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Correction to This Article
The article about the effects of train suicides on engineers misspelled the name of John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
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For Train Operators, a Lingering Mix of Horror, Helplessness

Amtrak engineer Bruce Evans has witnessed several suicides during his 20 years driving trains.
Amtrak engineer Bruce Evans has witnessed several suicides during his 20 years driving trains. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

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"It just doesn't make much difference if you hit them at 75 [mph], 65 or 55," he said.

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Metro's wide windshields are designed to maximize the engineer's view. Unfortunately, that means train operators see tragedy unfold with widescreen clarity, a high-def horror they never forget. Another train operator, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said it was the shocking proximity of a recent impact that made it impossible for him to drive again for seven months. A woman carefully timed her jump just as he entered the station at 38 mph; she was airborne when they made contact.

"She hit my window like a bird, spread-eagle," he said. "We're taught how to react, but nothing prepares you for that situation." The woman lived.

Lee, too, said she can clearly see the face of the man on the tracks. "A young black man. I had nightmares for years," she said. "I dreamed I was operating a train and somebody was walking toward me. I would always wake up just before I made contact."

After several weeks of office duty, she returned to a daytime run on the Red Line. That first day, a training instructor drove through the Rockville station and then Lee took over. She was fine until they went underground. "As soon as I hit the tunnel, I screamed," Lee said. "I was seeing that vision of someone walking toward me."

Lee was out on workers' comp for five years, seeing a string of psychologists. She started operating trains again in 1996. She plans to retire soon.

The worst for her were the hours immediately after the hit. As investigators worked, Lee said, they had her sit on a platform bench, where she had a too-close view of the recovery team extracting the remains.

The response of transit systems and railroads after a fatal strike has changed dramatically in recent years, said John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Although some rail systems push workers to finish their shifts, most relieve them immediately, offering counseling and ample time off. The Rail Safety Act that passed Congress last year will enshrine some of those relief measures in federal law.

The operator's sense of helplessness can be worse when the person on the tracks doesn't actually want to die, Tolman said. A trainman he worked with was once crossing a long viaduct over a high drop when he saw a young woman in the beam of his headlight. No suicide, she began running toward the end of the bridge. The engineer hit the brake but could do nothing more than shriek as the gap between train and girl grew smaller.

"She didn't make it," Tolman said. "That just blew that poor guy away."

Sometimes the train operator never knows what the victim had in mind: kids playing chicken, or cars that speed around the crossing gate at the last moment, the motorist looking right at the engineer's cab.

On one stretch of track near Newport News, Va., Amtrak engineers are used to seeing teenagers walking between the rails. Usually, they scatter at the first blast of the air horn. But one night, Evans blew and blew as a young man walked slowly along the tracks, away from the train, headphones in his ears. He never looked around before Evans turned his head, a second before impact. Suicide?

"He had to hear me," Evans said.

Many train operators never endure a fatality. But to those who do, the familiar routines of the track can become jarring. Evans has stopped making runs south of Washington, where the at-grade crossings represent just so many chances for another strike. (His daily run to Cumberland, Md., however, puts him back at the Randolph Road crossing in Rockville where he once struck two men.)

Subway drivers said just pulling up to a crowded station platform can set their hearts racing. Which of the commuters standing too close to the platform is about to leap?

"When I'm on a platform, I make a point of not making any sudden moves when the train is coming in," said Frank King, a union counselor who works with traumatized motormen in New York's subway system. "I always remember that there is a guy in there who may be hypersensitive."


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