With Suicides, Train Engineers Long Haunted by Horror, Helplessness
‘You Just Turn Your Head and Wait’
Bruce Evans has learned to look away. Hoping to keep his mind free of yet another image that will linger for a lifetime, he has learned to avert his eyes as his train barrels down on a person on the tracks. In 20 years at the controls of Amtrak locomotives, Evans has watched a dozen fatalities unfold in agonizing close-up.
“After the first time you strike somebody, you just turn your head and wait for the impact,” said Evans, an engineer based out of Washington’s Union Station.
The first one was sitting on a quiet stretch of rail near Weldon, N.C., a man ignoring Evans’s frantic horn blasts, waiting for a locomotive roaring at 75 mph to end his despair. “When I looked in the mirror, he was tumbling in the air, just flying,” Evans said. “I can see it as clearly as if it was happening in front of me right now.”
Colorfast mental snapshots of horror, a sense of overwhelming helplessness, sympathy and sometimes anger — these are the aftershocks that engineers and subway train operators report from their special perch as unwilling agents of sudden death. Eight people have jumped in front of Metro trains in 2009, the most in recent years, and inches from each of those horrific scenes, barely mentioned in the news, sits a traumatized driver who will be forever entangled with a stranger’s demise. It is an intimacy none of them sought.
“It’s such a mixture of both anger and compassion, I don’t know
where one ends and the other starts,” said Evans, who estimates that about half of his fatal strikes were suicides. “They’re doing this to you, too. It’s a hard thing to take home.”
According to a British study, 16 percent of train operators involved in fatal incidents develop post-traumatic stress. For some, getting right back behind the controls is the best way to shake off the shadows of violence. For others, years of counseling are needed before they can return to everything they love about driving a train. Some never do. “Everyone reacts differently,” Evans, 61, said. He told of a colleague who struck a mother and her four children on the tracks near Providence, R.I., a murdersuicide. “He never worked again.”
It took Julia Lee, 59, almost eight years before she could get back in the cab of a Metro train after striking someone who had climbed down from the platform in Rockville in 1988. As she rolled into the station at 35 mph, a man was reclining on the tracks, his elbow resting on the rail.
“I screamed and hit the red mushroom” emergency brake, said Lee. “But we were right on top of him. I felt the thump-thump and knew we had hit him.”
Evans reminds himself that he is no more to blame in a death-by-train case than sleeping pills or razor blades are the cause of other suicides. “I’m no different than a bullet being shot out of gun,” he said. “I’m just the weapon.”
But the flip side of not being responsible is the devastating feeling of not be able to do anything in the moments before impact. The driver of a car might at least have the option of swerving out of the way or slamming on the brakes. The driver of a train doesn’t steer, and it can take a half-mile or more to stop. Evans has conditioned himself not to hit the emergency brake, a futile gesture more likely to injure passengers or derail the train than protect the person out front.
“It just doesn’t make much difference if you hit them at 75 [mph], 65 or 55,” he said.
Metro’s wide windshields are designed to maximize the engineer’s view. Unfortunately, that means train operators see tragedy unfold with widescreen clarity, a high-def horror they never forget. Another train operator, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said it was the shocking proximity of a recent impact that made it impossible for him to drive again for seven months. A woman carefully timed her jump just as he entered the station at 38 mph; she was airborne when they made contact.
“She hit my window like a bird, spread-eagle,” he said. “We’re taught how to react, but nothing prepares you for that situation.” The woman lived.
Lee, too, said she can clearly see the face of the man on the tracks. “A young black man. I had nightmares for years,” she said. “I dreamed I was operating a train and somebody was walking toward me. I would always wake up just before I made contact.”
After several weeks of office duty, she returned to a daytime run on the Red Line. That first day, a training instructor drove through the Rockville station and then Lee took over. She was fine until they went underground. “As soon as I hit the tunnel, I screamed,” Lee said. “I was seeing that vision of someone walking toward me.”
Lee was out on workers’ comp for five years, seeing a string of psychologists. She started operating trains again in 1996. She plans to retire soon.
The worst for her were the hours immediately after the hit. As investigators worked, Lee said, they had her sit on a platform bench, where she had a too-close view of the recovery team extracting the remains.
The response of transit systems and railroads after a fatal strike has changed dramatically in recent years, said John Tohman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Although some rail systems push workers to finish their shifts, most relieve them immediately, offering counseling and ample time off. The Rail Safety Act that passed Congress last year will enshrine some of those relief measures in federal law.
The operator’s sense of helplessness can be worse when the person on the tracks doesn’t actually want to die, Tohman said. A trainman he worked with was once crossing a long viaduct over a high drop when he saw a young woman in the beam of his headlight. No suicide, she began running toward the end of the bridge. The engineer hit the brake but could do nothing more than shriek as the gap between train and girl grew smaller.
“She didn’t make it,” Tohman said. “That just blew that poor guy away.”
Sometimes the train operator never knows what the victim had in mind: kids playing chicken, or cars that speed around the crossing gate at the last moment, the motorist looking right at the engineer’s cab.
On one stretch of track near Newport News, Va., Amtrak engineers are used to seeing teenagers walking between the rails. Usually, they scatter at the first blast of the air horn. But one night, Evans blew and blew as a young man walked slowly along the tracks, away from the train, headphones in his ears. He never looked around before Evans turned his head, a second before impact. Suicide?
“He had to hear me,” Evans said.
Many train operators never endure a fatality. But to those who do, the familiar routines of the track can become jarring. Evans has stopped making runs south of Washington, where the at-grade crossings represent just so many chances for another strike. (His daily run to Cumberland, Md., however, puts him back at the Randolph Road crossing in Rockville where he once struck two men.)
Subway drivers said just pulling up to a crowded station platform can set their hearts racing. Which of the commuters standing too close to the platform is about to leap?
“When I’m on a platform, I make a point of not making any sudden moves when the train is coming in,” said Frank King, a union counselor who works with traumatized motormen in New York’s subway system. “I always remember that there is a guy in there who may be hypersensitive.”
Bruce Evans, a Union Station-based Amtrak engineer, has seen a dozen deaths: “They’re doing this to you, too. It’s a hard thing to take home.”
“It’s such a mixture of both anger and compassion, I don’t know where one ends and the other starts,” said Bruce Evans, a longtime Amtrak engineer.