The ripple effect of every train incident

Every time someone is killed in a rail crossing incident or while trespassing on railway property, it affects a long list of people. There are the obvious ones, like parents, siblings, spouses and friends. But then there are the ones we rarely consider: the locomotive engineers driving the train, the first responders called to the scene, and the police who have to investigate the incident.

Over the past eight years, Detective Rob Hanson has been called to the scene of 47 fatalities. He knows the exact number because he remembers every one of them.

Hanson is a regional detective for Amtrak. His experiences investigating rail incidents are the subject of one of seven new videos that are part of Operation Lifesaver’s #STOPTrackTragedies campaign. Each video tells the personal story of someone affected by a rail incident—and is a harsh reminder of the ripple effect that every rail incident has.

You can watch Hanson’s video here and read on to learn how investigating rail incidents has affected him.

Can you tell me about the first incident you were called to?

Yes, I remember it because myself and two other guys out of the academy were the only ones working. It was a man on a bicycle and he went around the gates at a grade crossing and was struck and killed by a northbound train.

What was the hardest part of that first incident?

Probably taking photographs. I don’t think we did next-of-kin notifications on that one. I think if we did, I would have remembered it.

How do you prepare yourself to tell family members that they have lost someone?

You really can’t. You don’t really ever prepare yourself for it because every circumstance can be so different. Each family reacts very differently. One of the things I do is try to be open and honest with everybody. The most important part is being transparent with them. I think that’s very helpful.

Does it take a toll on you?

Yes. It definitely does. You remember them all. I’m pretty sure I can remember every fatality I’ve ever worked. The circumstances are so different, but a lot of the unknowns are really what bothers you. When you have a trespasser strike, you try to answer, “Why today? Why were you out there?”

I’ll be honest with you, you kind of get desensitized after a while. But it adds up. You get tired of next-of-kin notifications — those are probably the worst part, especially when it happens frequently, and you’re making multiple next-of-kin notifications in a short period of time.

Is there a particular trespassing incident that you found hardest to cope with?

There was a 14-year-old boy who was killed while walking down the tracks with a friend. His friend survived, but he didn’t. But he was the son of the town’s fire chief, who was the first person on the scene. It was the worst for him. I can only imagine how hard it was because I have kids myself—two boys, ages five and two. Anytime it’s a younger person, you remember a lot more.

That 14-year-old boy must have heard about the danger of walking on tracks, but he did it anyway. What do you wish people would understand to keep them off tracks? 

Not a lot of people realize how often trains hit people. The most important thing is getting that message out. I talk in schools and I try to make kids realize that it could be you. It shouldn’t be you and it won’t be you if you stay off the tracks. That's the biggest thing, if you’re not on the tracks, you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a train. Every one of these incidents is preventable.

Why do you think there continue to be so many incidents?

Lack of knowledge. People don't understand how fast trains really go. They don’t understand the dynamics behind trains—for example that they can’t stop quickly. They think they can cut through from one place to another because they’ve seen a million other people do it, and they think it’s not going to be them.