Making sure Canadians are aware of the hazards surrounding railway property and trains is a team effort. It takes the rail industry, governments, police, unions, the media, other organizations and volunteers from coast to coast working together to spread the word—including volunteers like Peter Mohyla.
We are recognizing the contribution Peter Mohyla makes by naming him the 2016 recipient of Operation Lifesaver’s prestigious Roger Cyr Award for Public Rail Safety. Named after the founder of OL Canada, this award is given to Operation Lifesaver partners and volunteers who go above and beyond when it comes to promoting railway safety and encouraging others to follow suit—a description that fits Peter Mohyla to a tee.
For almost 30 years, Peter has been working as a transit safety officer with Metrolinx—and for 28 of those years, he’s been part of Operation Lifesaver. He serves as chair of the organization’s Ontario Steering Committee, which coordinates rail safety outreach efforts across the province. He also promotes safety along Metrolinx’s railway corridors in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area by coordinating school presentations and community events, working with police and other public safety agencies, and finding innovative ways to educate the public, such as events like Exercise Fatal Distraction. This multi-organizational emergency response exercise was held during Rail Safety Week (April 2017) in Bradford, Ontario. Young volunteers from a local high school played the victims in a rail–car collision, while other students watching the mock emergency response saw firsthand the importance of rail safety.
We spoke with Peter Mohyla after he received the Roger Cyr award in July, to find out more about his years with Operation Lifesaver and why he plans to continue spreading the rail safety message for years to come.
Why did you first get involved with Operation Lifesaver 28 years ago?
I think I just saw a need for us getting out there. Metrolinx, back then, didn’t really have a program in place. I took an interest in Operation Lifesaver because I thought rail safety was an important message. And you know, when you see things happen—like when you see your first fatality—it hits home that we’ve got to do something about this.
What changes—if any—have you seen as far as rail safety and attitudes about railway property in the years you've been working with the organization and with Metrolinx?
Well, what I see is that there's more awareness coming about. I think people are starting to realize that old habits have to die hard, in a sense. And now, with social media, everybody knows there was a train fatality involving a pedestrian or a trespasser. And I think it's created more of an awareness and a need to get out there and talk to the public.
Are the dangers greater today, with more trains (and trains that seem to be quieter than they used to be), and things like people wearing earbuds and looking at their phones?
Absolutely. I think the biggest trend that I see is earbuds and it causes a lot of issues. And it's not just with the railways, you’re seeing it with pedestrians walking down the street. I call it “distracted walking.”
Distracted driving is the number one killer, rather than impaired driving, these days. But I’m thinking that distracted walking is also injuring a lot of people and taking lives because no one's paying attention to what they’re doing. They get out of the office, their heads are down, they’ve got their earbuds on—especially teens—and they’re texting and not watching where they're going. And you also see that trend among people trespassing on railway property. They’re walking across tracks, they've got their earbuds on, they’re not going to hear the train.
Everybody thinks you’re going to hear a 150-tonne locomotive from miles away. But it’s surprising. If the conditions are right with the wind, you're not going to hear it.
So, how do you get people to be more aware of just how dangerous trains can be?
Public education. I think education is the number one key. We’ve got to get out there, we’ve got to talk to people, and we’ve got to change old ideologies, old ideas that it’s okay to cross the tracks because my parents did it, or because I know when the trains are coming. It’s like the old adage: any time is train time, any given time a train can be there.
This spring, you organized Exercise Fatal Distraction. Can you tell me a little bit about that event?
It was organized with the help of a lot of people, including Anna Empey, an emergency management specialist for GO. The storyboard for it was basically that there's a level crossing and a parent is driving two teens to school. There’s a cell phone distraction and a vehicle collision with the train that results in one fatality, and one of the people is thrown out of the vehicle. The driver and the passenger in the front seat sustain serious injuries. So it was about bringing in all the different emergency responders to deal with it. It’s sort of like hands-on training for emergency services and how we all respond and work together. And if there is some place that there was a little glitch, how do we work together to stop that, so we can better respond to incidents. It was all filmed.
I also had a group of students from one of the high schools there, a Catholic high school. They have an emergency management course for anybody who wants to maybe go into policing or firefighting or different aspects along that line. They were out there and they watched it as part of the curriculum. After the exercise, two weeks later, we had sort of a debrief with these students and presented a video to the whole school body. It was very well received.
What impact do you think the event had?
I think it had a great impact. It had a lot of good stuff happen on social media—a lot of media coverage from all the various TV stations here in the GTA—and it’s still being talked about. So, the impact is good. And we have a video we can now take to schools and high schools and show them, “This is the exercise, this is what they’re saying, this is how we felt about it.”
It also had a good educational component for young people who are going to be getting their driver’s licences soon. And it's peer to peer. That's what I like. It's one thing for me to go stand in front of a bunch of young people in my uniform and start telling them, “This is what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to be aware of this…” It’s sort of like they look at you and say, “Okay, this is your job, you’ve got to be out here telling us these kinds of things.” But when it’s peer to peer, and you can get these young people on board with you, I think it has a bit of a greater impact.
So, when Canadians see a train or train tracks, what would you hope would go through their minds?
Don’t trespass on railway property. Stay a healthy distance away from it. I think start respecting the fact that it’s a dangerous place—it’s like a highway. You don't go play on a 401-series highway, so don’t play on the railway tracks, or go near them, because that’s our highway. I want them to realize that it's an important roadway that has to be respected.
That's a great analogy. Now you've been doing this for almost 30 years, how much longer will you keep spreading the rail safety message?
As long as I can. I'm not going to be working for as long as I can—I’m thinking of maybe another four years before I maybe hang my hat up with what I'm doing here—but I’d like to continue getting the message out there. I think it's an important message. And I think with the experience that I have gained over the years, I can still contribute somehow to getting this message across.
I think that shows something about how important I believe this program is, because it's not just, “Okay, now I’m done. I can hang up my hat. I don't want to talk about it anymore. I've done my time.” No. I think I have to show that if you're passionate about it and you care about people, you’re going to want to continue getting that message out there. If you believe in people, and you want to help in keeping them safe, it’s something I think we ought to continue on doing.
I think Mr. Cyr recognized that once he left railroading, he still needed to continue with the message. And that’s what I admire about him a lot too—his devotion right until the end. He really believed that, “Hey, we’ve got to work together on this.”
Well, thank you. And congratulations, Peter Mohyla, on being the recipient of the 2016 Roger Cyr Award.