Thursday, December 15, 2011

Death on the Tracks – And the Forgotten Victims

About a dozen years ago, I was on my way to Florida and relaxing with three or four other passengers in the lounge car on Amtrak’s Silver Star. We were just north of Savannah, Georgia, when suddenly I felt the train braking hard. Four or five seconds later, there was a jolt and the train came to a stop. Everyone knew we had just hit something.

The lounge car attendant, a woman of about 40 and obviously a long-time Amtrak employee, said quite dryly, “Well, I sure hope we didn’t kill ‘em.”

I must have looked at her strangely, because she said, “You don’t understand. If we killed the damn fool, we’ll have to sit here and wait for God knows how long until a coroner shows up and tells us what we already know – that he’s dead. But, if he’s still alive, the paramedics will come, haul his sorry ass to a hospital, we’ll be on our way and I’ll be home in time for dinner.”

The more I’ve learned about the continuing tragedy of what are typically referred to as “grade crossing accidents”, the more I can understand what appeared at the time to be a callous and unfeeling attitude from that lounge car attendant.

In truth, the term “accident” is a misnomer. With very rare exceptions, every last one of these incidents is avoidable. Almost always, they involve someone in an all-fired hurry who stupidly ignores the flashing lights and clanging bell and drives around the lowered gates … and into the path of a locomotive.

Sadly, some are suicides but, whatever the cause, these incidents are not only tragic for the families of those killed, but they can have a devastating impact on the forgotten victims – the Amtrak or freight engineers, who see it all coming and know there is not a damn thing they can do to prevent it.

The New York Times recently carried a story about this problem. Very much worth reading.

By, the way ... that incident on the Silver Star? The guy was driving a VW van and the train cut it right in two. The guy was drunk. He was also dead. And we were 2:45 late into Jacksonville.

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