A white cross near a railroad crossing is a silent reminder that a victim of a railroad accident lost their life. Regardless of who was at fault, the driver for not obeying traffic signals or the railroad for an unsafe or poorly maintained crossing, the railroad engineer and train crew often pay the price.
In the aftermath of a train accident many news reports understandably focus on the civilian victims. But a major train accident such as a derailment can send trains careening into ditches or shrapnel ripping through a locomotive’s windshield. Aside from the serious physical injuries railroad workers may suffer during a railroad accident, emotional injuries can be just as devastating. One railroad engineer recounts an accident, ‘I once ran into a minivan, we were coming down the tracks and there was nothing I could do. I had the brakes on full emergency. I’m blowing the horn and blowing the horn, and I can see this minivan. We’re getting closer and closer. We got so close I could see the little kids’ faces against the windows of the cars. There’s nothing I could do. We plowed right into them.’ A report on the effects of railroad accidents stated that 12.1 percent of railroad workers experienced PTSD. Train crews involved in incidents were also more likely to report physical health difficulties.
To make matters worse up until the 1970s or the 80s, many companies expected railroad workers to clean up the mess after a collision and keep working, regardless of any nerves or psychological trauma. “Initially when I was involved in a fatality, I couldn’t believe there was no assistance,” says John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. In 2008, Congress passed the Railway Safety Improvement Act which is a step in the right direction to helping railroad workers. The law included a provision that is now observed by railroads that requires train companies to provide adequate time off and counseling services to anyone involved in a “critical incident.” However it also pushed for positive train control to curtail operator error, that has yet to be implemented by the major railroads.