NJ Transit Locomotive Engineer Mel Caban is part of a sad but growing club within his profession.
While on the job one day, a younger person wandered onto the tracks in front of his train. The braking capacity wasn’t there and by the time he saw the person it was too late.
“I tell (people) you normally hear a thump,” he said. “And usually when you hear that thump it’s their body hitting my equipment.”
Caban’s experience was tragic and emotionally tasking, but unfortunately it’s becoming a very common occurrence in the United States that transit systems are trying to curb and operators are forced to deal with: the emotional trauma that accompanies traumatic experiences on the job or when someone is hit by a train accidentally or in a suicidal action.
Understanding suicide is difficult for most people and when someone does it by train or bus, it can compound that confusion. According to “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” jumping in front of a train is amongst the lowest choices of suicide, but also one of the most effective.
Younger people with severe mental illness are most likely to jump in front of a train, but some may also choose this form of suicide out of convenience, or out of impulse.
Suicide by train can also be brought on by copycats who read about another incident, which may lead some areas to become suicide magnets.
Transit workers across the country are subject to acts of violence and see death or violent assaults on a regular basis. And by being immersed in such situations, it can begin to have severe mental health effects on workers.
In a study published in 2000 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers affiliated with the Long Island Railroad in New York, researchers discovered 70 different transit workers who were involved in incidents and how it affected them.
Researchers discovered some employees faced sleep issues, recurring thoughts about the incidents and some had feelings of social isolation and distanced themselves from family and coworkers.
While there is no long-term effect for those studied, the workers appeared to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for several months until they learned how to cope with the incident.
A Lifetime of Guilt
Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health said in an interview with “Mass Transit” magazine that PTSD symptoms can emerge from the stress that follows a traumatic event and transit workers are susceptible to, and very often exposed to trauma, such as assault, accidents, suicides or even witnessing street crime.
She says, it’s common for people to re-experience the event, have flashbacks, have nightmares, avoid thinking about the incident, isolate themselves, have difficulty sleeping, and/or being hyper-vigilant/always on guard.
“People often have those symptoms — it’s normal to have them at the very beginning — but for most people, they get the symptoms and they gradually decrease over time. It’s when the symptoms become more intense over time.”
Sean Morris, vice-president of operations for Blomquist Hale Consulting, which offers counseling to Utah Transit Authority (UTA) employees after a traumatic incident, says immediately following a fatal incident the company goes and meets with the operator where they begin to deal with the aftermath. Counselors discuss the issues with the operator to make sure they have support and to make sure they’re safe.
Most of the counseling sessions happen one-on-one, but some operators will have family members there to help. Some of the operators will have a difficult time with the situation right after it happens, but Morris says others may take months for issues to arise, so they must keep on top of the situation with the operator and the transit authority.
Even if the operator isn’t overly shocked right after the incident, Morris says the emotions from the event could rear itself again months or years down the road from other professional or personal incidents because the experience of driving the train will last the rest of their life.