Kim Davids has been a freight conductor for 39 years. Within those four decades, he's witnessed 16 grade-crossing accidents, and every year around Christmastime he remembers one in particular. On a winter day in Utah 38 years ago, a woman in a car stuck on the tracks was clamoring out of a window to escape the oncoming train, but she was too late. As the train clipped the vehicle, it flipped onto her.
"The problem is that they come back into my mind in vivid detail," Davids says
Gruesome death and injury are part of the job, but engineers have a front-row seat. Some engineers and conductors are lucky—they may see only one or two accidents in their career. Others who are involved in multiple accidents are known as having "the curse," though many in the industry consider it mere coincidence. And for some conductors, accidents are so violent and traumatic they can lead to extended leaves of absence, depression, stress disorders, and even leaving the industry.
A Troubling Trend
It's not so much a matter of if an accident will happen, but when—and the problem is getting worse. Every three hours or so, a person or vehicle is hit by a train in the United States. In 2013, highway-rail incidents and trespassing fatalities increased compared to the past three years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. "It's a small percentage, but it's an increase and it's in the wrong direction," says Joyce Rose, president of , a 42-year-old national organization dedicated to informing the public about train safety. "We've seen a 14 percent increase in trespass fatalities just last year," she adds.
One headline-grabbing incident happened last month when a Maryville, Calif., teenage couple, who were on their way to the local Sadie Hawkins dance, were caught off-guard by an approaching train. The boyfriend pushed his date out of the way and saved her life, but he was killed at the scene. This is just one of hundreds of deaths that occur on train tracks in the United States every year. And for the train engineer or conductor, the worst is just beginning.
This recent uptick in accidents is the reason behind Operation Lifesaver's "See Tracks. Think Trains" campaign, which launched April 8. This four-word slogan will echo on televisions, billboards, radios, and by the thousands of presentations by Operation Lifesaver almost 1500 members. Of those volunteers, nearly half are retired railroad workers, Rose says.
About 80 percent of fatalities are male with the lion's share falling within the 16-34 age group, It's this group that the "See Tracks. Think Trains" campaign hopes to reach. Distraction is a huge concern. A proliferation of smartphones, headphones, GPS devices, are at least one cause of the inclining death toll, not to mention increased population and railway traffic.
However, Rose thinks there's a more pervasive, underlying problem. "People don't think that they're doing anything wrong when they walk on the railroad tracks," Rose says. "It's a criminal act to trespass on railroad tracks, but that psychology is not there and it's a difficult audience to reach in a methodical way...I'm sure people are not thinking when they try to race the train at a crossing at how selfish that is and the impact that it can cause on other people, especially the engineer of the train."
The Other Half of the Equation
When a train hits someone or something on the tracks, Davids says, the first thing the crew does is record the time and call the train dispatcher to report an incident. Dispatch then alerts emergency responders while the train crew runs back to the point of collision to see if they can help. Davids took first aid classes for that very reason, even though there's often nothing he can do. Then the long process of investigating the accident begins.
In the aftermath of a train accident, Davids says, news reports understandably focus on the civilian victims. But a major train accident such as a derailment can send trains careening into ditches or shrapnel ripping through a locomotive's windshield. "About 90 percent of the time when a railroad incident is reported, they never mention if the train crew is ok," Davids says. "The reporters are only thinking of half the equation."
That could be said of the train companies, too. Up until the 1970s or the 80s, many companies expected railroad workers to clean up the mess after a collision and keep working, regardless of any nerves or psychological trauma.
"Initially when I was involved in a fatality, I couldn't believe there was no assistance," says John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, who started his railroading career in 1971. "Now, we're moving in the right direction after many years of delay." In 2008, Congress passed the Railway Safety Improvement Act. The law pushed for positive train control to curtail operator error, but also had a provision that required train companies to provide adequate time off and counseling services to anyone involved in a "critical incident."
Now, Davids says, by law the train crew is relieved from duty after an accident, given time off, and offered counseling services or the option to speak with other railroad employees who've experienced similar accidents, known simply as peer support. Many times employees are absent for a few days, sometimes longer, and some never return at all.
How a Few Seconds Can Last Forever
Patrick Sherry, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, has studied the mental health of railroad employees involved in critical incidents. Sherry stumbled upon the subject in 1988 when a man entered his office interested in psychology and explaining how railroad workers were experiencing "anniversary accidents."
"Every April, several people in a certain workforce of engineers…would have an accident—whether back pain or something else—that would trigger getting time off," Sherry says. He traveled down to the workplace to interview the engineers and listened to their stories: "I was talking to this one guy and he said 'I once ran into a minivan, we were coming down the tracks and there was nothing I could do. I had the brakes on full emergency. I'm blowing the horn and blowing the horn, and I can see this minivan. We're getting closer and closer. We got so close I could see the little kids' faces against the windows of the cars. There's nothing I could do. We plowed right into them.'"
Sherry explains that this particular engineer could never get the image out of his head. It was so bad in fact, that the engineer would do anything to not work that day. "I found that many of them have had similar experiences," Sherry says. "Absenteeism is often associated the post-traumatic stress disorder."
Sherry's , issued in 2011, uncovered some harrowing numbers. Nearly half (43.6 percent) of all rail transit operators are likely to be involved in an accident at some point, and of that unlucky population, 12.1 percent experienced PTSD. Train crews involved in incidents were also more likely to report physical health difficulties.
"Familiar stimuli can trigger those memories," Sherry says. He then describes one engineer who frequently had to pass the trackside memorial of a victim killed in a train accident he was involved in. "It makes it harder for a person to overcome and/or suppress those memories if the person is continually re-exposed to the stimuli. The body is saying to go someplace else and forget this, but if your job is to travel over the same places again and again, it can be very painful."
Respect the Tracks
Train accidents are over in a few seconds. But court cases and deposition hearings can linger for years, forcing engineers and conductors to relive their nightmares. Davids has participated in two such hearings, one in which a prosecutor tried to prove negligence, though the case was dismissed. Davids says the accusations aren't even the hardest part.
"Details are brought out in a courthouse that we don't know," he says. "At one of the depositions, they start talking about the lady's baby, and she was getting married a week after the incident happened." Years later while giving a driver's education presentation for Operation Lifesavers, Davids met that woman's daughter. "I talked to her after the presentation and she said she didn't remember her mom, and that she was raised by her grandparents," Davids says. "Those are the things I don't want to know."
Davids joined Operation Lifesavers in 1984. He now serves as the state coordinator for Idaho, the state where the Operation Lifesavers started in 1972. In some ways, the new campaign is fighting the stubbornness of human nature. People are always focused on where they're going, but not where they are, Davids says. People need to slow down, and they need to think, he says—"because anytime is train time."