Death By Train

Photo Illustration by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger
Photo Illustration by Saed Hindash/The Star-Ledger

After all these years, Tom Donovan can’t shake the sound.

“Like hitting a pumpkin,” he says.

It’s the sound of a 400-ton train striking human flesh, a person who, just moments before, had been walking and talking and breathing.

In the sterile parlance of the railroads, such collisions are known as critical incidents. To the men and women who run trains — the engineers who see the faces and hear the sickening thuds — the term hardly does justice to the emotional trauma that follows.

“You’re just at work operating your train. Everything seems fine. And then in a split second, your world changes,” says Donovan, 57, an NJ Transit engineer who works the Morris and Essex line to New York City’s Penn Station. “You see it coming. You know the train’s not stopping, and then the impact occurs. You know that someone’s life has just ended. It’s very traumatic.”

At least 29 people were killed by trains in New Jersey last year. Since 1998, more than 300 have died in the state, according to federal railroad statistics. The number of victims fluctuates from year to year, but in New Jersey, as across the nation, the problem remains a stubborn one, defying safety improvements and industry-sponsored programs that educate the public about the dangers of trains.

Among the New Jersey victims, some used the tracks as a shortcut. Others chanced a crossing when the gates were down. Many committed suicide, a far larger issue than the railroad industry has historically recognized and one it has only recently begun to address. In a study now under way, researchers are delving into the psychological histories of people who killed themselves on the tracks to determine what drew them there.

In most of those cases, an engineer had a front-row view as the horror played out.

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(This story ran in Inside Jersey magazine on June 18, 2009. It won an Eddie Award, a national contest administered by Folio magazine)

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