Suicide by Train in Germany

We returned from Hamburg to our temporary home in Lueneburg on July 4, 2015, after visiting friends in Hamburg. It was a normal trip on a German train until…it came to a stop at about 9:30 pm. There was a confused silence among the passengers, until the loud speaker finally announced an indefinite delay because something had been thrown on the tracks.

The mystery solved itself a few minutes later. There was a suicide in front of one of the trains, and the emergency equipment had arrived and closed the tracks going both ways. As a result, the tracks were closed, and our train would be returning to Hamburg, and not going forward to Lueneburg. What to do? A number of us (probably 100+) piled out of the train, and began calling friends and taxis to take us onwards. We were lucky enough to get a share in an eight person taxi about 45 minutes later, which took us home with six other people who shared our fate, and destination. Total cost was 15 Euro.

This is the second time in Germany I’ve been delayed by suicides in front of train. When I googled the phenomenon, I found out that Germany has the highest percentages of “suicides by train.” It is 7% of suicides, which works out to a few hundred per year. This is higher than other countries with extensive train systems, and it means that most people have experience being delayed by suicide. The train locomotive drivers are the ones most concerned—during a career as a driver, their engines can be expected to be used for suicide 2-3 times. The German magazine Spiegel published this story about train suicides in 2011.

Suicide rates of course has a long history as an interesting point of study in sociology and anthropology. Emile Durkheim published his classic book Suicide in 1897. There is also this article about suicide among the Mla Bri hunter gatherers of Thailand published by myself and my colleagues Gene and Mary Long in 2013.