, since it was an old episode of the podcast I was listening to) because of some idiot who stopped his car on the tracks because traffic was backed up. So here is Chris (the older brother is named Chris, and I reveal this because it is getting unwieldy to write about two guys without using their names), cruising into town at 50-plus miles per hour in a 15,000 ton train, and he sees some moron stopped on the tracks about a mile ahead of him. So he slams the controls to full stop, and any physics major can compute how long it took him to stop. Let's just say that a mile was insufficient. Luckily, the emergency stop gave the aforementioned cretin time to figure out a way to get the hell off the tracks, and no-one died.

Chris winds down his rant, and about a minute later I find myself airborne. You know why they always told you to sit down on schoolbuses and the like? Well, it turns out that if the vehicle on which you are being conveyed needs to make a sudden stop, thanks to Newton's laws of motion, you want to continue along at the same velocity as the vehicle was going. And if you are not "attached" to the vehicle in some way, such as having a seat back in front of you against which to brace yourself, or a handhold to cling to as if your very life depended upon it, the result of this desire to remain in motion can result in you flying through the air.

And this is what had happened to me. Commuter trains are not necessarily known for a smooth ride (contrast this with the Shinkansen experience, which feels like the train is floating gently on a cushion of air above tracks made of the finest silk), so you tend to get thrown around a little from time to time if you have not managed to secure one of the 50 various hand-holds per car (which sounds a little irresponsible unless you know that the car is designed to transport 50 people in relative safety, but more than 100 people are crammed into it, so your choices can be limited). So in the first several milliseconds of my flight, I thought that it was just a standard jolt that had caught me off guard, until I realised that everyone else who was standing in my general vicinity was also in mid-air. When I finally caught my balance, I had been shifted about three metres toward the front of the train, and I became faintly aware, through my Sony noise-cancelling headphones, of a voice announcing in Japanese that the emergency brake had been applied.

"Oh great," I thought, "another suicide. I'm going to be quite late for work."

For trains, you see, are probably the most common way to commit suicide in Japan. I guess this is because it is pretty easy to do--you just step of the front of the platform into the path of a train, and the many tons (I am not sure how much commuter trains weigh under a full load; I am sure it is less than Chris's 15,000 ton train, which he said was loaded with rock at the time, but it still has to be 1000 tons or so, I would imagine) of fast-moving metal will take care of the rest.

Strangely, one of the reasons cited for the popularity of trains as a suicide method is that it is easier on the family of the victim. Not sure why this is true, since whenever a suicide happens, holding up many thousands of commuters for several hours, the company that owns the rail line gets sued for many many yen, and then turns around and sues the victim's family (hmm, is "victim" the right word to use when talking about suicide? anyway, by "victim", I mean the dude or dudette that shuffles off the mortal coil or whatever).

Oh yeah, and this is bizarre and slighly amusing, if in a twisted sort of way: some of the suicidal chaps have taken to wearing brightly coloured masks over their faces when they jump, so as to spare the engineers from having their nightmares haunted by the face of a soon-to-be-dead person, courtesy of the split-second glimpse they might catch before the train brings sweet release.

Sorry, I don't know what came over me there... ;)

Anyway, in this case, it must not have been a suicide that induced the train to stop, because it started up again in a matter of minutes, and I was not too late to catch my next train, and I got to work on time, and so on. So hurrah for that.

And remember, kids, buckle up for safety!

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