Image: Charlie Lough
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Charlie Lough, an 18-year veteran engineer stands next to a Metra locomotive in Chicago. Lough says of the first time he struck someone while at the controls of a train: "He was looking me right in the eyes as I hit him."
updated 8/13/2009 7:49:29 PM ET 2009-08-13T23:49:29

What haunts Charlie Lough most is the man's eyes.

A year into his dream job as a train engineer, Lough suddenly found himself yanking frantically at the whistle after a man strayed past descending crossing gates. The man had time enough only to whip his head around before realizing his deadly mistake.

"He was looking me right in the eyes as I hit him. He was terrified," Lough said in a halting voice, recalling the first time he struck someone while at the controls. "I still see his face today."

It's a dark — if little known — side of a profession that more often evokes images of smiling engineers waving to children along the tracks. But on average, locomotive operators are involved in three fatalities over the course of a career.

In 18 years of working for Chicago's Metra commuter service, the 48-year-old Lough has struck four people who died.

Most railways offer counseling to anguished engineers. Psychologists liken the experience to the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by soldiers returning from war — jarring memories, a sense of isolation and the constant fear that someone could be killed at any moment.

Engineers not at fault
Usually, the engineers have done nothing to contribute to the deaths, most of which involve people who recklessly cut across the tracks or wanted to commit suicide — "Metracide" as Chicago engineers call it.

More than 700 people died in collisions with trains in 2008, according to statistics from the Federal Railway Administration. About 450 of those involved pedestrians.

The number of train-vehicle crashes has plummeted over the decades thanks to better road markings and public education. But pedestrian deaths have held steady at about 500 a year for 30 years, and those are the collisions that most haunt freight and commuter-rail engineers driving along the nation's 140,000-mile rail system.

California had the highest number of trespassing deaths in 2008, with 59. Illinois was second with 35 and Texas third with 30. All three states are major railway centers.

What makes the deaths so traumatic is how personal they can be, with engineers often seeing the expression on a person's face before impact. Details can be etched in their minds. Lough remembers the man he hit in 1992 who wore a black jacket, his hands in his pockets.

Bodies are typically torn apart, so the unshakable memories include gruesome scenes of the aftermath. Shoes often remain in the exact spot where people were struck because the impact lifts them of their footwear.

"You often know where they were standing by where their shoes are," said 55-year-old Gordon Bowe, who, as a Metra conductor, is responsible for walking back to survey the carnage after an impact.

On her first run as a Metra engineer, Vallorie O'Neil's train accelerated to 60 mph and hit a man apparently trying to commit suicide. At first, she was furious that he had dragged her into his personal crisis.

"'This is a coward's way to die,'" she thought after her train screeched to a halt. "'You don't want to do it, you want me to do it — you want me to end your life.' But after the anger, there's remorse."

'You keep reliving it'
Lough — a soft-spoken man with sky-blue eyes and graying hair — isn't able to sleep after collisions.

"You keep reliving it all in your mind when you close your eyes," he explained.

Close calls can be equally disturbing.

As O'Neil's train entered a station once, a man leapt onto the tracks, shouting "Kill me!" and throwing out his arms out as if to embrace the train. She prayed as she hit the brakes, the train slowing to 10 mph, then 5, before finally stopping — six inches from the man's chest.

"It makes your heart leap into your throat," she said.

After Mike Bihun's train plowed into a woman standing motionless in fuzzy pink slippers, he could hear the sound of her body scraping beneath his locomotive.

But since a train needs a mile or more to stop, he concluded there was nothing he could have done.

"You can't move out of the way, and you sure as hell can't stop," said the 58-year-old Metra engineer, who has been involved in seven deaths — six of them apparent suicides. "There's nothing you can do, so why get wound up?"

Innocent people, bad judgement
Lough said his worst nightmare would be hitting a child. He took some solace that a woman who died in 2007 as she cut across the tracks was in her 60s.

"It made it a little easier on me," he said. "The good years were behind her. At least I didn't take that away from her."

Lough never felt resentment toward the woman or anyone else he's hit just because their error also caused him anguish.

"It's just innocent people who used bad judgment for a second, or two or three — and that's all it took," he said.

After his first fatality, Lough was expected to suck it up and finish his run. Today, Metra gives engineers at least a day off, sometimes more. And the company requires them to see a counselor. Many railroad companies have also organized peer-support groups.

Tragedy takes romance out of job
Fellow engineers hasten to assure their distraught colleagues that they were not to blame.

"If you start playing that game of 'If I woulda, if I coulda,' that's a long list, and it's not going to change anything that happened," Lough said. "It's always going to be a part of you. But you're going to have to learn to cope with it."

Harry Stewart, who heads a Union Pacific support group in Texas, says he can't or doesn't want to remember how many people he's hit. But he knew he was getting over one incident when he no longer stared at the spot where the person died every time his train passed by.

"I felt like a great load had been lifted off my shoulders," he said.

A small minority of engineers quit, too shaken to continue their work.

Lough still thinks about the man in the black jacket, and he's bothered by the thought that the man may have suffered before he died.

The prevalence of death on the rails has taken romance out of the job, he concedes. But he grew up fantasizing about becoming an engineer. And he still adores trains. Lough is proud of what rail networks represent — the arteries carrying the lifeblood of the economy.

So he's never considered quitting, despite the traumas that inevitably follow each collision.

"To me, it was like falling off a horse," he said. "You have to get back on and ride it. You have a job to do, and you have to get out and do it."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments