Living with the memory of a rail tragedy

Dave Matichuck worked as a CN conductor for 37 years. Although he’s been retired for a decade, there are some things he just can’t forget. Twice during his career, the train Dave was driving hit and killed someone on the tracks. Dave spoke to Operation Lifesaver about how those two tragedies affected him and why they’ve made him passionate about spreading the rail safety message.
How often did you see unsafe behaviour on train tracks over the years?
Working on the railways you see so many close calls. You know, people just don't take the time to stop and listen and look. And a train is always going to win. It's just horrifying. You can always replace equipment, but you can't replace a human life. That’s why people need to be educated. If we can save one life through education, we've done our job because even one death is one too many.
Can you tell us about one of the tragic incidents you were personally involved in?
One night, we were coming home and we were doing about 65 miles an hour. It was midnight and dark. At nighttime you can't see the crossing or people on the crossing until you're almost on top of them. But you could see that there was this man trying to get his wheelchair across. The front wheels were stuck between the rail and the crossing plank and you could see that he was trying to get them unstuck.
We hit him at 65 miles an hour. It took us it took us over a mile and a half to stop our train and I started running back to look for him. We found him and every bone in his body was broken. These are the horrifying things that people just don't think about.
You've been retired for 10 years now. How fresh are those incidents in your mind?
People don't realize what the train crew goes through with a fatality. I know that I’m not to blame because I had no control over it. But it still hurts my heart to know that somebody's brother or uncle or cousin or dad got killed because they weren't paying attention. Whether it's your fault or not, it's still a hell of a thing to live with because you've killed somebody. It's horrible to see somebody get killed. And it's horrible to see the aftermath of a family coming. When we hit that man in the wheelchair, his family came and I could hear the people screaming in the police car because they’d lost their loved one. That's horrible. You know, I've relived those two incidents so many times.
What would you like people to understand when it comes to trains and tracks?
Train time is any time of the day or night, because they run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And trains always win. So, take that extra time to stop. Don’t go around crossing arms—those arms are down and the lights are going for a reason. And just because the arms are up and the lights aren't working, don't take it for granted that it’s safe to go because they're only mechanical and they could fail. Make sure you stop and look both ways and cross only when it's safe to do so. If you've got to turn your radio off and open your window, especially when it's foggy out or stormy, do it, if that is what it takes to be safe. Because a life is more important than anything else.