Meet Rail Safety Ambassador Catherine Norris

For 21 years, Catherine Norris has taken Montreal’s commuter train back and forth from work to her home in the suburb of Pierrefonds. It is the perfect way to make the commute. But her years of taking the train have also shown her how quickly tragedies can occur when people don’t follow the rail-safety rules.
The mother of two lives in a community that was rocked by the death of 16-year-old Tristan Morrissette-Perkins in July 2018. Tristan and two other boys were taking photos on a rail bridge near Lancaster, Ontario when a passenger train en route from Montreal to Toronto came along the track. The two other boys survived. Tristan did not.
This fall, Norris joined our team of Rail Safety Ambassadors who help us spread the rail safety message online and in communities across Canada. She spoke to Operation Lifesaver about why she wanted to help us in our quest to stop track tragedies—like Tristan’s—from happening.
Why did you decide to become a Rail Safety Ambassador?
Working for CN, we unfortunately hear a lot of the sad stories of incidents that occur on the tracks. I also have personal experience with rail tragedies. I have actually been on trains several times that have struck people. I have even witnessed someone get hit by a train. My son went to school with a boy who was killed by a train just after graduation, a few years back so, this cause hits very close to home for me.
When you are a passenger on a train and something like that occurs, what goes through your mind?
It’s awful. You sort of know that it’s going to happen when you travel for so many years. But it is still another thing when it does happen.
The locomotive engineers blow their horns like crazy when they see a problem. Without even looking out the window, you know someone or something must be on the track. It definitely gives you a sickening feeling in your stomach.
I typically sit in the first car of the train when I travel. And when you’re sitting so close to the front, you know when the train has hit someone. You can actually feel it. The last incident we were in, I looked out the window and I saw a mom and a small child who had witnessed it. It was just heartbreaking to see. She had covered her daughter’s eyes because she didn’t want her to have to see something so traumatic.
It’s tough when something like that occurs, especially when you know it could easily have been prevented.
How does taking the train every day to and from work—and seeing things like this happen—affect your own behaviour around tracks and trains?
It definitely makes you more aware. Every day you see people crossing the tracks without looking, and I’ll admit that when I first started taking the train, I was sometimes one of those people. People rush across the track to make the train and be on time for work, and they do not even look up. It definitely puts it in perspective—that it’s better to be five, 15 or 30 minutes late than it is to rush and be hit by a train. It’s not worth your life.
I am much more vigilant with the friends I travel with. I’ve travelled with the same group for many years and I’m quite hard on them sometimes. For Rail Safety Week this year, we went out for dinner and I brought them all pamphlets and I made sure we spoke about rail safety even though the rules should be obvious. It was just something I felt like I needed to do.
You are also a mother of two teens. How are you trying to get the rail safety message across to your children?
Mostly by enforcing safety in general, not just rail safety. I have caught my son multiple times wearing headphones on a bike, which now is illegal. So I try to remind him not to do that. I try to teach them to be aware of their surroundings and not to play games or take photos in dangerous locations. My son also plays baseball, so I try to talk with his team about rail safety as well. Hopefully at least one or two of them will listen and help to change things.
What would you say to those people who run across tracks, duck under gates, or break other rail safety rules and put themselves in danger?
UNPLUG! Operation Lifesaver has a lot of good slogans that people should take to heart. “Look, Listen, Live” is a great one. It’s not worth the extra two seconds and it’s not worth your life. People are dying when they don’t need to be. Most of the tragedies we hear about are due to trespassing or breaking other rules. Unfortunately, these people pay with their lives, and it’s just not worth it.