By Jim Massey
I have worked as a locomotive engineer for over 22 years and I have had several train vs. car, truck, tractor and even pedestrian collisions and many close calls.
To give you an idea of what it feels like from my perspective, imagine it's the middle of winter and the roads are covered in snow and ice. The car in front of you stops and as you push on your brakes, you realize you are on ice and sliding. Your heart jumps in your throat and you hold your breath for a few seconds till you come to a safe stop.
If I am in an emergency situation and have to "slam" on my brakes, that heart in your throat feeling and holding your breath lasts for several minutes as it takes the average freight train over a mile to stop from 55 mph.
Unfortunately this has happened numerous times, but one emergency situation stands out. It all began on a cool foggy Thanksgiving morning. My crew and I were heading home and were happy that we were going to be home for a holiday meal with our families.
About 30 miles into our 150-mile run, we start climbing a hill that had patchy fog, so we had some spots where we couldn’t see. As we round a curve, we see a man walking up the rights-of-way road next to the tracks waving his arms at us. As we called our dispatcher to report a trespasser on the railroad property, the fog cleared a little more and we could see a pickup truck sitting across the tracks. I placed the train into an emergency stop, but we knew we wouldn't get stopped in time.
At this time, there are a million things going through your head with the strongest being I hope I don't kill somebody. As we impacted the truck, a child's car seat flew out through the window and bounced off the nose of the train. None of us could tell if it was empty or not. Everything seemed to be in super slow motion as we came to a stop a little over a mile later.
The truck was still stuck to the nose of the train and we rushed out to see if everyone was ok. To our relief nobody was in the truck. Our focus then turned to finding the child's car seat, and to our relief again it was empty. By this time, the guy we had seen waving at us came running up saying it was his truck and nobody was in it but him. That was a huge relief, but still in our minds we have already set ourselves up for the fact that we had been involved in a fatal collision, and on Thanksgiving Day. On top of that was the thought of that family having an empty chair at the table that night.
Those aren't feelings that just go away. Still, almost 18 years later, there is never a Thanksgiving that goes by that I don't think of that day. So please, please, please remember to stop, look and listen at all highway rail grade crossing intersections. I would love to meet you, but not by accident.
Jim Massey is a locomotive engineer with Union Pacific Railroad. For more information about railroad safety, go to http://www.ksoli.org/