Published: May 1st 2010
Source: Terri Theodore, THE CANADIAN PRESS
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VANCOUVER - In the 32 years Colin Mann spent working on the railway,
the engineer crushed his eyes shut more than a dozen times, sickly
aware of his helplessness to make his engine avoid the impending
destruction of a person or vehicle.
Nine of those accidents were fatal.
"There's nothing you can do, you lay down on the floor or you close
your eyes and you just don't look," Mann said, almost matter-of-fact
during an interview.
"Some guys look and I think that's the problem. They'll see the
person staring up at them at the last second and their eyes are wide
Suicide researchers at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal are
asking for stories like Mann's as they study the issue of
suicide-by-rail, a phenomenon too horrible to comprehend for most
people, but known too well by anyone who spends their career on
Canada's 48,000 kilometres of rail.
The letter to workers from researchers said "this project's overall
goal is to provide a better understanding of rail-related accidents
and suicides, as well as their impact."
Transport Canada is funding the study in co-operation with Canada's
railways, the Teamsters's rail division and Operation Lifesaver. The
university's Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and
Euthanasia has been asked to try grappling with the issue.
"We don't know enough about suicides to know if there is anything we
can do about it," said Dan Di Tota, national director of the group
formed 20 years ago to try to reduce accidents at rail crossings and
stop trespassing on railway property.
Operation Lifesaver is a private-public partnership between
Transport Canada, police, the Railway Association of Canada, CN
Rail, Via, Go Transit and the Teamsters.
Earlier this week, Rail Safety Week, CN Police Chief Stephen Covey
vowed there would be no compromise in the fight to end accidents,
injuries and fatalities on and near railway crossings, tracks and
But while little is known about the phenomenon of suicide-by-rail,
more is known about the
trauma it causes for train crew.
Mann, 64, is stoic about the incidents he's encountered.
"It's just the way the ball bounces I guess," he sighed during a
phone interview from his Ontario home.
He recalled few details and hasn't even kept accurate counts of the
But his memory is excellent about the day a man sat in the middle of
the tracks waiting for his passenger train to pass.
Mann's train was southbound going about 110 kilometres an hour,
daylight was just breaking and both he and the conductor thought
they saw a piece of cardboard caught between the tracks.
"It was him sitting up, we were blowing the whistle and we both said
at the same time 'holy shit that's somebody sitting there.' We put
the train into emergency and went right over top of him."
Mann is sure it was a suicide, but can't be positive if other
accidents he's been involved in were the same.
A September 2007 Transport Canada report said one of the top reasons
for railway trespassing fatalities was suicide.
While it's difficult to obtain or substantiate statistics on people
who kill themselves, the report said it's believed about 50 per cent
of such fatalities are suicides.
Last year, there were 256 grade crossing and railway trespassing
accidents across Canada. Seventy-one people died and 36 others were
Di Tota said many crews members don't go back to work after such an
He said those who do go back have to drive over the same spot every
day and sometimes families erect memorials, complete with pictures
of the person who died.
"It's not like he (the rail worker) can take a detour," Di Tota
said. "So he relives this every time he goes over that location."
Mann always went back to work, but he said when his train rolled
over the same spot as one of his accidents, he kept his hand on the
brake ready for another incident.
He always kept a careful eye on people who loitered near the track,
calling it a guessing game.
"You know you'll get kids playing chicken and this and that and
you're thinking 'Jeez, are they going to move or not?'
"You're on the edge of your seat every time you come to a crossing."
He said it was just natural instinct to try to guess what the person
standing along the tracks might do.
"If you see something suspicious you put your hand on the brake."
The study on train-related deaths has only just begun assessing the
size of the problem.
It will proceed in four stages, including assessing the prevalence
of rail-related deaths, looking at the impact of accidents and
suicides, coming up with suicide counter-measures, planning and
testing the counter-measures and then implementing them.
Di Tota said his group hopes to see the final report by the end of