Rail crashes horrific for engineers
Source: Terri Theodore, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published: April 14th 2010

Crossing upgrades welcome, says one

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Train engineer Gerry Richer knows the feeling of being completely helpless when he watches a vehicle race up to the tracks in front of his train.

Will they stop? Some don't. In fact Richer has been in at least 10 rail-crossing accidents in the more than three decades he's worked on the railway.

Often there's hardly time to put the train into emergency, never mind stop.

"You know you're going to hit them, it's pretty bad," he said. "I've had times when you see them in the car putting their hands up and getting ready for the impact themselves."

"You feel hopeless."

The federal government announced Wednesday it will spend almost $11 million on 155 high-priority rail grade crossings in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

"This funding will enable us to continue life-saving upgrades for the safety of Canadian communities," Rob Merrifield, minister of state for transport, said in a news release.

It's welcome news for Dan Di Tota, national director of the Operation Lifesaver Program, sponsored by the Railway Association of Canada.

"The fact remains these are preventable collisions. They don't need to happen."

The program will include installing flashing lights, bells, gates, extra signal systems, modifying warning systems and improving roadway alignment or grades.

Even with all those measures, it may not be enough.

Di Tota said almost all the accidents are due to driver error.

"The people are too much in a hurry and ... people are actually willing to bet their lives that they can make it across before the train does."

Crossing collisions in Canada are down 77 per cent since 1981 and Di Tota said the statistics are they best they've ever been.

Last year there were 186 crossing collisions in Canada, 19 deaths and 21 serious injuries. There are over 40,000 rail crossing across Canada.

Richer, 51, spent most of his career operating Go Trains in Southern Ontario and is all for more safety measures.

"If they could do something to prevent crossing accidents," Richer paused. "Boy oh boy, it sure would be nice."

Di Tota said train crews are often the forgotten victims in these accidents.

"In many cases, they survive without any physical injuries. They do carry a lot of mental scars with them."

Richer, who vividly recalls details of accidents as far back as 30 years ago, said the strange thing about many of the collisions is those involved usually lived or were visiting just on the other side of the tracks.

He's had a father, a sister, and several friends of the accident victims walk up within minutes after hearing the crash.

Michael Wheten, the national legislative director with Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, said any money spent on rail safety is positive, but more could be done.

Wheten, whose union represents about 16,000 members in the rail industry, said there are far too many crossings in Canada for the size of the country.

The process needs to be streamlined to some and there must be grade separations, he said.

"Put in an overpass or an underpass. But that's expensive."

Just last month the Transportation Safety Board issued a warning that the risk of passenger trains colliding with vehicles remains too high in busy rail corridors.

The TSB said Transport Canada and the railways must conduct safety assessments to identify high-risk crossings along busy passenger train routes and make the necessary safety improvements.
 

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