Fatalities can haunt train engineers

Most involved in 3 during a career

The Associated PressAugust 14, 2009 

  • More than 700: People who died in collisions with trains in 2008

    290: Deaths in train-vehicle crashes in 2008

    More than 1,000: Annual deaths in train-vehicle crashes in the 1970s

    500: Approximate number of pedestrians killed each year for the past 30 years

— What haunts Charlie Lough most is the man's eyes.

A year into his dream job as a train engineer, Lough suddenly found himself yanking frantically at the whistle after a man strayed past descending crossing gates. The man had time enough only to whip his head around before realizing his deadly mistake.

"He was looking me right in the eyes as I hit him. He was terrified," Lough said in a halting voice, recalling the first time he struck someone while at the controls. "I still see his face today."

It's a dark -- if little-known -- side of a profession that more often evokes images of smiling engineers waving to children along the tracks. But on average, locomotive operators are involved in three fatalities over the course of a career.

In 18 years of working for Chicago's Metra commuter service, the 48-year-old Lough has struck four people who died.

700-plus killed in 2008

Most railways offer counseling to anguished engineers. Psychologists liken the experience to the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by soldiers returning from war -- jarring memories, a sense of isolation and the constant fear that someone could be killed at any moment.

Usually, the engineers have done nothing to contribute to the deaths, most of which involve people who recklessly cut across the tracks or wanted to commit suicide.

More than 700 people died in collisions with trains in 2008, according to statistics from the Federal Railway Administration. About 450 of those involved pedestrians.

The number of train-vehicle crashes has plummeted over the decades thanks to better road markings and public education. But pedestrian deaths have held steady at about 500 a year for 30 years, and those are the collisions that most haunt freight and commuter-rail engineers driving along the nation's 140,000-mile rail system.

California had the highest number of trespassing deaths in 2008, with 59. Illinois was second with 35 and Texas third with 30. All three states are major railway centers.

Deaths become personal

What makes the deaths so traumatic is how personal they can be, with engineers often seeing the expression on a person's face before impact. Details can be etched in their minds. Lough remembers the man he hit in 1992 who wore a black jacket, his hands in his pockets.

Bodies are typically torn apart, so the unshakable memories include gruesome scenes of the aftermath. Shoes often remain in the exact spot where people were struck because the impact lifts them out of their footwear.

"You often know where they were standing by where their shoes are," said 55-year-old Gordon Bowe, who, as a Metra conductor, is responsible for walking back to survey the carnage after an impact.

On her first run as a Metra engineer, Vallorie O'Neil's train accelerated to 60 mph and hit a man apparently trying to commit suicide. At first, she was furious that he had dragged her into his personal crisis.

"'This is a coward's way to die,'" she thought after her train screeched to a halt. "'You don't want to do it, you want me to do it -- you want me to end your life.' But after the anger, there's remorse."

After his first fatality, Lough was expected to suck it up and finish his run. Today, Metra gives engineers at least a day off, sometimes more. And the company requires them to see a counselor. Many railroad companies have also organized peer-support groups.

Fellow engineers hasten to assure their distraught colleagues that they were not to blame.

"If you start playing that game of 'If I woulda, if I coulda,' that's a long list, and it's not going to change anything that happened," Lough said.

"It's always going to be a part of you. But you're going to have to learn to cope with it."

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