Her story: A seasoned locomotive engineer on the personal devastation of railway incidents

Locomotive engineer Tommy Vohs has experienced a startling number of incidents in her 30-year railway career, each incident carrying with it its own lasting effect. We asked Tommy to share her story with us in hopes that by doing so it will correct some of the misconceptions out there regarding trains. We also want Canadians to understand the lasting impact railway incidents have on not only the victims but also the crew and first responders. This is, in her own words, Tommy’s story… 

The first time

The first accident I had was when I was 21, hitting an 11-year-old boy at 80 m.p.h. off a 45-foot train trestle. I was up front with the engineer in the cab of the Budd Car when we hit them. There were two boys on the bridge that day but by some miracle, one got off the trestle in time and the other little sweet boy died shortly after I got to him. I ran almost one kilometre down the tracks to get to the trestle, so scared at what was waiting for me. His injuries were many and proved fatal, but I still got as close as I could to him to provide comfort. It was painfully obvious that he wasn’t going to make it and it only took a few minutes for him to take a final breath. When the police and ambulance finally came, I felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground. It was so surreal. After they took all of the information down, they told me I could go and I crawled back up the hill to the bridge and walked back down the tracks to the train. That night, I had my first nightmare. It was a turning point in my life. I thought about that boy every day and how I wished I could have told his parents that I was with him when he passed. That he wasn’t alone. The aftermath of accidents plays out like that: What could I have done, if only I’d…as if I had any control over it.

People not paying attention is a real problem

The next four accidents involved vehicles at crossings and people not paying attention. The first two occurred at the very same crossing in Stratford, one year to the day apart. A small street cleaner did a 180 in front of us and we hit it head on. The driver had some bad leg injuries but we’d only hit him at five m.p.h. A year later, a car stopped at that crossing, the driver looked both ways and pulled out in front of us. Lucky for him too, we had been going slowly, just coming into the station. His car was a write off and he was badly hurt but alive. When I pulled him out of the wreck, I said I’d seen him stop and look. Through his injuries he panted out that he didn’t see us. This is a real problem: people looking but not seeing. They even do the whole head turn but because there might have never been a train coming in the times previous, they don’t even wait before they pull out.

The lasting impact of being involved in incidents

The following two accidents (number four and five) were non-fatal injuries; they were so lucky. Their vehicles were write-offs but in both cases, they were thrown clear. Not many people can say they’ve survived an 80 m.p.h. collision with a train with no significant injuries. But I was becoming even more injured. That whole sprint back to the scene was overflowing with fear and dread. I would be shaking as soon as the train came to a stop. I was having trouble sleeping because of the nightmares, which had me out of the house, in the middle of the street, violently shaking my head. I couldn’t get any relief, any sleep or any peace. I was pretty much just waiting for the next horrible incident to happen. Now it started getting really hard for me to cope. I was so on edge; every time I felt the brake being applied out of place I’d be ready to jump off the train and sprint back to whatever horrible, violent scenario was waiting. That is called hyper-vigilance and it became my usual state. It takes a lot of energy to maintain. At that point, I didn’t realize the toll these events were taking in my personal life. I was becoming more irritable and easy to anger. I didn’t talk about any of them, if at all, in detail…how could I? I might not get my emotions back into the box I’d placed them in. I was trying to pretend they’d never happened and I was starting to forget details. I thought it was working…the pretending. But those seeds that every accident planted were starting to push up and out and they use a lot of resources doing that. I had many triggers.  It became too much work to leave the house. What if someone asked me about my experiences? What if I had an emotional breakdown after being triggered? It just became easier to cut myself off from my friends and family and be alone with my grief.

They thought it was okay to go

In March of 1993 I was on a VIA train travelling east of London, ON. A westbound freight train was stopped waiting for us to clear the track it was going to travel on. We came up to a major road crossing equipped with automatic warning devices (lights, bells and gates) at 130 km/h and hit the sixth northbound car to drive around the lowered gates. I guess they had been looking at the stopped freight train and thought it was okay to go. I heard the emergency brakes hiss and my fear rose. The engineers gave the emergency radio call saying we had collided with a vehicle. When the train stopped, I jumped off and was running back towards the crossing when the engineer called me to come up to the front saying we had dragged the car. There was a man in the car. The train had made contact with his vehicle just behind the driver’s seat pushing him into the steering wheel. As I leaned over the engine coupler into the broken driver’s side window, I could see the severity of his injuries and he was barely alive. I remember it all so clearly. The rearview mirror had a keyring hanging from it containing a picture of a fat baby dressed in pink. I told him help was coming and to think about the next time he was going to see that baby. As I reached for him I noticed he had bits of the broken window embedded in his hand and was rubbing it with his fingers, pushing the glass in even deeper. He was not conscious. There was blood all over the collar of his jacket because the back of his head had been crushed from the impact. The car was too bent for us to get him out so we waited and waited for the fire department to walk the one kilometre down the track with their emergency equipment. Time moved so slowly and watching someone slip away from life and being helpless to do anything was devastating. The whole crew was back to work the next day.

