Her first fatality still haunts.
It’s late afternoon, and Raelynn Dickerson, a SEPTA engineer on the Main Line, is approaching a city station where people often risk dashing across the tracks. She has to be alert. Someone is walking directly in the path of the train.
“I blow the horn,” she recalled. “He doesn’t move.”
Dickerson sets a valve handle to the emergency position and hears a loud rush of air from the brakes. But the train, traveling 60 mph, will not stop before it hits the man. She steps out of the cab to avoid seeing what happens next.
There’s an awful secret shared by America’s train engineers: Almost half have operated a train that killed someone. Locally, it’s estimated to be even worse. Many longtime engineers have experienced more than one death on the tracks.
“When I hit him, I really was feeling like I killed one of God’s children,” Dickerson, 38, said, remembering that day almost 10 years ago. “I did. I felt that way.”
Nightmares, anxiety, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder can follow. Some drivers leave railroad work forever. Transit agencies typically grant just three days off after a fatality. With a therapist’s approval, workers can get additional time, but train engineers often choose to just go back to work.
“Three days is nothing,” said Howard Rombom, a Long Island-based psychologist who specializes in working with New York City’s transit operators. “You need some time to both process it and get comfortable.”
Deaths on America’s railroads have been trending upward since hitting the lowest point in nearly three decades in 2012. Last year, 1,096 people died on the nation’s rails, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Those killed include workers and people in cars hit at crossings, but the majority are trespassers who intentionally or accidentally put themselves in the path of a train. The 756 trespasser deaths on America’s tracks last year were the most since 2002.
Deaths on the region’s rails are widely dispersed, but since 2011 have occurred most frequently on the Media/Elwyn Line, followed by the Trenton and West Trenton lines. The majority of Amtrak deaths were on the Northeast Corridor. PATCO, meanwhile, rarely reports fatalities. Five have died on that line since 2011, the most recent in 2016.
Deaths on transit lines like the El and Broad Street Line have increased, too. Philadelphia’s subway system has the highest rate of suicide deaths per mile in the nation.
The most recent subway or passenger railroad death in the Philadelphia region was reported Nov. 10.
An Inquirer analysis of federal data showed suicides account for about a third of railroad trespassing deaths. In Philadelphia, suicides represent about half of the deaths across SEPTA modes, which include buses and trolleys. This year, though, the agency has reported that 15 of 18 deaths appear to have been suicides.
“That’s the one that’s puzzling us right now,” said Jim Fox, assistant general manager for system safety at SEPTA. “Suicides as a whole are puzzling our industry.”
Six men and women among SEPTA’s 370 subway and railroad operators shared their experiences with The Inquirer. They described the gruesome realities of deaths and injuries, the trauma of witnessing them, and how they’ve lived with the possibility of becoming an unwilling participant in the killing of another person.
“I’ve sort of built up a shell,” said Jim Ridgway, a 35-year railroad veteran who expects to retire next year.
His trains have hit people 15 times. Six were fatal. Ridgway, 61, remembers three of the dates precisely because they fell on the birthdays of his daughter, son, and wife.
“You either get used to it," he said, "or you don’t.”
Engineers and subway train operators bear responsibility for hundreds of lives with every trip, but the job also offers prestige, good pay, and pride. Average annual pay with overtime for a SEPTA transit operator is $71,000. For a railroad engineer, it’s $95,000.
Dickerson, a 38-year-old mother of two, became a SEPTA engineer in 2007, when it was a rarity for a woman to hold that job.
“’It’s a girl running the train!’ That’s what I get a lot,” Dickerson said. “That’s my biggest pride, and maybe also, if not more so, the fact that I’m able to provide for my family.”
SEPTA’s Regional Rail trains, as many as six cars long that weigh 450 tons or more, can travel at speeds that exceed 100 mph. Even when they’re moving slower, little can be done to avoid a tragedy. If an engineer can see a person, it’s probably too late.
“It’s going to take several hundred feet to a quarter mile, to a half mile, for that train to stop,” said Fox.
Engineers dread pedestrians who cross tracks while wearing headphones or scrolling through a smartphone, or who carelessly walk nearby. Where rail meets road, operators must be prepared for cars that ignore no-crossing signs and gates to try to beat the train.
Over the last 10 years, more than 700 people were killed or injured in Pennsylvania while trespassing on railroad property or at designated crossings.
