The horror of hitting someone with a train

“I am reminded of the tragic events that occurred there.”—Terry Brennan, locomotive engineer
Operation Lifesaver has embarked upon a series of interviews with railway employees to share with our readers the effects of an incident. [caption id="attachment_9703" align="alignright" width="180"]Terry Brennan, Via Rail locomotive engineer Terry Brennan, Via Rail locomotive engineer[/caption] We want to express that while an incident is tragic for all those involved, rarely has the train crew’s experience been captured. Often overlooked by the media, we want to give you a first-hand glimpse into the long-term effects an incident has on the train crew, their coping skills, and what motivates them to get up every day and do the job. In this installment, we caught up with VIA Rail Canada locomotive engineer, Terry Brennan, who shared his first-hand account of one of the incidents he experienced in his 26 years working in the railway. Based out of Toronto, the majority of Terry’s career has been spent working in Southwestern Ontario. Known for its dense population and railways, Terry shares what he hopes will resonate with Canadians about rail safety.

  Have you ever been involved in an incident?

Yes, I have been involved in several incidents during my 26 years with VIA Rail. Those incidents have involved hitting everything from vehicles and animals and unfortunately people. One example was an incident I had a few years back. We were about an hour away from the end of our run when I noticed a man walking along the right of way next to the tracks using it as a shortcut. I immediately started blowing the whistle and set the brakes. When I realized the man wouldn't be in the clear, I put the train in emergency. Shortly after placing the train in emergency, we hit him and came to a grinding halt. I still remember that night as it was dark, foggy, rainy and miserable out…oh yeah, and it was the night of Halloween, which made it an even more foreboding. I was running the locomotive and my mate really didn't feel like walking back as he had just recently had another fatality and was still disturbed by it, so the duty to see if any assistance could be rendered fell on me. Needless to say, the individual was deceased when I found him and by that point it was just a formality to wait for the police, coroner and my relief to show up. A lot goes through your head as you're waiting for everyone to show up, but through it all you remember your training and stick to protocol. It's not until later that it really affects you and it starts to sink in once you're off the clock and on your own time.

What does it feel like to be involved in a trespassing fatality?

At the moment it occurs it's a hard thing to describe: your heart starts racing and the adrenaline kicks in. I can honestly say when it happened, at least for me, it was business as usual as my training had kicked in and everything was very robotic like. I remember making the emergency call to the RTC and notifying all other necessary parties, then the long walk back to render any assistance possible to the guy we had just hit. It isn't until much later when things start to slow down that you start to realize what happened and put it all together. It's while you're deadheading to your home terminal that you start to talk about it with your mate asking questions like: “Why would this person have thought it was a good idea to walk along the tracks?” “Could I have done anything more to try to prevent it?” Even though you know the answer to that question, it still bothers you because a son has just been taken from his mother, a friend from his peers - a future that will never be. Now every time I pass that location or others I am reminded of the tragic events that occurred there.

What happens in the aftermath of a fatality?

For the employee directly involved in the incident there can be, depending on the individual, moments of despair, anxiety, anger or even sadness. Thankfully there are tools at our disposal to help. There are professionals and peer support people who are there to listen and help railway employees through this tough time. In the aftermath of incidents, the railways have participated in programs such as Operation Lifesaver or Safety Days’ demonstrations to try to reach large groups of young people and educate them about the dangers of railway operations. In recent years, VIA Rail has started its own program known as “High Risk Areas” (HRAs). I became involved with the program and wrote the first report that was eventually developed into the current HRA program. It was my intention to identify areas that were known for trespassing, near misses, and fatalities in the corridor. The program was then expanded to include other regions.

What lasting impact has being involved in railway trespassing incidents had on you? How has it impacted how you do you job?

The biggest impact for me personally has been a desire to help solve the issues of accidents and incidents brought on by trespassing on railway property. I had the knowledge, as did other engineers I’ve worked with, as to where these incidents were taking place. I also knew of things that could be done to prevent such incidents from occurring in the first place. My first report was mostly based on my own observations over the years of running up and down the corridor along with countless other engineers I have worked with. The current project I am working on uses a formula developed by VIA Rail to rank each location based on a series of criteria, such as fencing, signage, lighting, population density and Operation Lifesaver presentations at said locations, to name a few. Once that data is tabulated, it will show which locations need the most attention and possible solutions to reduce the number of trespassing incidents. It gives me a great feeling knowing that something I am working on could potentially help to reduce these tragic events for both the families involved, along with my co-workers. The one thing I would like for every Canadian to realize about railway safety is that it begins with them. Many people have heard of Operation Lifesaver and the excellent job they do of educating young people to the dangers of railway properties, but that education needs to start at home from a young age and continue until they leave the home. I have had neighbours tell stories of how it's not a big deal trespassing on train tracks and that they did it when they were young. Young people are very impressionable and saying stuff like this resonates with them—don't do it!
It is never cool or hip to gamble with your life or others’, as there is a good chance you will lose.
Nobody is saying you need to be fearful of railways or railway tracks, just respectful. Give them the wide berth they deserve and tell others to do the same, especially your children. Unfortunately, far too many people have a nonchalant attitude when it comes to trespassing on railway property, which has led to many tragic situations that could have been easily avoided if they had used just a little common sense. We also need to lead by example.
When we're out driving around and we come across a railway crossing, treat it with respect and don't take chances.
When I taught my children to drive I discussed many issues regarding road safety, but I also made sure to mention the extra safety that should be taken around railway tracks. My children have had it drilled into their heads not to stop on railway tracks, not to race to beat a train, and to always be paying attention while approaching level crossings. Together all Canadians can make a difference to help reduce the number of railway accidents and incidents that occur, educating all concerned is a very good start in that effort to reduce these occurrences. For more real life rail safety stories check out: