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21 July 2017
Morning Sedition

Third Rails Other Than Socialist Insecurity

License Plate with 'Third Rail' on it

Why not? Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol... but too many adrenalin rushes in any given time span has the same bad effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits.

Hunter S. Thompson
Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72, page 17

I was listening to the news and again heard the comment that Socialist Insecurity is the "third rail" of American politics. So I said to myself — yes, I'm back to talking to myself since I ran out of meds — and nobody ever wants to piss on that third rail either. Which got me thinking about the endless debate is it or isn't it an urban legend that doing so is fatal.

But first, what is this "third rail", anyway? Well, for those of you who live in Red State America where there are no underground trains, the subways have a third track running parallel to the rails that the train rests on. This rail is used only to deliver 625 volts (DC) to the subway cars through a collecting shoe. Sounds like a dumb idea? Well, it's pretty much the only way to distribute power if you don't want the overhead transfer approach used by most trains:

There were numerous methods of conducting electricity to car motors. Street railways relied on overhead trolleys and underground conduits of various designs. During the last two years of the nineteenth century the elevated railways, unfettered by crowded street conditions, began to adopt third rail conduction.

Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering

But back to our topic of dumb things to urinate on. Third-rail injuries are, fortunately, rare. A paper by doctors at the Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, reports on a mere sixteen injuries over a fifteen-year period:

BACKGROUND: Railway and subway-associated electrical trauma is rare and typically involves high voltage (> 20,000) arc injuries. Not all rail systems utilize such high voltage. We report 16 cases of electrical trauma due to 600 V direct contact with subway 'third' rails. METHODS: A case series of injured patients presenting to Shriners Burns Institute, Boston or Massachusetts General Hospital between 1970 and 1995 was retrospectively analyzed. RESULTS: A total of 16 cases was identified. Among seven subway workers, the mechanism of rail contact was unintentional by a tool, a hand or by falling; no deaths occurred. Among nine non-occupational victims, injuries involved suicide attempts, unintentional falls, or risk-taking behavior. This group suffered greater burn severity, operative procedures, and complications; three deaths occurred.

"Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8

Ok. So has anyone died from urinating on the tracks? The short answer is, well, a strong maybe to a weak yes. But we are going to make you sit through the details uncovered on our quest for the truth. We quickly turned up an intriguing first possibility which is, at best, inconclusive and potentially erroneous.

The case of Lee v. Chicago Transit authority is often cited as demonstrating a need for legal reform:

On October 21, 1977, the morning preceding the accident, the decedent informed plaintiff that he planned to attend a party in the evening. Decedent apparently left the party after dark. He proceeded up Kedzie Avenue, a north/south street which intersected with the northwest-bound Ravenswood rapid transit line. At this point, he apparently proceeded into the CTA's right-of-way in order to urinate. In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries.

Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304

In addition to the signing, sharp triangular shaped boards had been installed between the sidewalk and the third rail to make it extremely difficult and awkward for a person to walk up the tracks. Nonetheless, the decedent walked up the tracks approximately 6 1/2 feet to the point where the third rail began. There, attempting to urinate, he was electrocuted.

Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992

The problem with Lee v. CTA is that nowhere in the briefs or decision does it actually cite direct contact of urine and the third rail as the cause of death. The closest the legal papers come to addressing the issue is the vague, "In the process of doing so, he came into contact with the third rail, and suffered fatal injuries." What were those fatal injuries? How were they obtained? Did he fall onto the third rail? Trip over it? Inquiring minds want to know!

So let's turn back to Gotham, which is what we care about, anyway, where we have the curious case of Joseph Patrick O'Malley:

Marshall Houta's [sic] Where Death Delights contains the sad story of one Joseph Patrick O'Malley, a man with two unfortunate habits: heavy drinking and wandering through subway tunnels.

One morning, O'Malley's mangled body was found in a tunnel 50 yards from the nearest station. He had apparently been struck and killed by a train.

But an autopsy turned up another cause: "The burns on the head of the penis and on the thumb and forefinger were obviously electrical burns....The stream of urine had come into contact with the 600 volts of the third rail. The current had coursed up the stream to cause the burns on his body as the electricity entered it.

"In all probability, he was dead from electrocution before the train ever hit his body."

Straight Dope

Ok, so that's the story. (By the way: the book is by Marshall Houts, not Houta, and the title is Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine. Mistakes like these make me doubt the rest of Cecil Adam's — ok, Ed Zotti and staff's — work.) But would electricity really race up a stream of urine in practice? Can a stream of urine arc almost ten feet long and be continuous enough to electrocute someone? Can this story actually be true? Maybe:

The combination of water and electricity is notoriously volatile--so much so that there might be a built-in safety factor, i.e., the shock would be great enough to knock you down. This would spoil your aim and cut off the current before the electricity could do its lethal work on your heart muscles.

Straight Dope

I'm not buying it, but because of the distances involved, not the conduction factor. Remember, air insulates at about a thousand volts per millimeter, so the 625 volts of the subway can't jump the multi-millimeter gaps. (Urinating onto high-tension lines, however, is probably a bad idea.) Having said that, I recently watched the Mythbusters episode on this very myth where Adam urinates on an electric fence in the name of science. (Not to worry, paramedics were standing by. Kids, don't try this at home.) Adam, fortunately, does not have a shy bladder so he was able to perform on camera. (A career in fetish porn clearly awaits.) The question Mythbusters asked was:

Is it really that dangerous to answer the call of nature on the electrified third rail of a train track?

