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Caltrain engineer talks about coping with track deaths

In the past six weeks, five people have died on Caltrain tracks, hit by trains that could not stop in time to avoid them. Every year, an average of 12 people die on Caltrain tracks, and most are suicides. This is a small percentage of suicide deaths each year – only about one percent of suicides in the U.S. are by train.

Caltrain has built 10-foot fences along much of the route, commissioned studies about location and prevention, put up signs with suicide hotline numbers along its tracks, and partnered with mental health agencies. But it is a tragic problem that persists.

And it’s not just on Caltrain; in 2011, 702 people died on train tracks nationwide. Suicides are a small percentage of these deaths, but they have serious emotional consequences – both for the loved ones of the people who kill themselves, and for the men and women who drive and work on trains.

Charles is a locomotive engineer for Caltrain. That’s not his real name; he asked us not to use it. Charles is the one of people who drives the trains between San Jose and San Francisco. He’s been working on the railroad for more than 30 years, and, for the most part, he loves his job.

“I’ve tried to quit the railroad several times,” says Charles. “And I don’t know if it was in my blood, or…I’m a third generation railroader, so I was always pulled back to the railroad. I like the lifestyle. I like the money. I’ve raised a family on the railroad.”

But there’s a part of his job that never gets easier—witnessing people die under the wheels of his trains.

“I’ve had two since January first. That’s kind of high for me. I average one a year. You never know when it’s going to happen. You never know,” says Charles.

Train engineers like Charles may not know when it’s going to happen, but they do know that, sooner or later, it is going to happen. Trains aren’t like cars. They weigh 400 tons. You can’t just slam on the brakes and stop.

“The way I kind of look at it, the farther I am from my last one, the closer I am to my next one,” he says. “It’s almost like rolling the dice. It’s an awful tragedy.”

On Caltrain, a typical crew is made up of three people—the engineer, and two conductors, who work with passengers. When someone is hit, the conductors are the first people to go out on the tracks to find them. The engineer is usually the last person to see the person alive.

“It's an interesting thing though how in the heat of the battle, we kind of go on automatic, and it don't sink in until we've been rescued from the scene and we're taken away,” says Charles. “I’ve seen people break down afterwards. You know, I want to break down. Sometimes my ego and my pride keep me from it, but inside I'm dying.”

When they’re first hired, crewmembers are told that bad things may happen on the tracks and any crewmember involved in a death gets paid time off and access to counseling. But not everybody takes advantage of it. Laurie Richer is a clinical psychiatrist at UCSF. She says part of the problem is that this kind of emotional trauma isn’t necessarily something crews are trained to deal with.

“As opposed to first responders--EMS, paramedics, police--that come to a scene, they have some degree of emotional preparedness,” says Richer. “Whereas a train driver doesn't. So they're not trained or prepared, or it wasn't a motivation in choosing that line of work. So these tragedies happen to them right out of the blue.”

Richer says the emotional trauma that can result has a name: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It’s something we often associate with soldiers coming home from war. Basically, when we’re in danger, our adrenaline kicks in and we go into survival mode. The problem is that once the danger has passed, we can get stuck in that heightened state—unable to stop reliving the trauma, unable to stop being on the lookout for more danger, and with a strong urge to avoid the place where the trauma happened.

That’s the problem for train crews—they can’t avoid the place where the death happened.  And they can’t avoid the fact that another one could happen at any time.

“It’s difficult because every time I go past the scene of where I’ve had a fatality, it plays back like a video,” says Charles. “Your first nature is to crawl in your hole and just pull the covers over your head – and many people do that, you know. They don't answer the phone after that. And that's probably the worst thing you can do, cause you just sit there with that rolling around in your head. It just destroys your sleep for several days.”

Laurie Richer says the best thing you can do after a serious trauma is to reach out for help as soon as possible and talk about how you’re feeling. 

“What that does is it validates the response,” says Richer. “It helps individuals realize that they're not alone in their response, that in fact it's more common than not to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD. And also, peers provide ideas for how they got support. And seeking help becomes more acceptable.”

Seeking—and giving—help is something Charles has learned how to do in his long career on the railroad. He talks to friends and a counselor, and makes it a point to reach out to other crewmembers who have experienced trauma.

“I don't get to spend too much time thinking about mine if I'm helping others, and that works for me,” says Charles. “Plus I have a great network of friends who support me. They prop me up when I can’t stand on my own. They help me through these difficult times. I’m really blessed. I feel like the luckiest man on earth sometimes.”

Charles doesn’t blame Caltrain for the deaths. Track fatalities are part of the job, all over the world. 

“Caltrain goes to great lengths to keep that from happening,” he says. “They have ten-foot fences along the whole line. It’s not because of any negligence. It would be nice to prevent all of it, but that's dreaming. But we're trying. And anything that we can do to have some kind of effect on it, if it saves one life, it's worth it. That's why I agreed to do this interview. If it saves one person from this, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm honored to be able to do it.”

On a warm Saturday afternoon in June, several thousand people are gathered at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.

It’s a sea of blue t-shirts. The back of each shirt reads: “I’ll be up all night for” followed by a blank line. People have filled in the words: “I’ll be up all night for my mother, for my father, for my Uncle Tim.” Other people have written in names, followed by dates—dates of birth…and dates of death.

The annual Out of the Darkness walk is a suicide awareness event, held in different cities around the country. This year, people spent all night walking the streets of San Francisco, raising money for suicide prevention and research. There are a lot of individuals, and a lot of families. And this year, there’s also a group of eight Caltrain staff members.

April Maguigad works in the Operations Department at Caltrain. She’s leading tonight’s Caltrain walkers.

“I just recently moved to the Bay Area from Virginia in January,” she says. “I think it was probably right around the third fatality that we had here at Caltrain since my moving here that I decided that I needed a way to cope and deal with it.”

Ted Yurek is also on the Caltrain team.

“We've kind of taken a position of instead of not talking about it, talking about it more,” says Yurek. “And hopefully this helps promote that point of view, that you should be more open about depression and suicide as things that happen.”

Since the night of the walk, the Caltrain team has raised $12,000 to help people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Donations are still coming in. Maguidad say the walk gives people a sense that there’s support––that there are people who understand what it’s like to go through a suicide, and who want to offer help.

“It is a sense of sadness that you know this is a person who has chosen quite a tragic way to end their life,” says Maguigad. “You wonder about their family, and you wonder about the people they're leaving behind. It's not just another delay, it's somebody's family member.”

If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) right away. Help is there for you, and you are not alone. You can also read about suicide warning signs and prevention strategies here