Train engineer William Smith screamed like crazy for the young woman to move as she walked along the railroad tracks with her back to his approaching locomotive. And for a split second, he envisioned himself swooping down in superhero fashion and snatching her from the rails. In reality, he braced for the inevitable collision. It arrived with a loud “clonging,” the sound of the locomotive striking her 150-pound body – a sound the 39-year-old still finds hard to shake, five years later.
“Every time I hear that ‘clong’ that girl is in front of my train and I’m screaming,” said Smith, who was a conductor at the time of the collision and is now a Susquehanna Railway engineer. “She probably has friends and family who don’t think about her as much as I do.”
Roughly 500 people die nationwide every year while trespassing on railroad tracks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Nine have lost their lives on NJ Transit train tracks this year in Bergen and Passaic counties, including three teen boys killed in Wayne and Garfield this month.
Those fatal train collisions often trigger a public outcry for stronger enforcement at grade crossings and rail safety education in schools. But less public are the emotions train engineers are left to grapple with after witnessing the grisly last moments of a person crushed by a train they had no power to stop.
“It’s a traumatic experience for engineers and it does take them a long time, if they ever do recover,” Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said. “A good many of them do not get back to work.”
Many live with guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger and fear for years after an incident, said Nick McLean, a rail enthusiast who interviewed train crews around the country for a 2008 report: “The Psychological and Physiological Implications of Trains Striking Motorists and Pedestrians,” he wrote while a student at the University of North Carolina.
The most prominent feeling is helplessness, McLean said. Unlike motorists, locomotive engineers can’t swerve or stop quickly even after applying the brake, he said.
“The big concern is for the engineer just having to relive this thing, waking up at night, having images of the people they’ve run over,” he said. “The people were trespassing, but it’s still a human life.”
Some engineers shrug it off as “one of those things where you learn to live with it,” he said. “Within the railroad community, it’s a known fact that if you’re going to make a career out of being a trainman, you’re going to run over somebody at some point.”
One man McLean interviewed had never discussed a fatal collision before, he said. Others were angry because they are often subject to lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.
He said railroads are improving in their support for engineers and conductors, though some felt they had to “just suck it up” and get back to work. McLean found group counseling sessions in which engineers were able to discuss incidents with older enginemen where there is a “significant camaraderie.”
Rob Kulat, spokesman for the FRA, which enforces federal railroad safety regulations, said there is no federal requirement for how railroads or their crews should navigate the after-effects of a fatal collision, but most offer some form of post-traumatic stress counseling.
It’s common practice after a collision for a railroad to send in a relief crew to take over the train, rail experts say.
Penny Bassett Hackett, spokeswoman for NJ Transit, said some engineers have never had a fatal collision with a trespasser, while others have had multiple collisions.
NJ Transit has a “critical incident” policy that includes in-house counseling for the engineer and crew members “to help them work through the incident they experienced,” she said. “Many of our train crew members take advantage of that.”
Bassett Hackett said the train engineer operates the train, but it is the job of the conductor who is in charge of the train to go outside and investigate when a trespasser is struck. “Sometimes the conductor will bring with them the assistant conductor,” she said. “As you can imagine, conductors and assistant conductors have unfortunately seen some very disturbing things.”
Daniel O’Connell, a former NJ Transit locomotive engineer who is now a lobbyist for the United Transportation Union, which represents rail workers, said railroads have become sensitive about the need to offer counseling to train crews.
Some conductors or engineers “think they’re OK after a collision, then they start to have flashbacks or difficulty sleeping or they realize, ‘I’m not the same person I was before the accident. It gives them a chance to discuss it,” he said.
Others want to go back to work right away because they are hoping life will just go back to normal.
“I know people who have hit people and they’ve made eye contact” with the person just before the train killed them, he said. “That can be a little tough.” If someone commits suicide, he said, the engineer “is the one who is there,” he said.
O’Connell, who has also operated trains for Conrail and Penn Central railroads, said in his 30-year-career, he never had a fatal. But years ago he had a close call.
“I was running a train to Trenton and I was leaving New Brunswick Station,” he said last week. “I was doing about 45 or 50 (mph) on the Northeast Corridor and I looked up and no more than 200 feet in front of me there’s a man standing in between the rails with his arm outstretched.”
O’Connell said he applied the emergency brake, looked away and “waited to hear myself hit the guy.” Nothing happened. The train stopped and O’Connell looked out to see the man wobbling in a field near the track, apparently drunk.
Kulat said most railroad fatalities are due to trespassing, such as using the track as a shortcut. Dangerous but common activities include people driving all-terrain vehicles on tracks, or walking on tracks while listening to music or talking on a cellphone.
“They get distracted and they don’t see the trains coming,” he said.
Kulat said the most effective deterrent has been education. Most railroads, including NJ Transit, work with Operation Lifesaver Inc., a national organization that provides education on rail safety. Bassett Hackett said NJ Transit has a rail safety program for schools. Following the Wayne and Garfield train deaths, state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson last week announced a joint task force he has created that includes an education component aimed at youth.
Smith, the engineer, said he sees a general lack of respect for trains and the railroad property in Hackensack – where last week he saw a police car drive around lowered train gates as his train approached Union Avenue – and other North Jersey communities. Paterson is the scariest because kids throw rocks at the train or people walk dangerously close to the tracks, he said.
Smith knew from childhood he wanted to be an engineer. His grandfather and great-uncle worked on the Susquehanna and the Erie railroads and he managed to collect a few stories from his grandfather’s experience about the “dangers” of the railroad.
“It was always about somebody somewhere ignoring a crossing,” he said. One story involved a jeep running a crossing and his grandfather being left to hose off the remains, he said. It was a ‘this is what really happens on the railroad kind of story,’ not one of those, ‘I love going to sleep to the sound of the train’ stories,” he said.
Smith remembers clearly that night about five years ago when the young woman climbed under the safety gates and walked onto the track as his train approached. He remembers the engineer screaming after applying the safety brakes and rounding a bend near Madison Avenue in Paterson. Smith said he was so shaken that the engineer told him to stay put while he went back to check the body.
The feeling, Smith said, is like “driving your car on Route 80 and having someone run out of the bushes and you hit them. … It is the most soul-wrenching thing in the world.”
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