Suicide by Train: Through the Eyes of a Conductor

Train workers face responsibility for inspecting grisly scenes

Just hearing about suicide by train can be traumatic. Especially when it involves a young person like the two recent deaths in Palo Alto.

For the Caltrain engineers manning the train at the time of impact, sometimes the trauma never goes away.

Sean Morgan, a Caltrain engineer since 1996 told the San Jose Mercury News he has experienced two suicides as an engineer and a third as a train conductor:

One of the things that really sticks with an engineer is the sound of striking somebody. It just is a very distinct, hollow sound, and it's got a metal ring to it.  The other thing is this feeling of helplessness. When it's an obvious suicide and somebody is putting themselves out there, there is nothing you can do.

In 2008, Caltrain reported a record 12 suicides. Since the rail system's launch in 1992, it has seen 115 total.

Caltrain conductors told the Merc that nearly every engineer with a few years experience has in turn experienced a fatality on the tracks.

Because train engineers are not allowed to leave the train after an accident, it is the conductor’s responsibility to inspect the scene, which is an equally scarring experience.

Caltrain does offer peer counseling, therapy and several days off after any rail incident, whether accident or suicide.

In 2001, Caltrain posted suicide prevention signs along the tracks between San Francisco and San Jose. Starting in 2007 and continuing through the end of this year Caltrain will have spent an additional $2.7 million to fence off its tracks.

In the wake of this year's suicides at Gunn High School, public-health organizations called for renewed efforts.

While the physical work on the tracks will continue, so will the emotional work for the Caltrain engineers and conductors who deal daily with the stress of witnessing a life lost on the tracks.

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