“If someone from the media calls, we refer them to the coroner’s office because they have the official cause of death and the best we can tell the media is that we’ve had a trespasser incident where someone was on the tracks that really shouldn’t have been on the tracks,” says Luna Salazar, public information officer for CCJPA. “One life lost is too many so we’re very sensitive to the fact that it’s a person’s life and there are loved ones involved and employees and people who may be emotionally traumatized.”
Capitol Corridor has gotten $200,000 in grants from California state government, which has been matched by Union Pacific the past couple years, to place fencing up along the railway and help prevent deaths on the tracks. Travel packs are given out to passengers when a strike occurs, which is budgeted on an annual basis, but Kutrosky says a study is currently underway by the National Academy of Science to see how much financial cost a rail agency incurs when a fatal strike occurs.
Besides the emotional cost to the employees, transit authorities are also straddled by financial burdens that accompany a suicide by train or an accident. Carpenter says it’s hard to quantify the costs, but accidents can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to the trains, the operators are on paid leave during the investigation, and if there are lawsuits filed over the case, it could add more costs in litigation fees. The UTA is self-insured against bus or rail accidents, but Carpenter says the authority has a limited liability under the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah.
“As to whether UTA is held liable, it would depend on the circumstances and may require a court ruling,” he says. “UTA is typically not found at fault by the law enforcement agency investigating the incident. Most suicides or fatalities are committed by individuals who are trespassing on private property or ignoring traffic laws and/or warning signals, but that doesn’t mean that a law suit couldn’t be filed.”
No Way to Prepare
John Maxwell, rail operations supervisor responsible for training and certification with UTA, has seen firsthand how many operators have been impacted when someone is hit by their train. Some of the operators have a difficult time dealing with a death on the tracks while others are able to move past the incident.
But unfortunately for all operators, Maxwell says there’s really nothing that can be taught to prepare them for what could happen other than to warn them there’s a really good chance they will be involved in a fatal accident at some time during their career.
“I want the trainees to understand that it’s not likely going to happen tomorrow, but it’s very possible it will happen during their career,” he says. “We call it the club that no one wants to join here.”
Maxwell says roughly 10 percent of all train operators in the UTA will be involved in a fatal accident and unfortunately for operators there, the system has seen a spike in suicides by train. When an operator is involved in an accident, Maxwell says the operator informs supervisors and police are called in to investigate the scene.
Operators are offered grief counselors to discuss the accident and are given the opportunity to ease back into the job by going through their routes with a friend for a few days if they so wish.
Once the employee returns to work Maxwell says he then must check with the employee to see if there’s any concern about ongoing issues or if that person is fit for duty. He says some operators have been involved in multiple suicides by train during their careers, which can create even more emotional issues for those workers.
UTA operators are trained in how to respond to a fatal accident in order to keep the employee calm if a situation arises and to help them spot a situation to prepare for accident avoidances, but stresses there’s really no way for an operator to fully prepare for the gore that accompanies collisions with pedestrians or the fact the operators will have to go through the scene of the incident over and over again during the course of their careers.
“A human being isn’t supposed to see a human body punted 150 yards down the track,” he says. “I’m telling you man, you don’t forget that. As human beings we’re not supposed to see things like that and it harms you.”