Caltrain workers on board to stop suicides

If you think your job is hard, imagine being a Caltrain engineer, where watching people kill themselves is a real possibility each day.

An average of 12 people die by suicide on Caltrain tracks each year.

Suicide by train may only account for 1 percent of all suicide deaths per year, but for Caltrain engineers, the chance of striking someone on the tracks is always lurking. It can happen any time and any place without warning.

One engineer, referred to as “Charles,” as he requested KALW not use his real name, said he sees an average of one suicide on the tracks each year, but this year is a strange one. He’s already encountered two.

Despite sudden occurrences of tragedy, he told KALW he loves his job:

“I’ve tried to quit the railroad several times. And I don’t know if it was in my blood, or…I’m a third generation railroader, so I was always pulled back to the railroad. I like the lifestyle. I like the money. I’ve raised a family on the railroad.”

For railroad workers, the level of emotional preparedness is low compared to, say, an EMT or a paramedic. Engineers are warned extensively beforehand of potential suicides and Caltrain employs measures to discourage it, including 10-foot fences and warning signs.

But the fact of the matter is, railroad workers often don’t get appropriate training for dealing with suicide, which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Laurie Richer, a clinical psychiatrist at UCSF.

When a person is hit by a 400-ton train, which can by no means stop in time like a car might during sudden events, the two conductors accompanying the engineer are the first to go out and look for the person.

Often times, the engineer is the last person to see the victim alive.

Charles told KALW that it is difficult to cope with such things and he sometimes wishes to get away from the scene of the accident for a while. But therein lies a big problem for engineers: It’s impossible to escape it. It’s the same route, every day.

“It’s difficult because every time I go past the scene of where I’ve had a fatality, it plays back like a video. Your first nature is to crawl in your hole and just pull the covers over your head – and many people do that, you know. They don’t answer the phone after that. And that’s probably the worst thing you can do, cause you just sit there with that rolling around in your head. It just destroys your sleep for several days.”

Richer said that the first thing someone should do in the event of extreme trauma is to seek counseling immediately. Being reassured that such feelings are normal, and that more often than not people experience symptoms of PTSD after trauma is comforting and can help the person feel less alone.

One Saturday in June, several Caltrain workers joined the annual Out of Darkness suicide walk near Fort Mason.

The Caltrain team has raised $12,000 and counting for suicide prevention.

For April Maguigad, who works for the Operations Department at Caltrain, participating in the event is a great way to support those who have lost loved ones to suicide, whether by train or otherwise:

“It is a sense of sadness that you know this is a person who has chosen quite a tragic way to end their life. You wonder about their family, and you wonder about the people they’re leaving behind. It’s not just another delay, it’s somebody’s family member.”

Charles said offering support to others who have witnessed suicides as train conductors is a way for him to deal with the sadness, as well as help others deal with their own emotions:

“I don’t get to spend too much time thinking about mine if I’m helping others, and that works for me. Plus I have a great network of friends who support me. They prop me up when I can’t stand on my own. They help me through these difficult times. I’m really blessed. I feel like the luckiest man on earth sometimes.”