1990s classics

Latvia's Strange and Awesome Train Safety PSA Adverts

I’ve always had a weird fascination with train safety PSAs, having even created one for fun when I was in high school. Most of them follow fairly simple premises; a careless driver goes around the gates and misjudges how fast the train is coming, some kids are playing on the tracks and can’t escape, people forget to look both ways, or someone waits for a first train to pass but doesn’t see the second train coming. These PSAs rely on sobering realism. attempting to scare the viewer out of their bad habits.

In the early 2000s, Latvijas Dzelceļš (the country’s rail agency) decided to try a markedly different approach. Instead of attempting to shock and horrify the viewer, they commissioned a rare series of humorous, animated adverts starring characters from the classic 1990s series “Avārijas Brigāde” (Emergency Brigade), which starred three bumbling “emergency workers” named Bembēlāts, Sīlinks, and Poterīks who other characters in various forms of distress would call upon to solve their problems in unconventional (and almost always ineffective) ways.

Besides the absolutely beautifully designed sets and props and extreme attention to small details, the most affecting and memorable aspect of Avārijas Brigāde was always it’s uniquely strange and very Latvian sense of humor. These PSAs are no exception, with the boundlessly innovative creators having come up with some of the most bizarre situations imaginable for safety adverts actually aired on national TV. The five I’ve picked to write about for this post are my favorites, although it was hard to choose from the more than dozen that were created.

Now What?

What begins as harmless childish fun (how many of you have NEVER put a coin or small rock on a rail to see what would happen?) quickly escalates to the point of derailing a large and seemingly unstoppable diesel engine. While the kids running through the town and up the stairs of their apartment to escape the train might seem like fairly standard cartoon antics, it’s the end that takes the cake. After being derailed and crashing through the wall of a (at least) second floor apartment, the driver calmly climbs down from the engine and simply asks the naughty children “ko nu?” (what now?) in in the understatement of the century. But really, where do you go from there?

Here Comes The Train…

While the trope of two characters accidentally switching heads is as old as the very first cartoons, this was likely the first time in human history that it’s been employed in a PSA about train safety. I suppose that this one could also double as a reaffirmation of the old tradition/superstition that a groom shouldn’t see his bride before she walks down the aisle on their wedding day.

Just Your Size

Don’t Steal

The issue of people crossing railroad tracks in strange and dangerous ways is only slightly exaggerated here. This is easily the most morbid of these AB rail PSAs, with it being more or less implied that the acrobatic elderly lady at the beginning is crushed by the oncoming train. The gallows humor continues when the brigade begins building coffins of various sizes, both to scare and deter dim-witted daredevils from playing real-life frogger with trains, and most likely to deal with those who didn’t get the message in time. I love how Sīlinks obviously has much more concern about the innocent cat being carried into danger than he does for its careless owner, but the best part is how they use reverse psychology on the would-be track crossers the way parents or teachers do with young students. Or least I hope that’s what it is and that they’re not genuinely egging the pedestrians on to their gruesome ends.

A torrent of kleptomania is unleashed when an unassuming passenger is either annoyed by his train carriage’s intercom or he decides that he can somehow make use of the low-fi speaker. Within seconds, a mob of aggressive hoarders jump on board and take everything they can find, regardless of it’s bolted down, including seats, doors, and even the railroad track itself. This results in a catastrophic derailment which teaches our hero the important lesson that if you use a screwdriver to disconnect and steal your train’s intercom, you just might be traumatically injured. Or… something like that.

You Can’t Bribe a Train.

This is it: my personal favorite train PSA of all time, and the short that originally made me fall in love with Avārijas Brīgade in the first place. While on the surface this PSA is only a slight variation on the standard “don’t try to race the train” concept, it’s the small details that make it so memorable. Here comes Mr. Hotshot in his fancy red convertible, paying nothing but disdain to the chicken in the road in front of him (for those of you who don’t know Latvian, the word for “hen” is “vista,” which makes it twice as funny when he delivers Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line to the poor bird). When a border guard asks for his passport, he wordlessly hands the man a good ol’ Benjamin Franklin before speeding on. This raises a number of unanswered questions; what’s this guy doing crossing the border without a passport? Why does he have a seemingly endless supply of US 100 dollar bills, international crime’s favorite currency? 

Before we even have time to process these questions, he’s already crossed lanes and side-swiped an elderly driver, telling him to shut up as he hands over yet another crisp c-note on his reign of vehicular terror. This all culminates when our cheery, singing mobster decides he has no time to wait for a freight train to pass on his beeline to wherever, and predictably tries to drive around the gates. Much less predictably, when his wheels get stuck and he can’t push the car out of the sand, in the face of impending doom he calmly gets back in the driver’s seat and starts flashing a Benjamin at the oncoming mass of steel. Yes, he tries to bribe a train into not hitting him.

Like any raw force of nature, a speeding train stops in time for no one, king or commoner. It has no need for something as lowly and human as currency, and if not properly respected, it shows no mercy. The law finally catches up to our gangster wannabe, and after he dejectedly soaks in the gravity of his situation for a second in the front seat of his ruined sports car, he’s carted away in handcuffs on the back of a police bicycle as he watches the totaled wreck get towed away. In lieu of an actual siren, the cycling law officer mimics the sound of a police car the way any kid on a playground would. This all somehow takes place in just under 60 seconds without feeling the slightest bit rushed, requiring repeat viewings to truly appreciate every small detail. While there may be different great train safety PSAs, there will never be a better one.

For any of you interested in finding the rest, here is a playlist of most of them. I will also eventually write a post about the main series of Avārijas Brīgade, which is awesome enough to deserve its own more thorough write-up. Until next time, never forget to beware the friendly dragon.

Stephen Kings’ IT (1990) - Emily Perkins (Beverly Marsh), Seth Green (Richie Tozier), Tim Curry (Pennywise), Ben Heller (Stanley Uris), Jonathan Brandis (Bill Denbrough), Brandon Crane (Ben Hanscom), Marlon Tayler (Mike Hanlon) and Adam Faraizl (Eddie Kaspbrak)

Bottle Rocket (1996) directed by Wes Anderson