Train surfing (also known as train hopping or train hitching) is the act of hitching a ride on the outside of a moving train, tram or another rail transport. In a number of countries, the term train hopping is often confused with the term freight hopping, which means riding on the outside of a freight train, while train surfing can be practiced on any type of a train. This type of travelling can be dangerous and even life-threatening, because there is a risk of death or serious injury from falling off a moving train, electrocution from power supply (overhead catenary wire, current collectors, resistors, etc.), colliding with a railway infrastructure (bridges, tunnels, platforms, traffic lights or other trains) while riding outside off structure gauge on the side or on the roof of a train, or unsuccessful attempts to jump on a moving train or off it. Today, the practice is forbidden by statutes on many railroads in the world. Despite this, it is still practiced, especially on those railroads where the trains are overcrowded.
The phenomenon of riding on outside trains came with the appearance of the first railway lines. On a series of first railroads, riding on rooftops and footboards of trains was common, but over time, starting from the second half of the 19th century, with an increase of trains in the sizes and speed, passenger coaches began to be produced fully covered and insulated from streets with a placement of all passenger seats inside carriages in order to improve the safety of passengers and prevent people falling from a moving train. However, some individuals practiced riding on outside of trains to travel without having a ticket.
In the United States, this became a common means of transportation following the American Civil War as the railroads began pushing westward, especially among migrant workers who became known as "hobos". It continued to be widely used by those unable to afford other transportation, especially during times of widespread economic dislocation such as the Great Depression.
In the first half of the 20th century during the era of trams rising in Europe and USA, trams in some cities became overcrowded, so some passengers began a practice of riding on footboards, doors, couplers and sometimes on the roofs of trams. Also, train surfing often occurred in European countries during the war conflicts, especially during the First World War, Russian Civil War and World War II. Soldiers and refugees often traveled on the roofs of carriages due to lack of seats inside.
In the mid-20th century, European and American railroad companies in many countries took measures to reduce overcrowding in cars and prevent riding on outside of them, so the prevalence of train surfing in those countries decreased. However, in some countries of Southeast Asia and Africa with a high population density, the problem of overcrowding of different vehicles, including trains, grew rapidly, so train surfing in those countries became a widespread phenomenon.
As an extreme hobby, train surfing firstly appeared in South Africa during the 1980s among teenagers from poor families, and then began to appear in other countries around the world. A story from Associated Press dated June 17, 1988, out of Rio De Janeiro reports how teenagers as young as 13 had taken up surfing atop train cars in Brazil. Reporter Jorge Mederos stated that some 150 train surfers were killed in Brazil in 1987; at least 40 in the first half of 1988. According to the article, hundreds more were injured, some permanently paralyzed. The report also states that the government company that runs the commuter lines had paid the equivalent of $700,000 in death and injury claims. During the 1990s, train surfing on a commuter electric multiple unit trains became popular in Europe among young people, who live near railway lines.
In Germany, the practice of “S-Bahn surfing” was made popular during the 1990s. The phenomenon was forgotten until the millennium, but in 2005 it was rediscovered by a group of train surfers from Frankfurt, Germany. The leader of the crew who calls himself “the Trainrider” famously surfed the InterCityExpress, the fastest train in Germany. An Internet video claimed that he died a year later from an incurable form of leukemia, but later the Trainrider revealed in an interview  that this video was made by a fan and the story of his death was a hoax. In 2008, forty teenagers died in Germany because of train surfing.
In the Soviet Union during the 1980s, teens and youths sometimes surfed trams. After dissolution of the Soviet Union, the practice of surfing on electric multiple unit trains appeared during the 1990s in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries due to economic crisis and growing of interest for extreme recreational activities among teens and youths, who live near the railroads. At the beginning of 21st century, they also began to surf subway trains in Moscow Metro and organized train surfing crews and web-communities. In the mid-2000s, a problem of frequent cancellation of commuter trains and crowding inside rail cars appeared in the Moscow region. In summer 2010, dozens of commuter trains were cancelled due to track repairs on the Moscow railway, so the crowding of trains and number of train surfers in Moscow region has risen dramatically. Also train surfers began to organize meetings and big-way surfing events on outside of commuter, subway and local freight trains via Internet. From the beginning of 2011, Russian train surfers began to ride on outside of a high-speed Siemens Velaro train "Sapsan", the fastest train in Russia. In 2011, over 100 people were killed or seriously injured in Russia because of train surfing or climbing on roofs of standing trains too close to overhead catenary wires; a few dozen children train surfers were killed.
Train surfing is a common and usual way to ride trains in countries such as India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and South Africa, where this type of riding by trains is compelled due to the high population density and severe overcrowding of trains. This practice is a serious issue in these countries where people have been killed or injured in numerous accidents. However, train surfing can occur in any area with trains and trams. Individuals may train surf to avoid the cost of a ticket or as a recreational activity.