A 24-hour movie reel playing nonstop in your head

These things you see are on a 24-hour movie reel playing nonstop in your head. Over and over you see the vivid pictures. You see their faces before, during and after. You can hear the sickening thud and smell what’s left of them. I didn’t know where I was or who I was. I was in trouble now. Not communicating. Not sharing. Not being able to hold down a relationship. Not thriving. I wondered about my sanity and how long I could keep at this.

You could tell he was loved. He had a wedding ring on and his plaid shirt was ironed

It was February in 1998, a beautiful clear crisp, sunny day when an elderly man, for reasons unknown to us, drove into the side of our Chicago bound Amtrak train, colliding with the locomotive. It was in Stratford, again, at a crossing that had lights but no gates. When I ran back down the tracks towards the crossing, I was so scared to see “IT.”  A few people had gathered around but no-one was doing anything. I checked the truck and his dog was dead on the floor. There were stickers that said “We love you Grandpa” stuck to the dash. The impact of the collision had sent this gentleman out of the side window of his pickup truck and hurled him along with his engine about 50 feet before landing facedown in a ditch. He came out of that window so hard it had pulled his pants and underwear right down…another humiliation to bear. You could tell he was loved. He had a wedding ring on and his plaid shirt was ironed and he must have just gotten his hair cut because there were clippings in his ears. I noticed that because of the fluid that was coming out of them, a sign that the end was near. A nurse came forward to help and we both looked at each other with that knowledge. I took off my coat and put it over him to try to protect his naked body from the onlookers. And I spoke to him and held his hand when he took that last breath. I know a part of me died right along with him. That’s how it felt inside. I have often thought about him and how the police went to his house and a little old lady’s whole world came tumbling down. She doesn’t know I was with him. She doesn’t know that he wasn’t alone. His wife, children and grandchildren have been deprived of that relationship. It’s very sad. What was it that caused him to drive into us? The lights were working, people acknowledged that they had been on. Why don’t people pay more attention? So many of these accidents were completely preventable. So many lives lost in vain and families torn apart.

I couldn’t bear the weight of the pain and grief anymore 

In November 2010, I was driving an 11,000 ton, 16,000-foot CN freight train when I hit a loaded transport truck carrying boulders in an open top trailer. The truck driver failed to heed the sign and stop before occupying the crossing. My train had dangerous commodities on it. In the seconds before collision was imminent, I thought about all the people in the town around us who might be killed if we derailed. I thought about all of the people before, all of the faces of the ones who died and it was then that I felt something snap. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bear the weight of the pain and grief anymore. I was off for a year and a half and in that time, I finally found the courage to talk about all the accidents and all the pain. The workplace trauma unit at CAMH saved me. It was hard work and I wasn’t sure if I could ever get back on a train again but I did it. I have to give kudos to CN for being so understanding and patient. When I decided to go back to work, they let me go at my own speed until I was ready. 

Every dark cloud has a silver lining  

If I hadn’t hit the transport truck, would I have gotten the help I needed? During my time off, I developed a love of photography and have found international success in it. So I got the help and I developed a passion. Near misses are a part of my profession. There is no doubt that they still shake me up. That is normal. What isn’t normal is not having a reaction. Things are different for me now— I’m not a slave to my past.  I’m not ruined for days when we almost hit someone and when we do hit them, I seek out the help that VIA Rail offers. They acknowledge the seriousness of near misses and accidents and are committed to providing us with all the help we need. There are peer-to-peer support and other resources available to help us. That makes all the difference. I’m lucky to be working with a compassionate management team. I have also recently joined the OL team. I’m looking forward to educating people about rail safety.

My rail safety message to Canadians

Please, pay attention. You owe it to yourselves and your families to take that extra couple of seconds to look both ways, to pay attention to the warning devices and signs at crossings.  Tracks are for trains only, not for hikes or short cuts. No one intends to get hit by the train when they are driving around gates or don’t wait for them to be raised. But it happens way too much. Tell your children that you can’t hear the train, especially when you are wearing ear buds. One locomotive is equal to the weight of 200 pick-up trucks. Imagine who will win?! And there are people driving those trains who won’t ever forget your misstep. People like me who carry the weight of those lives lost around forever. There it is. All the sordid details. I wrote so much because this is therapy for me and a good way to reground myself. Though it doesn’t change the past, it sure doesn’t control my future. Thanks for letting me have a voice about this very serious matter.