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Railroad workers have been fighting fatigue in the rail industry for decades but the problem persists.
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Published: May 1st 2010
Source: Terri Theodore, THE CANADIAN PRESS
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VANCOUVER - In the 32 years Colin Mann spent working on the railway, the engineer crushed his eyes shut more than a dozen times, sickly aware of his helplessness to make his engine avoid the impending destruction of a person or vehicle.

Nine of those accidents were fatal.

"There's nothing you can do, you lay down on the floor or you close your eyes and you just don't look," Mann said, almost matter-of-fact during an interview.

"Some guys look and I think that's the problem. They'll see the person staring up at them at the last second and their eyes are wide open."

Suicide researchers at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal are asking for stories like Mann's as they study the issue of suicide-by-rail, a phenomenon too horrible to comprehend for most people, but known too well by anyone who spends their career on Canada's 48,000 kilometres of rail.

The letter to workers from researchers said "this project's overall goal is to provide a better understanding of rail-related accidents and suicides, as well as their impact."

Transport Canada is funding the study in co-operation with Canada's railways, the Teamsters's rail division and Operation Lifesaver. The university's Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia has been asked to try grappling with the issue.

"We don't know enough about suicides to know if there is anything we can do about it," said Dan Di Tota, national director of the group formed 20 years ago to try to reduce accidents at rail crossings and stop trespassing on railway property.

Operation Lifesaver is a private-public partnership between Transport Canada, police, the Railway Association of Canada, CN Rail, Via, Go Transit and the Teamsters.

Earlier this week, Rail Safety Week, CN Police Chief Stephen Covey vowed there would be no compromise in the fight to end accidents, injuries and fatalities on and near railway crossings, tracks and properties.

But while little is known about the phenomenon of suicide-by-rail, more is known about the trauma it causes for train crew.

Mann, 64, is stoic about the incidents he's encountered.

"It's just the way the ball bounces I guess," he sighed during a phone interview from his Ontario home.

He recalled few details and hasn't even kept accurate counts of the incidents.

But his memory is excellent about the day a man sat in the middle of the tracks waiting for his passenger train to pass.

Mann's train was southbound going about 110 kilometres an hour, daylight was just breaking and both he and the conductor thought they saw a piece of cardboard caught between the tracks.

"It was him sitting up, we were blowing the whistle and we both said at the same time 'holy shit that's somebody sitting there.' We put the train into emergency and went right over top of him."

Mann is sure it was a suicide, but can't be positive if other accidents he's been involved in were the same.

A September 2007 Transport Canada report said one of the top reasons for railway trespassing fatalities was suicide.

While it's difficult to obtain or substantiate statistics on people who kill themselves, the report said it's believed about 50 per cent of such fatalities are suicides.

Last year, there were 256 grade crossing and railway trespassing accidents across Canada. Seventy-one people died and 36 others were seriously hurt.

Di Tota said many crews members don't go back to work after such an incident.

He said those who do go back have to drive over the same spot every day and sometimes families erect memorials, complete with pictures of the person who died.

"It's not like he (the rail worker) can take a detour," Di Tota said. "So he relives this every time he goes over that location."

Mann always went back to work, but he said when his train rolled over the same spot as one of his accidents, he kept his hand on the brake ready for another incident.

He always kept a careful eye on people who loitered near the track, calling it a guessing game.

"You know you'll get kids playing chicken and this and that and you're thinking 'Jeez, are they going to move or not?'

"You're on the edge of your seat every time you come to a crossing."

He said it was just natural instinct to try to guess what the person standing along the tracks might do.

"If you see something suspicious you put your hand on the brake."

The study on train-related deaths has only just begun assessing the size of the problem.

It will proceed in four stages, including assessing the prevalence of rail-related deaths, looking at the impact of accidents and suicides, coming up with suicide counter-measures, planning and testing the counter-measures and then implementing them.

Di Tota said his group hopes to see the final report by the end of the year.

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