Friday, March 03, 2006

Death by speeding locomotive

I'm not the suicidal kind, but if I were I imagine I would take my life in the least violent manner possible -- a sleeping pill and alcohol nightcap, say, or a long drive in a sealed-up garage. But to step in front of a diesel locomotive traveling at more than 50 miles per hour? No thanks.

Turns out that stepping in front of a speeding locomotive is a fairly popular way to off oneself here in the Bay Area, and when I arrived at the CalTrain station this morning for the short hop from Menlo Park to Mountain View I found a slow-moving "bullet" train pulling into the station, and these trains don't normally stop at Menlo Park. I boarded the train, took a window seat, and asked a man sitting across the aisle if the train was stopping at all stations on its way down the peninsula. He answered that it was supposed to have been a bullet train but that it had been seriously delayed for unknown reasons, and that it was, in fact, stopping at all stations.

So I sat on the train for ten minutes before it pulled away from the station, but we never accelerated beyond 10-15 miles per hour. In less than a mile we switched tracks to that normally used for northbound travel, and I assumed there was probably a disabled southbound train somewhere between Palo Alto and San Jose.

Everyone else on the train appeared unconcerned so I opened the web browser on my Sidekick 2 and searched for CalTrain news, found nothing, and set about reading the Palo Alto Daily I'd brought with me. All was quiet until we crossed Meadow Drive in Palo Alto, still moving at 10 miles per hour or so on the northbound track. Without warning, a man seated directly in front of me groaned as though he'd been kicked in the stomach. I looked up and saw him staring out the window, mouth agape. I followed his gaze and saw what was left of a human torso several yards east of the southbound track, and a few investigators were preparing to cover the remains with a yellow tarp (see the image below). Most everyone seated on the other side of our car stood to look out the window, unabashed in their desire to see what they surely knew to be carnage.

Before I got over the initial shock of seeing the mangled torso I saw, right between the southbound tracks next to our train, what appeared to be the victim's intestinal tract, but I'll never know for sure what the large hank of flesh truly was, and I don't really wish to. Shamefully, I wasn't able to take my eyes from the window, and the unpleasantness continued for 50 - 100 yards down the track until we got to the train that hit the victim. At this point we'd slowed to perhaps 5 miles per hour, and as we passed the front of the offending locomotive I saw an inordinate amount of human flesh affixed to the large front coupler, which rests perhaps 4 to 5 feet above the ground.

Shortly after passing the stopped locomotive our train switched to the usual southbound track and resumed normal operating speed the rest of the way to Mountain View. Everyone was sharing somber nods and shakes of the head, though little or no conversation, and a suffocating calm enveloped our train car. As I stood to exit the train at the Mountain View station a young woman in a Stanford sweatshirt looked at me, wrinkled her face, shrugged her shoulders and said earnestly, "Try to have a nice day." I asked her to do the same and ten minutes later I was at work, preparing for a meeting.

Image from the Palo Alto Weekly looking south along the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto, California.