It’s the intentional deaths, likely underreported, that weigh heaviest on many engineers. SEPTA is working with national experts to evaluate why they have seen an increase this year. The number of suicides of any kind is up nationally, and while reasons are deeply personal, there are correlations with poor economic conditions and stress.
The possibility of tragedy came up rarely, if at all, in training, veteran operators said, though the region’s passenger railroads say they now address track deaths during hiring and training.
Donald Hill, general chairman of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, estimated that six out of 10 SEPTA engineers with a decade of experience or more have been involved in at least one death. For SEPTA’s El and Broad Street Line operators, said Brian Pollitt, vice president for Transport Workers Union Local 234, that number is about one in 10.
"It’s a horrible experience,” said John Tolman, a vice president with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and an Amtrak engineer who experienced his own fatal impact in 1986 in Rhode Island. He pushed Congress to pass a law in 2008 that required minimum standards for leave, counseling, and other support for engineers. “You remember every single one of them, in every single detail.”
Dickerson’s first death can still bring tears after nearly a decade.
“When I realized what happened, I kind of just sat there and I cried,” she said. “I could literally feel his body going under the train. It’s a really horrible feeling.”
Dickerson and her fiancé, Kenton English, also a SEPTA engineer, are the epitome of opposites attracting. He’s gregarious and chatty; she’s more reserved. They watch The Walking Dead together. She teases him over his passion for Judge Judy. Between them, while operating trains, they have witnessed four deaths.
English remembered time slowing before he hit a woman in a red puffy coat standing on the tracks: “I could have cooked dinner, washed clothes, cleaned up the living room, and everything, in my mind.”
Subway operators call suicide attempts on the tracks “jump jobs.”
Ronald Farlow’s first jumper came three weeks after he began working as a Broad Street Line operator in 2005. He remembered stepping out of his train, fearing the worst, and then hearing a voice from underneath.
“She said, ‘Hello! Are you the train operator?’ " the 49-year-old recalled. "'I’m sorry!'”
One study of suicide attempts on urban metros found them to be fatal just 60 percent of the time.
In February, another person jumped in front of Farlow’s train.
“We were coming pretty fast. ... It was just, man, this guy while he was standing at the platform, jumped down, crossed his arms …” Farlow’s account trailed off.
He leaned on his training.
“Call the train dispatcher, let them know location and direction. Wait on his instructions,” he said. “They always ask you, ‘Can you go look at the situation?’ and I said, ‘No, not this time.’ ”
He spent the next five to six hours reliving the event: interviews with police and SEPTA officials, blood tests for alcohol or drugs, and a discussion of counseling options. For some operators, questioning can last years, if lawsuits follow an injury or death.
On the day of the man’s death, Farlow retold the details over and over. Each time, he cried.
“Why me?” Farlow remembered thinking. “All these operators out there, and you chose me.”
Witnessing a death often leaves drivers feeling responsible, said Tolman, the Amtrak engineer. They need to hear consistently: “You didn’t kill anybody. You just happen to be an innocent victim.”
It’s a hard truth to internalize. Train operators find themselves grieving for strangers.
“I was just like, ‘Why?’ ” Dickerson recalled. “I could not sleep that night at all.”
Engineers describe withdrawing and being unable to talk with family, or even spouses. About one in seven develops PTSD, the FRA reported.
“Over time, almost all of these train operators begin to become socially isolated," said Rombom, the Long Island psychologist. “A lot of them develop avoidance behavior. They’re reexperiencing the trauma. Dreams, nightmares, intrusive thoughts.”
Federal Railroad Administration regulations, which apply only to railroads like Amtrak and SEPTA’s Regional Rail, require that after a death or a serious injury, workers take the rest of the shift off, receive a ride to their home station, and a call within 24 hours from an employee assistance staffer with information on counseling or other support. Railroads don’t have to offer more time off, but the industry standard is three paid days. SEPTA applies the guidelines to all its modes of travel.
Engineers rarely take off more than that to recover, the region’s major passenger railroads said. A referral from a clinician allows additional leave with workers’ base pay intact, but that may not include lost overtime. Railroad engineers routinely work six days a week, so extended leave could cost them significant income.
“Bills, the reality of life,” said English, who did not use more than three days of leave after his deaths. “The reality that I’ve got to keep moving on, and I can’t sit here and dwell on this.”
Many engineers simply don’t want to talk about witnessing a death.
