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Rail Suicide

A Train Driver's Struggle to Return to the Tracks

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.

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By Hauke Goos
Wednesday, 2/14/2018   10:35 AM

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.

Matthias Jung / DER SPIEGEL

Stephan Kniest at the Smickel Inn in Rotterdam.

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.

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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.

Matthias Jung / DER SPIEGEL

The ship spotting app used by Kniest and his friends.

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."

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