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June 2010

Rail News: Passenger Rail

For locomotive engineers, a train-related fatality can be a life-altering experience

— by Katie Berk, Assistant Editor

On May 7, Metra Executive Director Phil Pagano was killed after stepping in front of one of the agency's commuter-rail trains near Crystal Lake, Ill., in an alleged suicide attempt.

Pagano, 60, had served as the agency's top chief for 20 years. Earlier in the month, Metra's board had put Pagano on paid administrative leave while investigating reports of "potential irregularities," according to a prepared statement. Pagano had allegedly paid himself an unauthorized $56,000 bonus, and the probe expanded to analyze "more serious allegations of official misconduct," according to the attorney hired to conduct Metra's investigation.

The agency's board had been scheduled to meet to discuss Pagano's future the morning he stepped in front of the train.

The train's engineer, who's employed by Union Pacific Railroad, saw Pagano about five to 10 seconds before impact but could not stop in time, he told local officials.

After two decades of service, Pagano no doubt left an unforgettable legacy at Metra, but for the engineer, that 10-second encounter won't soon be forgotten.

A Common Occurrence

Unfortunately, the UP engineer is not alone when it comes to dealing with a fatality on the job. Statistics show that a 25-year employee will encounter three fatalities over the course of a railroading career, says John Tolman, vice president and national legislative representative for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

While the statistics reflect not only suicides, but a combination of suicides and accidents, "it's a tragedy either way," says Tolman.

Instances of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) tend to be higher in the railroad industry than in other industries. However, only during the past 15 years have railroads begun to implement programs to help engineers with the disorders, Tolman says.

Although the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 called for a study to analyze different counseling programs and determine which work best, each railroad currently has its own set of policies on how to handle such a tragedy.

The plan of action for an engineer dealing with the aftermath of a fatality varies depending on the railroad and region, Tolman says.

"Some railroads do not have a program at all. And that's very unfortunate," he adds.

In the case of the UP engineer, peer support and professional counseling have been made available.

"It is not required of employees, but we do proactively reach out to employees to make sure they are aware of the services," said Tom Lange, UP's director of corporate communications, in an email.

But enough is not being done to help engineers with PTSD, Tolman believes.

"I think that it has to be a universal program," he says. "There should be a program throughout the U.S. that would address these types of critical incidents, and if anybody's involved in a fatality, the trauma involved is in some cases overwhelming and they're not at the top of their game to operate a train. There has to be some type of plan in place so that when these things do happen — and they happen all too frequently — there's a course that's already set to be taking care of that individual."

Starting the Healing Process

However, Tolman also recognizes that not everyone needs the same treatment or counseling.

"One thing I think most everybody needs is to be relieved on site to get them away from that environment and remove them from that situation," he says. "The crew should be removed. It's bad enough to be involved in that, but to sit in the locomotive and have to deal with that, it's not conducive, in my eyes."

Whether the situation is a suicide or accident, the aftermath can be tough to deal with. In some cases, the engineers don't even want to go back to work. Some may request to be transferred into the yard so they're not operating trains at high speeds, while others will move on to a different career, says Tolman.

However, if treated properly and quickly, PTSD does not have to be the end of an engineer's career, Tolman believes. Having post-incident programs in place across the board is vital to ensuring engineers can cope, he says.



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