Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Other Survivors of Train Accidents

In the next town over from where the Quarterback lives, five people in their teens and early twenties were killed on Thursday when the driver of the car they were traveling in went around a railroad crossing barrier and into the path of an Amtrak train. The crash was captured by a video surveillance camera and the footage is available on the web. I don't recommend watching it -- I haven't.

Four families (two of the dead were siblings) are in a state of shock and anger and disbelief this weekend. Friends, classmates and people who live near the track are also traumatized. The situation is further muddied by the fact that the driver had had his license suspended just the day before. Plenty of blame and anger is being thrown around, I'm sure.

But there is one person you might not be feeling for today, and maybe you should. What about the train's engineer?

The statistics about railway fatalities are pretty stark. In 2007, there were 856 people killed in railroad incidents in the United States. Of those, 339 were at railroad crossings. The vast majority of fatalities -- 630 -- were what are called "trespasser fatalities." Those are people on the tracks, either at the crossing or elsewhere, who should not have been there (this accident was not a trespasser fatality, since the car was trying to cross the tracks, not sitting on them). There are no official statistics on how many of those trespasser fatalities were suicides, but the number is high.

The Quarterback had the pleasure, at a recent conference, of getting to know a gentleman who works in the Employee Assistance Program at Amtrak. I asked him what the chances were that any given engineer would be involved in an incident in which the train struck and killed someone during his career. My colleague said, "If you stick with the job, it will happen to you, possibly more than once." In fact, Amtrak includes pre-incident inoculation -- preparing people for such an accident -- as part of its education of new train crews.

The fact of the matter is, if someone is on the tracks who shouldn't be, or crossing the tracks when it's not safe, there is nothing the engineer can possibly do to stop the train in time. With the power of operating an enormous, fast machine like a train, comes the knowledge that in fact the train is more powerful than you. What an awful part of the job to have to "get used to."

We've all heard people joke about, or maybe even discuss seriously, throwing themselves under a train or a bus. We rarely stop to think that when someone does that, intentionally or not, they also force the operator to kill them. So this evening, I'm taking a moment to think about my new acquaintance and the men and women he works with, and the engineer who will have to live with this experience for the rest of his or her life.


Colleen said...

I read a quote (I think in a train travel guide) that when the engineer sees someone on the tracks, he knows he can't stop the train in time...but he always tries.

I think it must be even harder on engineers with all the towns requiring them to not blast their horns routinely at crossings.

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle

Blog Archive