When it comes to trains, an error in judgement can have tragic consequences

Michael Newnham had everything going for him—and everything to look forward to.

The grade 12 student at Lorne Park Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, was outgoing and popular. He played on the school rugby team and was captain of his competitive hockey team. He’d applied and been accepted to Mohawk College after graduation.
But on a November night in 2013, the 17-year-old’s life came to a tragic end when a commuter train hit him, just minutes from his home.
Michael’s story is the subject of one of eight videos that will be featured in Operation Lifesaver’s 2019 #STOPTrackTragedies campaign during Rail Safety Week (September 23 to 29). Each video tells the personal—and often heartbreaking—story of someone affected by a rail incident. The videos are a harsh reminder of the ripple effect a rail incident can have—from the victims themselves, to their parents and friends, to the emergency responders who are first to arrive on the scene.

In the video, Michael’s father, Mark, talks about the incident that ended his son’s life—and how a simple mistake can have tragic consequences.
What do you know about Michael’s accident?
It was a Friday night. On a typical Friday night, Michael would go out with his friends. There were a whole bunch of boys and girls who all hung around, and he was going to a friend’s house that was probably five or six blocks away from our house. It was just down the road across the tracks. Typically, I would send a text saying, “When are you coming home, and do you need a ride?” His response at 11:30 that night—his last response to me—was, “No, not a problem. I’ll get a ride.” And he always got a ride. There was always somebody who would drop him off. But on this night, for whatever reason, he said he was getting a ride home, but then decided that since it was only five blocks away, he’d just run home. So that’s what he chose to do. And I think it was just after midnight. The gates were down, but he decided he was going to try to get across the tracks before the train came. Maybe it was dark and he couldn’t judge how far away the train was, or my understanding was he got his foot caught in the track. And that was the end of it.
Was alcohol a factor?
No. It was just one of those decisions you make as a young person. You don’t ever think about the repercussions. You don’t ever think something could go wrong. You think, “Oh, it’s 20 feet, I can run 20 feet. I run 20 feet all the time. I can get across there.” It’s a lack of common sense telling you, “The gates are down, a train is coming, I should just hold off for the 5 minutes it’ll take for the train to go by, or the two minutes for the train to go by.”
As we get older, we get to experience a lot more and we acquire more common sense. I’m not saying kids don’t have any common sense, but you just don’t think about things like that all the time. He wasn’t looking to cause harm to himself or anyone else. He just wanted to get home. And look what happened—it cost him his life.
How has Michael’s death affected his friends?
It has impacted them a lot. There must have been at least a thousand people at his funeral. He was active in the sports world and had lots and lots of friends. I helped coach his hockey team—I still see five or six families once or twice a year for a benefit hockey tournament that the Port Credit Hockey Association has named after him. I also went back on the bench a week or so after he passed, because so many of those kids were his friends. It chokes me up to this day. I’ve been able to talk to a lot of them. I think they’ve matured from it. I think they still value his friendship and what he brought to them.
It’s normal to grieve and be sad, but all those kids were starting university or college the next year. Their lives were just starting. I didn’t want this tragic accident to be something that would scar other people for the rest of their lives.
Why did you decide to share your story with others?
As painful and hurtful as it is to me and my family, it affects so many other people too. If you let the tragedy happen without it benefiting somebody down the road, then that is the real loss. It is one of millions of tragedies that happen out there, in all types of scenarios. But if Michael’s story makes kids at his high school think, “Don’t cross the tracks” or “Don’t get in a car if people are speeding” or whatever—if it allows them to develop their common sense—then that’s a benefit. I can’t change what happened, but to have it happen and not have it be a vehicle for something positive would be the real tragedy.