Hitting bicyclists and pedestrians takes a big toll on train operators too

SALT LAKE CITY -- In recent weeks, three people have been hit and killed by UTA trains.

While the incidents are difficult for the families of those hit, UTA says the impact on the train operator also takes its toll.

UTA operators constantly see close calls, as pedestrians cut it close to cross the track before the train comes through.

In 2011, Ryan Wagner, a UTA Light Rail Operation Supervisor, said a pedestrian looking at a cell phone stepped out in front of his TRAX train in West Jordan.

“By the time they had stepped out, it was too late,” he recounted. “I drew the emergency brake, and it was too late.”

He said he’ll never forget the sound he heard. The person died, and Wagner was left to deal with the grief and trauma.

It took, “almost nine months for me to get back in the cab of a train after that incident,” he said.

Bruce Cardon, UTA Commuter Rail General Manager, said operators of trains that hit and kill people often experience PTSD.

“They go through the cycles of grief, they experience guilt, and anger, depression,” he said.

Just this month, a FrontRunner train hit and killed a man in American Fork, and another one hit a bicyclist in Salt Lake City.

Video showed the bicyclist had crossed the tracks after the crossing arms went down and the lights started flashing.

Earlier this week, a woman died after a TRAX train hit and killed her when UTA said she had been walking on the tracks in South Salt Lake.

Cardon indicated that many people simply aren’t paying attention, or they don’t heed the warning lights and bells when they are hit.

“Our society has become so distracted,” he said. “We have headphones on, we have conversations, and people are always late.”

Trains travel up to nearly 80 miles an hour, he said, and may take a quarter of a mile or more to stop—even if the operator throws on the emergency brake.

It makes the situation no fault of the operator, but operators like Wagner said it still leaves them emotionally distraught.

“I face every day wondering how I could have … if I could have done something differently,” he said. “I ask myself a lot of questions. Why do I deserve to have my children, when I operated something that took another life away?”

To avoid this kind of tragic situation, and the impact it has on everyone involved, they ask people to pay attention and to obey the crossing arms and lights.

“Please when you’re out riding the train, please put cell phones down, any electronic devices,” he said. “Take your headphones off, ear phones off. Wait until you are on the train.”

UTA does offer counseling and resources to help operators process the trauma.  Cardon said most operators return to work, but some find they can’t come back.