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RAIL Magazine Commentary

April 17, 2013: A Sad Day on the Northeast Corridor

By Scott Bogren, Editor in Chief, RAIL Magazine

Rather suddenly and without any station stop being announced, the train's brakes sprung into action. Of course, an Amtrak train moving at somewhere near its top speed -- even a Northeast Regional train -- does not simply stop, no matter how much the engineers at this moment wished it would. So began a very long and sad day for me on the busiest stretch of passenger rail tracks in the U.S.

We hit something, and there was a slight bump that all the passengers on this busy, mid-morning trip up the Northeast corridor felt. And then we all heard it, as it rattled beneath the train's wheels. It sounded like we'd struck a grocery cart. Only it wasn't. We'd struck what police and local newspapers called, "an unidentified woman," who was pronounced dead at the scene, a suspected suicide. It was the second such fatality in Delaware in the past five days.

A delay ensued as local police, along with Amtrak police, began arriving on the scene. The conductor announced that we'd hit "an obstruction" and would be holding for a period of time. The look on the faces of the crew, however, let anyone know that the obstruction we'd hit was a person. Passengers grumbled a bit, but generally understood the gravity of the situation and made phone calls advising family, friends and colleagues about the delay. I did the same. An hour and a half later, Amtrak arranged for all the passengers to board another north-bound train via a bridge platform between our train and one that had pulled alongside it.

I made my meeting in Atlantic City, albeit belatedly and only had time to say hello and apologize for missing my time slot. I then hurried back to Trenton, N.J., to catch my southbound train back to Washington, D.C., prepared to catch up on some work. I barely made it but found a seat, plugged in my laptop and...once again the train's emergency brakes were being applied, once again I felt that slightest of bumps and once again, I heard the telltale clattering of something beneath the train's wheels. I kid you not.

This time, the conductor immediately announced that we'd struck a, "trespasser." He also admonished the crew to please stay aboard the train and once again Amtrak and local police arrived, as did another, "rescue train" onto which all the passengers once again traipsed over a bridge platform. It was a drill with which I was familiar. All told, it took 90 minutes or so, just as it had earlier in the day.

A local suburban Philadelphia newspaper reported that a 57-year old man was killed and they did not immediately classify the incident as a suicide. On March 30, another man had been struck and killed on the tracks not far from this most recent tragedy.

And yes, it is a tragedy. Regardless the circumstances, both of these incidents resulted in someone dying, someone with now distraught family and friends. At the second occurrence, I overheard some passengers loudly complaining that there must be a way for people to commit suicide that doesn't inconvenience so many people. Let that one sit for a second. Yes, she used the word inconvenience.

As someone who's written about passenger rail for two decades, I knew that for the train crews, this was far more than a mere inconvenience. Train engineers are the ones that see the person about to be struck, they pull the emergency brake and they understand the helplessness of the situation. Train conductors are the first to leave the train once it's stopped, to inspect the situation. Incidents like the ones on the Northeast Corridor tracks yesterday leave permanent scars on these hard-working employees.

In a New York Times article from December 2011, a CalTrain engineer said that all new hires were told about hitting someone, "it's not if, it's when." A Philadelphia Inquirer article from September 2011 interviewed several engineers who took particular note of how suicide victims often look right at them before the moment of impact. It can hardly be surprising that many train crew members have suffered from post traumatic stress symptoms like depression and insomnia after experiencing the ordeal of striking someone on the tracks. Some, after hitting someone, never work again.

In fact, a cursory search of recent news on the subject of rail suicides brings forth a torrent of local news stories, from around the nation, revealing what my experience on the Northeast Corridor yesterday confirms: suicide by train is growing in prevalence. In the period between June 2007 and May 2010, the FRA reported 427 suicides on the nation's rails. Many rail industry insiders, however, claim that estimate is low because some communities fail to classify the deaths as suicides. Last year, the Federal Railroad Administration launched a new study to track incidents on rail rights of way, evaluate causes and identify trends. The research will be well worth it if it saves just one life.

The root cause of suicide is far too broad a subject for me to tackle in this commentary, and one that would stray off-point. Yesterday, two people lost their lives along a 100-mile stretch of the nation's busiest rail line. For these two people, for their families and friends and for the train crews traumatized by these incidents, we can and must do more.

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