Episode 3: Barrel of Bricks, Pissing on the Third Rail, Eel Skin Wallet

The answer? Well, after Adam complained, "I've been painted gold and anal probed for you today... What else do you want?" the experiment proceeded forthwith. The conclusion was no, it doesn't, mostly because the stream of urine breaks up too much to conduct electricity. (Which seems to be confirmed by the sites listed at the end of this entry. But I'm getting ahead of myself.) I'm not sure that stream breakup is the sole reason. Yes, there is the air gap problem. (See above.) But my take was that the experiment is faulty: Adam simply wasn't grounded enough.

I've heard stories from people who grew up in farm country who'd apparantly heard stories about close encounters of a urinating kind with electric fences, mostly involving dogs that quickly learned to not do this. (Dogs make a lot of sense as the primary victims of electric fences because, like Wall Street bankers, they're always marking their territory and with four paws on the ground they are thoroughly grounded, completing the circuit.) But, once again, who knows how true those stories really are? And how, exactly, do they relate to the subways?

Ok. Let's get the data from the people who really do know. Years ago I read Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples which relates the finding by New York City Medical Examiner Milton Helprin that a man didn't commit suicide by leaping onto the subway tracks but was rather electrocuted when he answered a call of nature on the third rail. (Burns on the thumb, index finger, and glans clinched it. Ouch!) But I can't find the details of that online. (Dead trees are so hard to search!).

I was able to locate the relevant bit from Marshall Houts' book online, but don't know how accurate it is. (I haven't seen my copy of Where Death Delights or Dead Men Do Tell Tales in a long time. Both, like the thousands of other volumes in my library, are boxed up pending finding sufficient space.) So here's what Houts allegedly wrote about it:

Milton Heprin, longtime chief medical examiner in New York City, used to tell the story of a young Irishman seen standing on the far reaches of a subway platform by several witnesses. At a certain point he suddenly and silently pitched forward right in front of an oncoming train. He was found dead beneath the wheels, horribly mangles. But his family was Catholic and did not readily accept the initial conclusion of suicide. They were quite certain that their son had no reason to commit suicide, and in the end they were proved right. Helprin reexamined the mangled body and noticed tiny burn marks on the right thumb, index finger, and the tip of the penis. He was able to reassure the family their son had died accidentally. He had been urinating on the subway tracks, and the stream had accidentally reached the third rail. The arc of falling water, rich with salts favoring conduction, instantly became an arc of lethal electricity. The lad was probably dead before he hit the tracks.

Darwin Digest, quoting from Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts

And now, the piece de la resistance:

It was surely one of the most bizarre deaths in the annals of New York history, let alone its medical history. An unidentified man was traveling the subways one day when he felt the urgent call of nature. Unable or unwilling to seek out a public toilet, he proceeded to relieve himself on the subway tracks. But alas, relief was not forthcoming. The arc of the man's urine hit the third rail, conducting a high-voltage electrical current back to his body and killing him instantly.

Newsday, 28 January 1988, Part II, page 3

But I can't fully confirm that, either. Finally, one more tidbit:

Just did an interview with Bob Lobenstein... the General Superintendent, power Operations, Traction Power Historian, Maintenance of Way - Electrical systems and all round good guy of the New York City Transit Department. NYCT are the guys who power the third Rail in NYC.

He claims that he has not only heard of the pissing on the third rail myth... he thinks it's true. From the day he began with NYCT his trainers and supervisors told him the story... although when asked he could not produce any names or paperwork. This seems to back our case that there are no cases on Medical record.

He gave us a demonstration at full power 625 Volts... 10,000 amps. with a squeeze bottle on a curcuit.. filled with saline water.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003

So where were we... ah yes... the third rail experiment... well he managed to get a connection up to three feet from the rail. Unfortunately I think he hadn't taken into consideration the fact that his squeeze bottle... under pressure from two hands... was capable of producing a far higher pressure urine stream that is feasible for the average human. We measured a urine stream and noted that on average a male produces around 200ml in 14 - 18 seconds. At this rate the stream breaks up in a little over six inches.

By the way I had a message from Danny Burstein that I though you giys might be interested in hearing. Danny, I hope you don't mind.

Danny said that he had heard of a charred member.. the product of third rail pissing... in the collection of the NYC medical examiners office. We dutifully made the calls and to date have not received a conclusive answer. The NYCMEO claims that their collection was transferred to the Smithsonian some years ago. They had no recollection of the charred member.

USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003

So there you have it. Urinating onto the third rail may or may not kill you if you do it in the subway. It will, however, destroy your career if you do it in Washington DC.

After all, Social Security has been called the third rail of American politics, but the President has grabbed onto this rail and insisted that it be discussed.

Dr. N. Gregory Mankiw, Chairman Council of Economic Advisers, Annual Meeting of the National Association of Business Economists, 15 September 2003

Sources and Further Reading

  1. "Electrical injury from subway third rails: serious injury associated with intermediate voltage contact." Burns, 1997 Sep;23(6):515-8
  2. Straight Dope
  3. Darwin Digest
  4. Design and Construction of the IRT: Electrical Engineering
  5. Brief filed by Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304
  6. Decision, Estate of Sang Yeul Lee (deceased) vs. Chicago Transit Authority, Supreme Court of Illinois, Case No. 71304, 22 October 1992
  7. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 14 July 2003
  8. USENET Posting by Peter Rees, 20 July 2003
  9. Dead Men Do Tell Tales; The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Antrhopologist by William R. Maples, 1994
  10. Where Death Delights: The Story of Dr. Milton Helpern and Forensic Medicine by Marshall Houts, 1967
  11. Autopsy: The Memoirs of Milton Helpern, The World's Greatest Medical Detective by Milton Helpern, 1977

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