Railroad Crews Fear that Trespassers Will Make Them Killers

1
1165
Buckingham Branch, a short-line freight railroad, operates along the 35 miles of track in Albemarle County. Photo: Zane Craig.

In March, two Waynesboro men died under the wheels of the same train operated by a Buckingham Branch crew, one in Crozet and the other in Waynesboro. Sebastian Ignacio Herrera, the Crozet casualty, was a VCU graduate and electrical engineer. He was 39. 

Buckingham Branch management staff joined Albemarle County police at the scene of Herrera’s death, offering a replacement crew, said Mark Bryant, CEO of the short-run railroad. “Since they were so near their home station of Staunton, the engineer and conductor decided to continue.” Shortly after the two-hour delay in Crozet, the same train hit Taylor Dalton Stevens, 32, who was sitting on the tracks in Waynesboro. “Our management staff were still in the area so they got there quickly,” Bryant said. “This time, the crew did not continue.” The day’s events seem to be a stunning coincidence, and no connection between the two has been discovered, according to both the Waynesboro and Albemarle County police.

The engineer and conductor were sent home, given leave time to recover, and offered counseling, Bryant said, and both men are now back at work. Bryant confirmed that it’s often helpful for those involved in accidents to be around their colleagues and busy at familiar work. The total Buckingham Branch crew is small––about 80––and 10 are engineers. “We’re in touch all the time, like a family,” he said. The men involved in the March incident had wanted to return as soon as possible: “Some do; some don’t,” he said. “We let them choose.”

Some people don’t recover and don’t return, said Glenn Martin, a long-time engineer who said he’d probably struck 15 or so pedestrians in his almost 40-year career as an engineer for Norfolk Southern. Martin, now retired, lives in Nelson County. “I had a friend who hit a car stopped on the tracks with a whole family inside.” Martin’s friend walked away from his engine, and from his job, and never came back.

All the railroad-related fatalities in Albemarle County in recent years have occurred in Crozet. The March Crozet fatality is not included in this chart. Graphic courtesy FRA.

Martin talked about the life of an engineer. His freight route was not through Crozet, but from the Valley to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and back. He noted that training and certification are rigorous throughout the industry. Many railroads, like Buckingham Branch, also conduct their own additional training. “We don’t just sit in the cab and smoke cigars,” Martin said. “There are gauges we watch constantly, radio contact with updates on conditions, and our focus is on the road ahead for anything unsafe.” There’s a protocol when the crew sees a pedestrian or vehicle on the rails. “We apply the emergency brakes and immediately call the dispatcher,” he said. The dispatcher notifies first responders in the area. Sometimes local emergency crews are there immediately, sometimes “we’re the first responders,” Martin said, “and we do what we can.”

Speaking at a conference last fall on pedestrian safety, rail labor representative Tom Cahill of Smart Transportation further described what typically happens once the train comes to a stop. It can be a mile or so past the point of impact, so it falls to the conductor to walk back to the scene. The engineer stays in the cab, because it may be necessary for him to work with the conductor to “split the train.” The conductor decides the best place to uncouple the cars at some point because there’s a 50-50 chance that emergency crews will be approaching on the wrong side to reach the victim and also a good chance––especially with a long train––that the train is blocking other nearby track crossings. “So the conductor is left forever with the sight of that carnage,” Cahill said. “And the engineer is left to constantly replay the scene, wondering what he could have done differently.” He added that some engineers in urban areas who operate at certain times of day can expect to kill a trespasser every year. 

Engineers generally love their jobs, love pulling a train through mountains and along rivers, becoming familiar with every crossing and every back yard, every small town, Cahill said. In his case, the only thing he ever wanted to do was to run trains. But he said there are those who are so affected by their part in a fatality that they ask to spend the rest of their career in the rail yard. 

Suicides are the very worst in terms of their impact on the train crew, Cahill said: “Typically, they don’t sprint onto the tracks but are already there, looking up at you for the whole time you’re desperately trying to stop the train.” The railroad employees involved in the March incidents were devastated, Bryant said, “We all were.”

It takes a railroad engineer a mile or so to stop when he sees something on the track.

Virginia police don’t confirm suicides beyond noting that someone was “sitting on the tracks,” or “didn’t move as the train approached,” nor do they release toxicology or cause-of-death reports from medical examiners. Journalists worry about whether to report on deaths that might be suicides, both out of respect for the family and from the belief that reports of one suicide might trigger others. 

Crystal Graham is the former director of the Virginia Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and founder of a new prevention non-profit, “The Ditto Project.” She said the thinking about reporting suicide has changed. Graham is a journalist herself and lost her twin sister to death by suicide when both were teenagers. Having suicidal thoughts or losing a loved one to suicide is nothing to be ashamed of, she said: “As a community, we have much more to gain if we talk openly about mental health and suicide and what each of us can do to play a role in recognizing warning signs and ultimately prevention.” 

She compares mental illness to physical disease, which we discuss openly. It’s unlikely, she said, that someone’s suicide would motivate someone who wasn’t already considering it. Showing that others battle mental health issues ultimately lessens the stigma and results in more people getting help. 

Still, Graham acknowledges that reports of suicide by any means can influence those already contemplating it. For this reason, a recent study commissioned by the Federal Railroad Authority (FRA) suggested that journalists not use “suicide” in headlines or show graphic photos of the scene. They also suggest that the exact locations of the deaths on the tracks not be publicized lest that serve as a kind of grim invitation to others: In fact, one of the recent deaths was very near the highly publicized train-related fatality (not a suicide) involving a trash truck last winter. Both suicide prevention specialists and railroad staff working on this problem ask journalists to include mental health contacts in any story that mentions suicide, so we include some resources at the end of this article.