With the creation of the internet, the practice of filming the act and posting online videos of it is on the increase worldwide. Train surfers can use social networks to find and communicate with each other and organize trips by trains in a small groups. In countries where exist a big communities of train surfers, they sometimes may organize a major events of riding on outside of local trains, where the number of participants can amount dozens of riders.
- enjoyment of riding and feeling of speed;
- extended view of surrounding area in comparison with the view from a window inside a railcar;
- opportunity to avoid the cost of a ticket;
- opportunity to ride in comfort when a train is extremely crowded;
- opportunity to ride a train which simply has no room for more people, need to go to work;
- opportunity to ride in comfort when there is a strong heat inside railcars;
- opportunity to catch a departing train or jump from an arriving train at low speed before a complete stop;
- opportunity to ride on a train, which does not provide transportation of passengers (for example on a freight train, service train, single locomotive, etc.).
Train surfers are at risk of death and serious injuries. Electrocution from overhead lines is a risk whilst on top of a train. As well as health risks, train surfers may also face prosecution by the railway police and guards.
Some accidents with train surfers
Although cases of death or serious injury of train surfers happen quite often, some of them get coverage in the media, and sometimes even cause a wide public response:
- In November 2002, a British teenager was killed after hitting a bridge while riding on the roof of a train.
- In December 2003, a 15-year-old Australian girl suffered severe burns to her stomach, chest and shoulders in a train surfing accident in Melbourne. She had been riding on the roof of a train with friends when she came into contact with the train's power supply. Her scars were expected to be permanent.
- On 24 September 2004, a 14-year-old boy tried to jump on the footstep of a moving freight train but slipped and fell on the rails. Both his legs were severed by the wheels of the freight car. After this accident he was hospitalized.
- In June 2006, a 15-year-old in Johannesburg, South Africa, fell while swinging out of a train. Most of his scalp was ripped off.
- On 12 May 2007, Danish train surfer Martin Harris was killed after hitting a viaduct while riding on the roof of a commuter train. After the incident, a campaign against train surfing was launched by two Danish individuals.
- In May 2008, a 20-year-old from Werribee, Australia had been riding on the roof of a train during the night on top of the last carriage and had been killed after touching an electric wire with 1500 volts of electricity. His right arm was petrified and his fingers were rigid. After this, his body was found by passengers at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne.
- On 9 January 2009, a 17-year-old died after getting electrocuted with 25.000 volts on the top of a train wagon in Kolding, Denmark
- On 23 October 2010, a 19-year-old Dane, who was on vacation in Berlin, Germany with some friends, was hit by the rim of a bridge and subsequently got run over by another train after falling off the roof of his U-Bahn train car between the Möckernbrücke and Hallesches Tor stations
- On 14 February 2011, two 19-year-old Russian students were killed after hitting a pipe over the subway line while riding on the roof of a Moscow Metro train.
- On 24 January 2012, a 17-year-old was fatally injured with electrocution while train surfing on a roof of a train in Melbourne, Australia.
Prevention and punishments
Train surfing is illegal in many countries, including Australia, India, Indonesia, Russia and the United States of America. Many railroads take a strict view of people riding on the outside of trains, and employ railway police and guards in an attempt to prevent the practice. Police officers and guards usually patrol the territory of large passenger stations and freight yards, and can arrest train surfers if they are spotted. In some countries, railway police can patrol the territory of railways in utility trucks, SUVs ("bullmobiles"), or even standard police cars. Sometimes police organize raids to remove surfers off the trains and arrest them. According to the laws of different countries train surfers can be fined for various amounts of money, or even imprisoned for a short time.
At least 87 people were arrested in the last four months of 2010 in Melbourne for offences relating to train surfing. In Russia, over 1000 train surfers were arrested at the Moscow Railway during ten months of 2011. In India, 153 people were prosecuted in a single day for train surfing on the Central Railway.
To deter the occurrence of riding on the outside of trains, railway companies often place signs that warn about the dangers of train surfing. While there are no official numbers, the London Underground ran a public awareness campaign against “tube surfing”.
The Indonesian railway company, PT Kereta Api, has tried several methods to deter train surfers. Early methods included hosing those caught with red paint and placing barbed wire on train roofs. In 2012 the company began suspending concrete balls above the railway, a short distance from the stations. This method was criticised as being potentially lethal.
- Freight Train Riders of America
- Surfing Soweto, a 2010 South African documentary about train surfing.
- Sat1 Akte 08, Sat.1, archived from the original on 29 October 2009
- Video on YouTube (English subtitles)
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- Mackay, Lindsay (2009), An exploratory qualitative study of young, black men’s involvement in "Train- Surfing", University of KwaZulu-Natal, p. 121
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