When Sean Morgan attended Caltrain’s orientation for new engineers, he was warned that his train would eventually kill someone.
“They said, ‘This will occur,’” Morgan said. “It wasn’t a matter of if; it was a matter of when.”
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Morgan, who has collided with two people in 18 years and only knows one engineer who hasn’t hit someone, said the Peninsula is notorious because of the many places where cars, bikes and pedestrians interact with trains. More people are hit by trains on the Peninsula than almost anywhere else in California.
For a chart with data on the number of Caltrain fatalities and suicides in the years 2009-11, click on the photo to the right.
Aside from victims, it also makes life hard for train engineers.
“You try to get through these things by telling yourself, ‘These are adults, they’re people who should know what they’re doing, they should know the consequences of their actions,’” Morgan said. “But this sometimes isn’t enough. You don’t know how it’s going to affect you until you are put in that situation.”
Morgan’s first victim was a man who sprang from behind an enclosure and sprinted away from the train. Morgan threw the brakes and sounded the horn, but was almost on top of the man.
“It’s a feeling of hopelessness because the only thing you can do is just blow the whistle,” he said.
When the man was found to have left a suicide note, Morgan said he quickly moved past the incident. But that wasn’t the case with his next collision.
On Easter 2006, he struck someone in the tunnel between South San Francisco and the Cow Palace. Right before impact, the person turned and looked at Morgan, who still isn’t sure if he hit a man or a woman.
“Their eyes were big as dish plates because it was really dark,” he said.
Engineers can’t really see the impact below them, but they can hear it.
“It’s this really odd sound, like hitting a watermelon with a sledgehammer, but there’s a metallic ring to it that runs through the equipment,” Morgan said. “I’d hear the thump and that ring playing over in my head. And it’s a weird thing trying to be normal and go to sleep and hear that sound play. You start questioning yourself.”
That’s when Caltrain counselors and fellow engineers step in. They call drivers repeatedly, assuring them they aren’t responsible. But many engineers can’t cope, Morgan said, and quit or take extended leaves.
Over the span of Tim Smith’s 25-year career, he hit dogs, debris, cars and four people.
Suicide attempts are a common cause of such accidents. As seen by Smith, chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, his members are the real victims of such acts.
Once, heading south out of Stockton, Smith saw a woman in a blue dress and sweater about a quarter-mile away.
“Next thing I know,” he said, “I saw her step over the rail on the left and did an about-face and walked right into me.” Smith said he still remembers the “vacant” look in her eyes.
“I cut her in two, right across the waist,” he said. “That’s just one of those things that’s hard to forget.”
Smith said he never tried to learn her name.
“It’s just a matter of realizing who’s truly at fault,” he said. “It isn’t me. I’m just doing my job, and people see the opportunity to end their life.”
Suicides are difficult to prevent
Five of the nine deaths on Caltrain tracks in 2011 are still under investigation, but four have been ruled suicides, agency spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. In 2009, the railroad experienced 19 fatalities, 15 of which were suicides.
“It’s an available means, pretty easy and pretty lethal,” said Julie Kinlock, program manager at First Chance, a crisis center and hotline in San Carlos. “Then there’s the factor that it’s something other people have done, and people do things that are familiar to them.”
Such suicides have a big impact on the drivers of the trains involved. But Kinlock said people who kill themselves often “aren’t in touch with the impact they have on others.”
A study done last year by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University found that most Caltrain suicides occur near a station or road crossing.
Research shows that limiting access to risk points — whether on train tracks or the Golden Gate Bridge — reduces suicides. Since 2006, Caltrain has spent $4.2 million fencing off its tracks. Each year, police also remove dozens of people from the right of way who might be contemplating suicide.
Last year, Caltrain spent $90,000 putting up 250 signs bearing suicide hotline numbers along a 10-mile stretch of track between Menlo Park and Mountain View. Kinlock, whose agency’s number is posted on the signs, said there hasn’t been an increase in calls by people considering suicide.
Dunn said Caltrain and the American Association of Suicidology will begin analyzing their effectiveness today.