Simon Kelner: A lesson in compassion for the Why Me generation

Kelner's view


Something happened the other night which reminded me once again of my favourite newspaper story. It concerns a legendary autocratic editor who, close to deadline, summoned one of his staff down to the print room (this was a long time ago).

He waited for a few minutes with increasing irritation before he rang upstairs, demanding to know where the hapless underling was. He was told that, in his determination to get to there as quickly as possible, the young man had fallen down a flight of stairs and it looked as if he had broken a leg. The editor slammed down the phone. "Why does this always happen to me?" he screamed. I was among thousands of people whose journey was horribly delayed by what was at first called an incident on the line, and then a fatality, and then – more accurately – "a person hit by a train at Hayes". It was later classed as a "non-suspicious incident" involving a 58-year-old man from Southall, leaving us to form our own conclusions.

The incident caused chaos for huge numbers of commuters, who returned home in time for Newsnight rather than the early evening news. "Why does it always happen to us?" we all thought, with scarcely a nano-second of consideration for the person propelled to such a desperate measure, or indeed the train driver who was the unwilling participant in this awful human drama, or the workers from the emergency services who have to attend the scene.

There were some Heathrow-bound passengers who were destined to miss flights, and it was easy to understand their annoyance, but for most of us it was nothing more than a relatively minor inconvenience. Since when did we become so self-important, so convinced that everything we do is of the utmost value, that any interruption to our progress is regarded as an affront?

There is something about a train delay that brings out the worst in us, and as I stood all the way from Paddington to Reading in conditions that the Indian railways would regard as uncomfortable, I found that I was cursing the repeated announcement about the reason for our delay. And then I started thinking about the fatality itself.

So widespread is the problem that the train companies, in conjunction with The Samaritans, have produced a report called "Reducing Suicides at Railway Stations".

According to the latest statistics, there are approximately 70 suicides at our nearby railway stations every year, although some believe that the actual number is considerably higher. As The Samaritans say, "each railway suicide is an individual tragedy, but it can also be a cause of trauma amongst employees who witness the event...Train drivers may be particularly prone to trauma, which can be exacerbated if they have to wait alone before help arrives, or are later made to re-live their experience at an inquest". Nowhere does it mention the suffering of the passengers. We just have to learn to become less solipsistic. And with that thought, I'm signing off for a week.

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