Facing rail tragedies head on

In Nevin Hamilton’s 28 years as a locomotive engineer, he’s seen his fair share of unsafe behaviour on and around railway tracks. Unfortunately, he’s also seen his share of tragedies.

But one incident in particular has stayed with him for years.

In April 2013, a 79-year-old cyclist tried to cross a set of double tracks when the gates were still down and the lights were still flashing at the crossing. He went around the gates thinking the train had safely passed, never realizing there was another track—and another train coming the other way. He tried to veer away at the last minute, but it was too late.

Nevin Hamilton and Angèle Brisson were the locomotive engineers driving the train that day. They talk about the effect the incident has had on them in a new video being launched as part of Operation Lifesaver’s #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. The video is one of seven that tell the personal stories of people who have had to deal with the lasting effects of rail incidents. All seven videos will be unveiled during Rail Safety Week from September 23rd to 29th this year.

Here is part of Operation Lifesaver’s conversation with locomotive engineer Nevin Hamilton about that tragic incident.

What do you remember about the incident?

The thing with incidents like that one is that every individual responds differently. I know people who have had incidents and they can tell you the name of the individual involved, the date, time and so forth. I’m not that type of person. I can tell you exactly what happened frame-by-frame. But the rest of the information, I don't want to know.

Can you describe what you remember from that day?

We were approaching Kitchener station, which had a main track and a siding. There was a freight train in the siding. It was proceeding eastward, and we were moving west. There was a road crossing just outside the station, and as the freight train was pulling clear of the road crossing, going eastbound, we were approaching westbound.

Quite a number of people were at the crossing waiting for the trains to clear. And coming from the freight side—the north side— there was an elderly gentleman on a bicycle and he didn’t wait for the gates to go up. As soon as the freight train cleared the crossing, he just went around the gates and proceeded to cross. He couldn’t see us because we were on opposite sides, and we clipped him with the corner of the locomotive doing approximately 30 miles an hour.

We stopped and I made sure I was the one who was going to go back. Because somebody has to go back. There were already five or six people trying to assist him, one of them being a nurse. His legs were tangled up in the bicycle and he had been scraped along the roadway. We did what we could for him until emergency services came. We got him untangled and put him in an ambulance, but he died en route to the hospital.

How does a tragedy like that affect you personally?

You never get rid of the images. It's like watching a movie over and over again. The thing that sticks out the most from that incident was when I got back to that crossing, I saw him tangled up in his bicycle, face down on the road—that’s an image that’s always there.

But an incident like that is harder to deal with because it was so easily preventable. This wasn’t a young man, it was an elderly gentleman in very good shape. It was obvious he was an avid cyclist from the way he was dressed: his helmet, sunglasses, the clothes he was wearing. He made a mistake and it was so preventable.

But do you second guess yourself? Do you ask “Could we have done anything differently?” It’s a normal reaction. But no, in reality, there was nothing we could have done that would have prevented that situation. At that particular road crossing, we’re not allowed to blow the train whistle—we can only ring the bell because the city doesn’t want trains blowing whistles in the residential neighbourhood. Had we been blowing the whistle, would that have changed anything? Who knows.

If you could go back and talk to that man, what would you say?

If I could go back to the moment where that gentleman started to move his bicycle across the track, I would ask him: “You’re an older man, you’re mature, what if that was your grandchild doing what you are doing now? What makes you think that safety rules don’t apply to you? What are you in such a rush for? Take a minute. You might get across 10 or 20 seconds later. What’s the difference?” In the end, it cost him his life.