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Train crews struggle to cope with railway collision trauma
Published: August 11, 2008
Source: Edmonton Journal
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EDMONTON, Alberta Ted Ermet's nightmare is driving his train around a corner to find a school bus stuck on the tracks.

"That, to me, I don't think I'd ever get back on an engine again," says the Edmonton locomotive engineer and peer support volunteer with CN Rail and the Teamsters Union.

He regularly meets dazed, shaking, sometimes crying train crews as they stumble into the station after an accident. He tries to line them up with professional counselling, but train wrecks are so traumatizing to the crews, sometimes even that isn't enough.

Ermet, 48, remembers one man who took a year-and-a-half off work. Then his first day back, he rounded a corner to find a woman running with a baby carriage, trying to beat the train at a crossing.

The wheels of the carriage got stuck in the tracks.

"Thank God he stopped in time," says Ermet. "But guess what, he was a basket case. He couldn't continue."

According to the Transportation Safety Board, the number of accidents at railroad crossings have gone down 75 per cent -- from 826 incidents in 1980 to 209 in 2007 -- mainly because of public education and improved signage and visibility at the crossings.

Now officials are turning their sights to trespassers and suicides.

Eighty-two people were hit while walking on the tracks in Canada in 2007. Fifty-seven people were killed.

For every accident, the crew has to stop the train and one of them has to walk back along the tracks, often to view a mangled body.

"That's part of their job. They hit something, they have to go back and check it out," says Ermet.

"It's not really pretty. People are pretty shaken up because they've gone back and they've seen the pile.

"When they talk to me, all they want to do is keep talking and talking and repeating the same stuff," Ermet added. He tries to get them in to see a counsellor right away.

Last month, Transport Canada issued a public request for proposals, offering up to $382,000 over four-and-a-half years to develop a program to reduce the number of suicides on the rail lines.

It's a joint program with the Washington-based Federal Railroad Administration, who also announced a $1-million grant to Operation Lifesavers last month to help reduce trespassing fatalities.

In the United States, about 500 people are killed while trespassing on railroad tracks each year. Parts of the grant will be specifically aimed at educating college students and the Hispanic and Latino communities.

"People want to get from A to B in the shortest way possible," said spokesman Steve Kulm.

Reducing suicides in particular will be very difficult, he said. "You can't put fencing everywhere. It's obviously a difficult task, but that's why we're doing the study."

A recent demographic study found about 20 per cent of the trespassing deaths are suicides, Kulm said.

Dan Shewchuk, now head of the union for locomotive engineers, drove trains for 26 years and had three people try to commit suicide in front of his train. Two survived, and the memories haunt him still.

One man stared straight at him as he struggled to stop the train. The man stumbled and fell just in time.

"I can still see the look in his eye," Shewchuk said. "It's total helplessness because you can't stop. Our people experience that far too often, but I don't know what the solution is."

One month ago, a train crew hit a 11,000-kilogram piece of heavy machinery and careened across a highway overpass before the train derailed, just east of Edmonton.

Someone put the stolen equipment on the tracks deliberately, RCMP said. They still have no suspects but continue to investigate.

Ermet's team met the train crew at the Edmonton terminal.

Ermet, a man with a rugged face and a touch of grey at his temples, has been working with trains for 30 years, since he graduated from high school. He worked his way up from switchman, then brakeman and conductor. Then he went back to school and became the engineer.

As the engineer, he's in charge of the locomotive. The conductor is in charge of the train. They both sit at the front, listening for safety devices and watching for signals or obstacles on the track.

Both have emergency brake valves, ready to grab in a moment.

"It's a lifestyle for me, I guess. Tough to say why I stuck with it," Ermet said. "Too late to go back now.

"Things happen fast, and the faster you're going, the faster they can happen."

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