To understand the overall problem of trespassing, the FRA maintains a searchable database of incidents in each state, sorted by county and city, with a separate category for those determined to be deaths by suicide. Rachel Meleh, executive director of Operation Lifesaver, a group supported by the railroads, said that Virginia had 10 railroad fatalities in 2018, with one determined to be death by suicide. Nationwide, there were 219 deaths by suicide, or nearly a third of the overall railroad-related fatalities. 

In Crozet, there have been a couple of deaths previously recorded as suicides in the database. In 2015, Matthew Michael Shannon, a 22-year-old chef at Fardowner’s, and the next year, an unnamed man, also a 22-year-old, were killed. Both were lying on the tracks within Crozet’s town limits, both struck by CSX trains.

In order to understand how to prevent these kinds of deaths, the FRA did some nationwide research to see what kinds of people put themselves in the path of an oncoming train. This study, and others conducted by social scientists, agree that the norm is overwhelmingly male, younger than the average person choosing death by suicide, living within easy access of railroad tracks but without access to a firearm. In countries where there is little access to firearms, the numbers are higher. Cities with mass light-rail transportation have identified death by suicide on their tracks as a significant problem, but light-rail statistics are kept separately from those of the FRA.

In Crozet, there are nine public and three private railroad crossings, each with various degrees of warning, but you’ll catch sight of hundreds of points of easy access to the 35 miles of track in Albemarle County many times a day as you travel around the area doing errands. Regardless of the one death and multiple injuries occurring at a Crozet railroad crossing in 2018, increased safety measures at crossings have drastically decreased accidents there. It’s much more likely now for an incident to occur elsewhere along the tracks. Mark Bryant notes the impossibility of fencing off every interface between the public and the tracks: Instead his company, along with others in the industry, supports suicide prevention efforts aimed at the general public, and at railway trespassers in particular. 

How to do this is the dilemma. California has signs at crossings and along the tracks giving toll free numbers for a help line; Japan—where light-rail suicide attempts are a major problem––has tried stringing blue lights along the rail bed in hopes they will elevate the mood of those who are despondent. Metropolitan transit stations have erected all kinds of barriers, and passenger train personnel in the U.K have been trained to recognize symptoms of depression, intoxication and agitation. There’s also a slogan, “Small talk saves lives,” posted in stations, encouraging travelers to look up from their smartphones and engage neighbors in talk as part of an effort to remove troubled people from social isolation. 

Correcting potential major trouble spots may do little to deter rail-related suicides, but watchfulness can prevent some accidental trespasser deaths. In Albemarle County, there have been several accidental injuries over the past few years, including a 30-year old thrill-seeker walking on a railroad trestle and a 51-year-old man trying to beat the train at a crossing, in addition to the injuries from the more recent collision between the Amtrak train and the trash truck. In the past ten years, there have been 15 accidents in Albemarle County, with the three deaths noted above. In all three of the cases, Albemarle County deaths were in Crozet. Albemarle statistics don’t include the two deaths in March.

It doesn’t take long to notice that freight trains passing through Crozet are almost always west-bound, and they roll by at almost any time of day. That’s because we’re on the return side of a loop that brings empty coal cars back, and the scheduling depends on the freight, varying day-to-day. Urban pedestrians are often accustomed to scheduled passenger trains, and don’t expect a train outside of a certain timetable. Bryant said he’s worked with the city of Charlottesville to reduce situations where pedestrians are injured using the rails as a shortcut. He said that his engineers and conductors are always watchful for anything that looks amiss along the tracks, or any new pedestrian patterns and share that information with other crews.

Cahill said engineers and conductors like the idea of drones, or other types of high-performance cameras recording visuals along the tracks, well ahead of what the train crew can observe in the cab, and well ahead of the mile or so it takes a train to stop. They also support warning horns at crossings that are aimed towards motorists, as the horn blast of an approaching train can be an unreliable indication of the train’s proximity. Cahill said the engineers know the most dangerous crossings to be in urban areas, where pedestrians go around the gates, and in areas where there’s a road running parallel to the gates, giving motorists room to maneuver around warning arms that are down. Some cities use pedestrian gates that provide a formidable barrier, he said. Distraction is a growing menace: Cahill said he’s talked to survivors who said they never saw or heard the train, they were so engrossed in their electronic devices. Ultimately, there’s only so much that anyone can do in terms of outside intervention, especially in rural areas, except to better educate the public about railroad safety. 

People in Crozet have been more affected than most by railroad-related tragedies, and recognize the ripple effect on first responders, neighbors, families, and friends. To those, Cahill adds the crew on the train:  “There may be one death, he said, “but there are dual victims.”

Anyone with thoughts of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline no matter the time of day or night: 1-800-273-8255.

People who have survived a suicide loss can find help here: https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/ or join a support group here: https://afsp.org/find-support/ive-lost-someone/find-a-support-group/

For railroad safety tips and resources, go to oli.org/education-resources/saftey-tips/safety-tips-and-facts 

1 COMMENT

  1. Trespassing would be climbing the eight foot railroad fence—bagging the railroad security cameras, hiding from the railroad lookout towers, and outrunning the two railroad cops in the state. There has to be deterrents not some reporter going yap-yap-yap when the railroads pull his strings.

    Your train brakes suck and you have no steering which is a no-no in defensive driving—KILLERS

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here