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  • Critical Encounters

    Text and Photography by Joe Greenstein

    MAIN PHOTO: NJ Transit electric No. 4400 leaves Newark's Penn Station. Now that the train is on the Northeast Corridor, all grade crossings are behind, but the risk of trespassers still exists. ABOVE: This location is a troublespot for accidents. Even though the locomotive is idling, pedestrians may be unaware of their surroundings. Also, the intersection of multiple streets make the crossing itself complicated.
    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 36 RailNews - August 1997 - Page 37

    We are in the cab of northbound train No. 9328, traveling from Bay Head to Long Branch, New Jersey. On the point is one of New Jersey Transit's ubiquitous GP40s, with Brian Gilmartin at the throttle. Two years ago, at this very spot in Elberon, he was involved in the grade crossing death of an 89-year-old woman.

    "I came around the bend and her car was stopped on the tracks."

    Apparently she had managed to drive past the lowered gate. Gilmartin instantly threw the train's brakes into emergency.

    "I was in a cab control car, so 1 could see her clearly. She just kept looking up at me. I couldn't figure out why she didn't try to do something."

    "Maybe she just froze," I suggested.

    "Maybe."

    The automobile was pushed some 70 feet down the track, and hydraulic equipment was needed to remove the driver from the wreckage.

    1 have no doubt from the way Gilmartin recounted the incident that it is indelibly etched in his memory. But neither did he seem particularly shy about discussing the subject. Had he made his peace with it? We all know that driving a train is a dangerous profession. Trains are the largest man-made objects that travel on land. There are many lives at stake each time an engineer takes command, especially where passenger railroading is concerned. Perhaps Gilmartin had just come to accept the risks and possible consequences.

    Later I begin to consider it from a slightly different point of view. Most accidents, car accidents for example, result in an in tense inner dialogue of second guessing-call it the could have, would have, should have debate. Yet once Gilmartin had thrown the brakes, he had quite simply run out of options.

    "There was absolutely nothing I could do," he confirms.

    "Did you go for counseling afterwards?" I ask.

    "Yes, a couple of times."

    Trauma Counseling

    New Jersey Transit has created one of the benchmark railroad employee assistance programs in America. I visited its offices to speak with Debra Martelli, the program's director. Dynamic and animated, she heads a staff of three counselors and an office manager. As part of their training, all of her counselors have ridden in the cab of an NIT locomotive.

    Immediately after a traumatic incident occurs, the train crew is urged to contact Martelli's staff. "It's very important that we get them to come in quickly," she explained. Although participation is strictly voluntary, most engineers come of their own accord.

    "I often have the entire crew-engineer conductor and brakeman--come in together. Sometimes engineers even request counseling after they've hit an animal."

    ABOVE: Dave Bacon, the North Jersey Coast Line's senior road foreman, stands in front of No. 4400 at Long Branch, New Jersey. BELOW: The author photographed this man from the cab-a trespasser with little concern for his own safety.
    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 38

    Once there, crew members go through a debriefing that generally lasts a couple of hours. Everything that is discussed is kept completely confidential. They also receive a checklist of post-trau matic symptoms. Included among 41 possible stress-related reactions are headaches, flashbacks, fatigue, feelings of anger, and difficulty concentrating. This checklist serves a dual purpose. Obviously it is intended to isolate possibke symptoms for the benefit of the counselor. But it also helps the crew member understand that all of these reactions are considered normal. And this is arguably the most important message that Martelli's staff can deliver-that it's okay under the circumstances to feel the way they are feeling.

    Are the majority of engineers forthcoming with their emotions? Apparently in this respect there is a marked difference between generations. Older engineers often don't check anything on the list and, if pressed, tend to curtly respond, "I'm fine." The younger ones usually access their feelings more easily. "But nobody leaves this office without us believing that the issue is resolved,"Martelli stated emphatically.

    The most traumatic of accidents involve fatalities to children. Crew members tend to personalize such tragedies and relate them to their own families.

    "It's revealing,"Martelli told me, "that even years later many engineers can remember an accident, right down to the smallest details."

    In the majority of cases, crew members are back on the job by the third day. After that, they are carefully monitored for post-traumatic stress disorder. Should symptoms appear, they come in for further counseling. Some are subsequently referred to a psychotherapist-but this is relatively rare.

    In the course of their careers, most engineers will seek Martelli's help at least once. Approximately 30 percent of those visiting her office in 1995 had been there previously, due to some prior traumatic incident.

    As a tribute to the effectiveness of the Employee Assistance Program, several other railroads have approached Martelli and NJ Transit to find out how to implement programs of their own.

    Back in the Cab

    "Most people have no idea how a railroad really works," says Dave Bacon, senior road foreman for the North Jersey Coast Line. A few minutes earlier our train from Bay Head had reached its final stop in Long Branch. This is where electrified territory begins, and now we have changed from diesel to "motor" power. We're riding in the cab of an NJT ALP44 on the final leg of our trip to Manhattan. Stan Kureczko is at the throttle.

    Bacon started his career on the Lehigh Valley. A 30 year railroad veteran, he has pretty much seen it all.

    "I've watched passengers crawl under the coaches of a stopped train because they were in a hurry to get to the other side," he tells me.

    Incredulous, I ask, "Were they kids?"

    "No, I mean grown men in business suits."

