Engineer’s perspective: a real life account of a railway fatality

We at Operation Lifesaver have embarked on a series featuring firsthand accounts from survivors, those who work with people who have experienced critical incidents, rail employees willing to share their experiences, and dedicated Operation Lifesaver supporters. In sharing their stories, we hope that you will be reminded of the very real dangers associated with trespassing on railway property and behaving unsafely at highway-railway crossings. Please share these stories with your family and friends so that no one you love befalls a similar fate.

In this installment of the series, we sat down with Toronto-based, 33-year-old locomotive engineer, Al Ghazal, who has worked for a few of our partners throughout his railway career. We are grateful to Al for sitting down and sharing with us a real-life perspective from the engineer’s seat.

What is your job with the railway? How long have you been doing it? 

[caption id="attachment_8303" align="alignright" width="300"]Al Ghazal, engineer. Al Ghazal, engineer.[/caption]

I have been working for the railway since April 2006. I've had many roles, ranging from signals maintenance to working as a conductor, to now being a locomotive engineer. It's been a fun and interesting career so far.

You’ve agreed to talk to us and share your first-hand experience about an incident. Can you please describe the incident? What and when did it happen?

The last incident I had was on November 10, 2012.

At approximately 17:35 on Saturday, November 10, 2012, I was operating a train heading west into a train station at a speed of 75-m.p.h. We were rounding a fairly tight curve when we noticed a male on a cellphone carrying what appeared to be a case of beer walking away from us right in the middle of our track. By the time I reacted to this person by putting the bell on and blowing the whistle, we'd hit him as he was attempting to get off the tracks.  

The whole thing happened so fast and it freaked me right out of the operating seat since the bang was so loud and I had the window on the cab car open. I thought that something was going to fly into the cab, but luckily nothing happened to us. I heard the sound of a bottle flying and the last thing I saw was a person flying.

We stopped the train in emergency. We were approx a 1/4 mile from where we hit the person. The conductor I was working with was an old lifeguard and thought he could help the person by administering first aid or CPR or something, so he rushed back to where we hit him. Sure enough, as I thought, when he got back there with the body, he told me over the radio that the person was somewhat breathing but all twisted up. I told him there wasn't much that we can do but direct emergency personnel to him once they show up.  

It took EMS and police over half an hour to get to the trespasser just because of the precarious location that he ended up in on the track.  

How were you affected immediately after the incident happened?

After collecting our police statements on what we witnessed and what happened, the lead investigator called me three days later saying that the male died in hospital.  

I found out from the officer that this individual was 37 years old and was surrounded by his family in the hospital. My initial feeling was anger towards him, for being such an idiot to put himself in this position. One minute he's taking a shortcut, probably going to a party or meeting with friends on a Saturday night, carrying a case of beer and then—BANG he's dead. His stupid actions impacted everyone who knows him, as well as us for having to witness the incident and deal with the aftermath.  

How did you cope in the long term after the incident?

The whole event put me off work for about two and a half months. I just wanted to relax and take my mind off work more than anything and completely block the whole thing out.  

A year and a bit later, after having gone to therapy several times to speak to a psychologist, I've been working fine. I’m still seeing trespassers almost on a daily basis. I'm always extra vigilant to blow the horn or ring the bell because that's all I can really do. We can only control what is in our control and not other people.   

At the end of the day, I realize that unfortunately this sort of thing is a part of our job as a locomotive engineer, and it's just going to happen again and again as people just don't recognize the dangers of walking on rail tracks, or taking shortcuts.  

Why do you think rail safety is important?

People think they can easily dodge a train since the tracks are only four feet wide—just a large step and they're clear of danger. The thing is, trains are extremely hard to hear if the cab car is leading at such a high speed - by the time you hear the train it's too late. People should simply avoid a shortcut, because saving that extra minute may actually mean your life.  

What message do you want Canadians to learn from your story? 

Canadians should know that rail is a great and efficient way to travel from point A to B, but like the 401 or any other highway—be prepared for anything. Always adhere to the safety warnings, stand behind platform lines and obey crossing gates, etc. Trains are large and unforgiving. It takes a long time to stop a train so you definitely don't want to be on or too close to the tracks.  

Thank you so much, Al, for recounting this traumatic incident you experienced. Your story is a powerful reminder that railway related incidents impact countless people. Make the decision to trespass on the tracks and your death could be engrained in an engineer’s memory for the rest of their life.

For more information and a wealth of free online rail safety resources, please bookmark Operation Lifesaver, and share it with your family and friends.

Want to read more real life rail safety stories? Check these out:

Please listen to Al’s rail safety message:

“Avoid a shortcut, because saving that extra minute may actually mean your life.”  

 Remember to ALWAYS: Look! Listen! Live