“Some people try to block it; they don’t want to relive it,” said Hill, the union leader, who has experienced a fatality himself. “Some engineers don’t want to deal with that aspect.”
Dickerson took her three days but did not seek therapy after her first track death. Back at work, she was so upset she couldn’t complete her first run. She told her supervisor, a woman who has since retired, she couldn’t work. The supervisor told Dickerson she could have two more days off but should consider whether she truly wanted a career as an engineer.
“And then I had no choice,” Dickerson said. “I had to go back to work.”
After the second fatality, she spoke to a counselor but did not pursue treatment.
“Everything they say is comforting, but it’s basically what you’re going to hear from other people,” she said. “Even though it’s comforting, it doesn’t help.”
Rombom thinks more time off is needed. Signs of trauma might not surface for days or weeks, he said, and recovering emotional stability can take four to six months. “The attitude of 'get back and move on’ can result in stronger problems later on,” he said.
Others say returning to work can be therapeutic.
“If you ask people what they really need, about half will say, ‘I just want to go back to work’; half will say, ‘Give me some time,’ ” said Richard Gist, a deputy director at the Kansas City Fire Department, who helped write FRA regulations that do not mandate a specific amount of time off. “The issue was to make sure folks got that option but not to compel the employee.”
Treatment varies depending on the person, Rombom said, but therapy often focuses on reestablishing social connections and desensitization.
“Having a program like peer counseling ... can be incredibly helpful," said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president for research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
SEPTA and NJ Transit do not offer a formal peer support program, but Amtrak does, pairing engineers who have gone through a track death with coworkers struggling with the experience.
Dickerson’s second experience was less traumatic, in part, she said, because English, who understood what she was feeling, helped her remain social and active.
People deal with trauma and tragedy in widely different ways, said Patrick Sherry, a professor at the University of Denver’s Transportation Research Center who studied engineers’ responses to track deaths and railroad suicides. Peer support and a mental and physical evaluation for workers 30 days after an event, something federal regulators don’t require and the region’s passenger rail providers do not do, would improve the safety net for workers who need help but don’t seek it, he said.
Sherry’s 2011 report for the Federal Transit Administration noted that signs of depression or PTSD can include missing work or fatigue, and called for training managers and supervisors how to identify warning signs in their employees. Many railroads have adopted this, he said. The railroad industry in the last decade has steadily improved care for engineers exposed to trauma.
"Railroad management culture has changed and is much more accepting,” he said.
After his fatality, Farlow took six weeks off and lost a lot sleep. That first week there were moments when he would just start crying. As weeks passed, he said, he left his house reluctantly and feared driving his car.
“I almost freaked out and wanted to go back in my house because somebody was about to run across my street in front of my car,” he said. “He stepped back, but it just, boom, it just triggered everything.”
Train operators rarely learn anything about the people killed, and what they hear through rumor can be devastating. Farlow heard that the man struck by his train was on the phone with his sister moments before his death. She had been trying to talk him out of jumping.
“That’s a human being that just took their life in front of you,” Farlow said, “and used you to do that.”
Some drivers never fully overcome the experience.
Sharon McPherson, 53, worked her way up the ranks in SEPTA from a cleaning person to bus driver to a Broad Street Line operator. Along the way, she raised three children and survived breast cancer. In May 2017, as she pulled into a station she noticed a girl on the platform wearing a backpack, just another kid among many waiting to get to school. But this girl walked toward the platform edge and dived off headfirst.
The teenager became wedged between the rails as McPherson’s train passed over her. McPherson later learned the girl was pregnant and only lost a toe in the incident.
"I just feel like that was God’s grace because he didn’t want that blood on my hands,” McPherson said.
She didn’t return to work until March of the next year.
“For a long time, all I did was dream about trains,” she said. “I think sometimes I still do have PTSD, because if things get too overwhelming, I notice I back off or I withdraw.”
McPherson wasn’t sure she would ever operate a train again, so when she returned, she asked for work as a cashier.
A month later, a young man approached her window on the Broad Street Line with a $10 bill for fare. She couldn’t make change, she told him. They argued, and he walked away. Then someone banged on her window to tell her the man was running on the tracks toward a moving train.
McPherson screamed to the train’s operator, a friend: Don’t look.
McPherson, who saw a therapist after her close call in 2017, has returned to treatment and now wants work that isn’t near the subway at all.