    According to Bacon, even relatively knowledgeable people have a poor understanding of railroad fundamentals. For instance, they have no idea how long it takes to stop a moving train. They also don't realize how difficult it is to gauge the speed of an approaching train (at 80 mph, a train will cover the length of a football field in about two seconds). Many are quick to assume that a train will always be running on the right hand track (twice on this very trip we had crossed to the wrong main to accommodate track work). And a special concern to many engineers is that neither motorists nor pedestrians look the other way once a passing train has cleared on a multiple track line.

    NJ Transit Engineer Brian Gilmartin sits at the throttle. Unfortunately, most railroad men in engine service will witness a trespassing or grade crossing fatality sometime in their career.
    RailNews - August 1997 - Page 39

    In the State of New Jersey, where crossing accidents have been greatly reduced, trespassers now account for roughly 95 percent of yearly casualties. Trespassing is an especially pesky problem. Not only is it hard to resolve, it is also, inexplicably, on the rise. As a result, engine crews find it particularly unsettling when they see any unauthorized person close to the tracks.

    About one third of trespassing fatalities are considered by NJT to be suicides, but short of discovering a note from the victim, this is difficult to prove. Establishing the motive is important, because suicides can be handled by local authorities. All other rail fatalities require the filing of lengthy reports with the National Transportation Safety Board.

    Necessary Evils

    For safety's sake, it would be ideal if grade crossings were eliminated-and on a few lines they have been. There are none on the 300 miles of the Northeast Corridor between New Haven, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. Still, on the great majority of rail lines, grade crossing elimination is either physically or fiscally impractical. For the motorist, crossings are little more than a nuisance. But for the railroad engineer, they are a tragedy just waiting to happen.

    Where trespassing is concerned, a similar case can be made. As much as the railroads would love to build a high fence around the property, this is impossible and it wouldn't work anyway. Be they vagrants, rebellious teenagers, over-zealous railfans, graffiti artists, or regular folk taking a shortcut home, people will always find a way in. An interesting incident was related to me by an Amtrak flagman who was working on the Hell Gate Bridge. He was stationed on the deck of the main span about 135 feet above the water when, to his amazement, a jogger came nonchalantly running through. The nearest possible street access was at the base of the bridge's approach ramp, miles away.

    A different trespassing issue involves railfans. Many are photographers who see entering the property as part of the thrill of the hunt. However, they can become so absorbed in the view through the camera lens that they ignore the circumstances around them.

    In terms of guarding against trespassers, closed circuit cameras in key locations can help, but it's obviously not economically viable to install them system-wide. And no railroad has a large enough police force to be everywhere at once. Part of the solution is improved communication between train crews and police. Another part is public education.

    Chicken on the Tracks

    Betsy Stern is a full-time railroad employee with the title Safety Program Specialist. She travels across New Jersey, presenting NJT's programs at area schools. Her presentation to the younger grades is necessarily rudimentary. "What do you do when the crossing gates go down?" she asks, and then must conceal a smile as one first-grader enthusiastically responds, "Run away as fast as you can."

    But the program presented to grades four through six is quite compelling. It includes "Chicken on the Tracks," NJT's award winning film made by a professional crew using amateur actors. The story line revolves around the school bully, an early-adolescent who has a real knack for coercing his classmates in to trespassing on the railroad right-of-way. There he goads them in to throwing rocks at the trains and playing chicken-standing in front of an on coming train until the very last second. A young couple, basically good kids, refuse to take the bait. But the bully is relentless. "What are you, a mouse, a chicken, or a man?" he taunts, until the boy's masculinity has taken enough abuse and he convinces his girlfriend they must accept the dare. We see a train coming. Holding hands, they stand together on the track. The whistle blasts as the train hurtles toward them. When finally the youngsters leap safely out of the way, there is an audible sigh of relief, but this is followed in a heartbeat by a gasp of horror as we realize that they have jumped directly into the path of an oncoming train on the next track. The following scene shows a policeman walking from the tracks with heavy plastic bags in his hands.

    This film has extraordinary impact, but whether it is an effective deterrent is another question. Among teens and pre-teens, it is often the very flaunting of authority that makes the act of trespassing so appealing.

    "Chicken on the Tracks" deserves an "A" for effort, and it makes some powerful points. If its theme is rail road safety and its message is don't bow to peer pressure, then the subtext would be it's the one thing you haven't taken into account that will get you in the end.

    And there lies the crux of the matter, for children or adults: it's the time at a crossing that you don't look both ways; it's being in such a hurry that you act impulsively; it's a train unexpectedly running on the wrong track; it's a dragging chain or shifted cargo when you're standing too close to the right-of-way-and most importantly, it's the mindlessness with which we all perform much of our daily routine.

    Putting it in Perspective

    According to statistics provided by Operation Life saver, 4,565 grade crossing accidents in 1995 resulted in 559 fatalities. There were an additional 489 trespassing deaths. Added together, those two figures approximately equal the annual airline fatalities in this country. They come nowhere near the almost 42,000 annual highway deaths.

    But the fact is that confrontations involving trains and pedestrians or motor vehicles are high-profile because they have extremely dramatic consequences. And due to the mismatch of opposing forces, they are 30 times more likely than normal traffic accidents to result in a fatality.

    A railroad track demands awareness. It's no place to be careless or distracted, and it's certainly no place to take foolish chances.

    Special thanks to Ken Miller of NJ Transit's Public Information Department and Mannie Edwards, communications director of Operation Lifesaver.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Joe Greenstein
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date August 1997

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