The view from inside a train: a VIA locomotive engineer shares her experiences with rail tragedies

Angele Brisson has been driving trains for almost two decades—the past five years as a locomotive engineer for VIA Rail. Over the years, she’s witnessed plenty of unsafe behaviour around railway tracks. Unfortunately, she has also experienced firsthand the tragic consequences such behaviour can lead to.  Bisson operates passenger trains between Ottawa and Montreal. Although she loves her job, she says she’s shocked by some of the risks people take around tracks. We asked her about those experiences and her message to those who think they can beat a train. How often on your route between Ottawa and Montreal do you see unsafe behaviour, whether it's a pedestrian, cyclist or driver?  I would say maybe once a month I’ll see someone not paying attention to railway crossings, even when the crossings are actually activated. The most common unsafe behaviour that I come across is cars trying to race the gates, or race the crossing lights. Those things are there for their protection, not ours. It amazes me that people take them for granted. If you could talk to that person, the one who runs the gates, what would you say?  Well, I would basically just make them realize that taking 30 seconds out of their lives is more beneficial than being six feet under. Because it's do or die. The difference between stopping and not stopping for those lights is life and death. Those are the near misses. Have there been incidents where the consequences have been tragic? I've only had two incidents in my 17 or 18 years working on the railway. And the thing is, you kind of prepare yourself for it. Sometimes, if you get a clear view of the crossing, you can almost predict the behaviour of pedestrians, cyclists or even vehicles. Can you describe what happened with one of those tragic incidents you were involved in?  With VIA, it's occurred once, with a 79-year-old cyclist.  He tried crossing double tracks when the gates were still down and the lights were still going. There was a freight train just pulling into the yard and its tail end had just finished crossing the tracks, and we were coming from the opposite direction. I'm assuming the gentleman thought the signals and the gates were there for the freight train going by, and figured, “Okay, well he's gone by, so I can go now,” never realizing that there was another track, and there was another train coming the other way.  And it was such a quick incident ... He realized too late that he had made a mistake. His head basically bumped the front of the locomotive when he tried to veer away at the last minute, but it was too late. And what happened to that gentleman ...?  I didn't go back there, because I was a little bit traumatized. My coworkers went back with the trauma kit, and he was still alive at the time. He was unconscious, but breathing. But he passed away as he was being taken to the hospital. What was that experience like for you? It's hard to describe that type of emotion. It's a sense of frustration, to start off with. As well, your adrenaline is just shooting right up and you're trying to kind of block it out initially, because emotionally, you can't believe that this actually happened. A little bit of an anger too, that people are so ignorant to the fact that trains will always win, against anything. What kind of toll does it take on you?  It takes its toll, obviously. When I do have near misses, it kind of brings me back to those actual incidents that have happened. It makes you realize, holy geez, my train almost killed someone, or even you know, just hurt someone. If you could tell people one thing about how to behave around trains, what would it be?  Be smart. Think twice. You know, trains will win. All the time. Win is a bad word for it, but basically, these safety measures are there for you, for the public's safety. You know? That's what I would say. Think twice about trying to run a train or beat a train, or cross train tracks unsafely. Even if it's not at a public crossing, even if it's in the middle of a field, be aware. There are trains, and they're fast, they're heavy, and they're fatal. So, what are you going to win by trying to beat a train? Absolutely nothing.