Sean Morgan heard the hollow thump as the Caltrain rumbled through a narrow San Francisco tunnel. The 12-year engineer didn’t have to see what he hit to know he wouldn’t sleep for weeks.
"I knew right away it was a person," he said. "The sound is unlike any other."
Many engineers say suicidal pedestrians will look them straight in the eye before being bludgeoned by a train. But it’s the sound the human body makes upon impact that keeps many engineers awake at night, Morgan says.
"It’s like a sledgehammer on a watermelon," he said. "It stays with you forever."
Though Caltrain has spent millions on pedestrian safety — adding fencing along rail corridors and plotting warning signs near the tracks — the number of pedestrian fatalities on the tracks continues to be grim. More than 170 people have been killed since 1992; about 60 percent were suicides, said Caltrain spokeswoman Christine Dunn. There have been six deaths already this year with 17 in 2006, just three fewer than a record 20 in 1995.
But those most traumatized by these deaths could be the engineers themselves, many of whom have said they are the forgotten victims of these fatalities. According to a nationwide study, an engineer experiences an average of three fatalities for every 25 years on the job. Engineers in the heavily populated Bay Area could see dozens killed in that time, said Tim Smith, representative of the engineers union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.
Morgan said he’s heard the thump twice as a Caltrain engineer. First in 2001, when a man in his 40s leapt in front of his train from behind a concrete wall along the tracks. And again this last Easter Sunday, when a woman crept into a cramped tunnel just north of the 22nd Street Station.
"There’s no way to stop in time," he said. "But you always ask yourself, ‘Did I do everything I could have done?’"
Engineers are warned they’ll experience death on the tracks when signing on to the job. They told Morgan it was inevitable.
"They don’t say ‘if’ it will happen to you, they say ‘when,’" he said.
Some engineers blame train suicides on the holidays or economic downturns — periods when people are most depressed. Others say there’s no rhyme or reason, only peaks and valleys.
"I’d argue that while the deceased is in the heavenly realm, the engineer is stuck with living with it for the rest of his life," Smith said.
Engineers are told the accidents could lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms. Amtrak, which staffs Caltrains with engineers, provides grief counselors following every fatality, Morgan said. But only some engineers accept the help, he said.
"People deal with it in different ways," he said.
In 20 years running trains, Chris Payne said he’s experienced countless tragedies on the tracks: friends killed, bodies mangled, cars crunched. The list goes on and on.
During his engineer tenure, he struck and killed eight pedestrians — more than half were suicides, he said. But it was his latest experience with death that made him take a sabbatical from the driver’s seat, he said.
"I was coming into the Redwood City Station and a 70-year-old man jumped into the air like a cannonball into a swimming pool and I hit him in mid-air," said Payne, who added that he saw up to eight pedestrian deaths in 20 years driving trains. "That was enough for me."
Tired with the bloodshed, Payne took on a rail safety position with Caltrain to find ways to prevent fatalities. For the past nine years, Payne has implemented numerous programs aimed at making Caltrain safer for both pedestrians and train crews.
He spearheaded a recent Caltrain plan to mount cameras on the trains to record happenings around the tracks. He said the cameras would not only help transit police shoo off trespassers, but will also provide much-needed closure for engineers involved in fatalities.
"[Filming the incidents] might make it easier for [engineers] to understand there was nothing they could do."
Payne has also led efforts to install pedestrian fencing along the tracks, to retrofit stations minimizing pedestrian traffic across tracks, and to heighten police enforcement against trespassers, among other measures. Caltrain has also put up suicide safety signs, run numerous television and radio advertisements on train safety and conducted public outreach at schools.
Recent Caltrain safety measures
Listed by year, the California commuter rail line has spent millions on pedestrian safety efforts:
» 1997: Construction of fences along rail corridors
» 1998: Platform construction on each side of track begins
» 1999-2000: Posting of 1,100 no-trespassing signs
» 2000: Removal of grade crossings with no signals
» 2000: Change rules on emergency braking procedures
» 2001: Safety database instituted
» 2001: Installation of suicide prevention signs every 540 feet on track
» 2003: Improvement of warning horns on trains
» 2003: Plan to ticket trespassers on tracks enforced
» 2008: Camera mounted on trains