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Train deaths: the view from the cab

stop.light November 23, 1996
Web posted at: 11:40 p.m. EST

From Reporter Jack Hamann

(CNN) -- It happens day and night, in good weather and in bad, involving freight trains and passenger trains alike: A person is hit by a train in the United States once every 90 minutes. (21 sec./825K QuickTime movie) movie icon

Twice a day, a person is killed by a train, and once every three days that victim is a child, federal figures show.

Not only are the victims hurt. Train conductors and engineers, who never imagined that death would be such a big part of their jobs, bear emotional scars.

"I've been on the railroad 31 years, and there has been I don't know how many incidents, so many probably near-misses, that I couldn't even tell you, couldn't even count, couldn't even remember them," said Skeeter Ray, a Union Pacific conductor.

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The American Edge

"Your heart beats fast, you get that rush of adrenaline, and maybe the sweaty palms, and think, 'Not another one, not another one!'"

Ray's colleague, Charlie Keating, described what it's like behind the controls during an accident.

"You stand up, you beat on the glass, you scream, you yell," Keating said. "They can't hear you, but you do it anyway. I've never seen anybody out here that doesn't."

When the seemingly inevitable does happen, a conductor would never dream of not stopping, Keating said.

"The conductor's going to walk back. It's going to be the longest and the roughest walk of his life, because he's walking back to find out what happened," Keating said.

"And if we hit somebody, he's walking back, normally, to a situation that no man should have to witness."

It is expensive, and potentially dangerous, to put a train into emergency brakes for each of the estimated 6,000 close calls every year.

If conductors have spent at least 10 years on the railroad, the odds are better than half that they have watched someone die. For 20 years' service, the odds rise to nearly 100 percent.

Some train employees suffer in silence, a few simply quit. Their minds reel with "what ifs."

"The first thing you wonder is, why the hell did I go to work today? Why? Why me?" said Union Pacific engineer Jim Grad.

"You know, what if we had got to the crossing a little bit sooner? What if they'd been a little slower? You know, what if I hadn't worked this trip?" Ray said.

A handful of railroad companies, led by Union Pacific, are starting programs to offer counseling to their engineers and conductors. But counseling addresses the symptom, not the cause: People tempting fate by trying to beat an oncoming train.

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