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Train conductors, engineers deal with traumatic accidents on railroad

11:46 PM, Feb 6, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In the last three years in Duval County, four people have been killed walking on railroad tracks. 

That number may seem pretty small, but there are the unseen victims to consider in these cases as well: The men and women who have to witness a train killing a pedestrian with absolutely nothing they can do to stop it.

Hidden behind black glass of a locomotive engine, high above the road, a tiny crew does its best to control hundreds of tons of speeding steel and cargo.

"There's two people on train crew: Engineer and conductor," said CSX's Cliff Stayton. 

Stayton was an engineer with the railroad company for 20 years.

And with names like "engineer" and "conductor" there's a sense of control, but once the men get it going, the train is in charge.

"Trains can't stop quickly, there's nothing you can do about it," he said.

Emergency brakes can help slow a train down, but it can take a mile or more for a train to come to a complete stop.

And Stayton said over the course of a career it's not if, but when train crews will witness fatalities.

"I was involved in numerous incidents," he said.

"I went through three semis, hit four automobiles, and a seven-year-old who was playing chicken on the tracks."

It's not an indictment on his ability, but on poor decisions.

"They'll go around gates or dart out in front of you and unfortunately this is common in the day in the life of," Stayton said.

A short cut, an adventure, a walk on the tracks are all illegal. It's trespassing on private property.

And those are all things Stayton said leads to the worst kind of accidents.

"Quite frankly, they're ugly."

Especially for the people in the engine.

"You're looking right down at the person, or the pedestrian right before impact."

Since 2008, Florida ranks #4 in train deaths, when it comes to people trespassing on the lines. 

Specifically when it comes to trespassing and people walking on lines, 106 have been killed on Florida railroads.

"It's very common for you to relive that, you're back on the train, going through the same territory," he said.

That's why Stayton said each year, dozens of train operators have to give it up.

He stuck with it.

"Because that's how I supported my family. You have to get back up on the train."

He's moved up in the ranks now and works in the downtown Jacksonville high rise.

But he uses his years of experience to help keep engineers on the job, even after tragedy.

"I've held grown men in my arms while they sobbed," he said.

CSX, like most train corporations around the country, now have critical incident programs.

Allon Wright is the director of CSX's program, which gives counseling and support to employees involved in fatal railroad accidents whether directly or indirectly.

"Individuals may require immediate attention or sometimes we're seeing delays that can last months or years," Wright said.

He said fatal train accidents can lead to post traumatic stress for engineers and conductors. 

"We really want to make sure people get the help they need," Wright said.

Counseling comes for these workers after such accidents, but also before.

Stayton said fatalities on the line are so common that engineers and conductors have to be prepared and educated for the sad reality that their train will probably one day kill someone.

"I wish it was the exception that engineers would have to go through this," Stayton said. "But reality is it's not if, but when."

CSX wants all their employees in town to use their counseling that's available free of charge. They say it's especially important for those who may have been involved in accidents years ago and still suffer from it.

This should also serve as a reminder that all train tracks are private property, you can be arrested for walking on them ... or worse, killed.

First Coast News

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