“I believe in purgatory," she said. "These are the trapped spirits between heaven and hell, and underground down here for me, that’s how I feel.”
With suicide, the “why” is often unanswerable. People contemplating death by suicide show changes in the part of the brain that manages impulsive behavior, Harkavy-Friedman said.
“They’re not really thinking about anyone but stopping the pain,” she said. “They’re not going to know who the conductor on the train is at that moment in time.”
The decision can come on suddenly in a crisis moment, Harkavy-Friedman said, and people use what’s at hand.
Sherry, the Denver professor and researcher, theorizes that trains offer what appears to be a certain way to die. Sherry’s report found that those who die by suicide on tracks tend to be men under 50, who live near rails and have a likelihood of mental illness and substance abuse.
Prevention has included education campaigns, signs, enforcement, and even the addition of blue lights in Tokyo subways, which one study found might deter suicides. Operation Lifesaver, a national nonprofit dedicated to educating people about track safety, is emphasizing the need for people to focus on their surroundings, not smartphones. PennDot workers volunteer with that nonprofit, and the state agency dedicates $7 million a year to rail crossing safety. SEPTA’s local efforts have included suicide hotline signs at all stations, educational information on buses, and additional warnings at railroad crossings. As suicide numbers have climbed, though, agencies are exploring other ideas.
“The needle’s not moving as much as we would like as far as the effort we’re putting in,” said Fox, the SEPTA safety system director.
The FRA will disburse $244 million this spring toward infrastructure and safety improvements, which could be used to prevent track deaths, though SEPTA officials noted that conditions on the grants make it unlikely that it would qualify for the money. An additional $150,000 is dedicated to trespassing enforcement grants. Pennsylvania and New Jersey will be among the states given priority, the agency said.
In 2020, SEPTA plans to train engineers, crews, and cashiers to identify behavior that might hint at suicidal thoughts. Unions would like to see more police presence at stations.
“If we had those stations manned with police during the day, you would think twice about even doing it,” said Pollitt, the union leader.
An effective measure, data show, is glass or plastic-glass barriers with gates that open only when a train is stopped, which are common overseas but rare in the United States. Such platforms in Hong Kong contributed to a drop in suicides by almost 60%, and people did not appear to then attempt suicide elsewhere.
The barriers are costly, though. The Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation plans to spend about $28 million to put barriers along 10,500 feet of platform at 21 stops on its new light rail.
SEPTA will test the technology, despite the cost and some technical hurdles. It plans to install platform barriers at the City Hall Station as part of a $150 million renovation there, Fox said.
Any barrier, even shrubbery, could be effective, Harkavy-Friedman said, because suicides can be impulsive. If a first attempt is stopped, a person might not seek another option.
Amtrak, SEPTA, NJ Transit, and PATCO all use some kind of fences on open railroad tracks, but trespassers can cut through, and the sheer mileage of rails makes adding fences a challenging solution.
“The majority of the trespasser incidents we have at the railroad happen far away from the stations,” Hill said. “I don’t know what you do about that.”
When Farlow began sleeping better, he took it as a sign he was ready to return to work. But that meant facing the place where tragedy happened.
“It was just real, just like: ‘OK, you gotta get through this,’ ” Farlow remembered. “'I’ve just gotta get past that station, and I’ll be OK.'”
Dickerson sometimes is still troubled when she passes the spots where she witnessed people die. She said it’s almost as if she can see a ghostly version of the events playing out.
Every day, she and the dozens of others whose trains have hit people see moments that look like a prelude to another tragedy.
“You’ve got kids that play chicken and stick their hand out,” said John Lipscomb, 51, a Market-Frankford Line operator whose trains have hit three people, but never fatally. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I can’t stop this train.’ ”
Ridgway, the engineer who has experienced six fatalities, recalled seeing a woman 15 years ago standing on the tracks beneath a bridge in Montgomery County. She was dressed all in black. One day, he slowed his train and spoke to her.
“The next train that comes through here is going to be going 60 mph,” he said, “and I don’t think you want to do this.”
He stopped for the woman’s sake, he said, but also because he didn’t want another engineer experiencing another death.
She said nothing, but nodded. There was not a death at that location that day, and he did not see her again.
Anyone in crisis and considering suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text TALK to 741741.
Clarification: Railroad death statistics have been updated due to inaccurate information provided by the FRA.