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Authorities investigate Wednesday night, July 30, 2014, after a man was struck and killed by a train at the Cortlandt train station. / James O'Rourke/The Journal News

WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- Sometimes, when a train bears down on a person who has gotten onto the rails, his eyes meet the engineer's just before impact.

"We have fatalities where people just lay themselves on the tracks, and they could be possibly staring right up at you," said Anthony Bottalico, 58, a union official who began working as a conductor 38 years ago.

Bottalico knows how the deaths affect railway workers. He has seen a decapitation. He has seen legs cut off by a train.

"It has a profound effect on you, probably for the rest of your working career and your life," Bottalico said.

Hundreds of times a year across the country, people are hit and killed by trains. Called "trespassers" in the industry, they are by far the most common deaths in railroading.

Railroad officials and others say there is little that can be done when a person is on the rails. A train weighing hundreds of tons simply can't stop in time to avoid striking the person. For the engineer operating the train, or the conductors who must find the person after the accident, it can be the start of a psychological odyssey of nightmares, depression, social isolation.

"I know a couple of guys that the incident was so distressing and so messy that they just couldn't go back," said Jim Gannon, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents New York City subway motormen and bus drivers. "They took yard jobs where it pays less but they don't have to go out on the road."

Often, the people killed stepped or jumped onto the rails intentionally, committing suicide. Authorities said that appeared to be the case when a 40-year-old man was killed by a train in New Rochelle, New York on July 21. Most recently, an Amtrak train struck a 27-year-old man who reportedly ran onto the tracks in Cortlandt on July 30, officials said. On June 30, a man was struck on a curve of track in Peekskill.

"These deeply affect all the employees involved from the engineer and train crew to the first responders to the mechanics and track workers involved in the cleanup to the police who have to notify family members," Metro-North spokeswoman Marjorie Anders wrote in an email.

From 2011 through May of this year, seven people had died on tracks when struck by trains in the Lower Hudson Valley, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. That did not include the most recent deaths.

An engineer spotting someone on the tracks will throw on emergency brakes and lean on the horn, railway union members said. But averting tragedy is often impossible.

"It's just a difference of whether you're going to hit him at 70 miles an hour or hit him at 50," said Michael Doyle, who worked 27 years as an engineer before becoming general chairman for the Association of Commuter Rail Employees, representing Metro-North train operators, 12 years ago.

And it's worse for a freight train. Operation Lifesaver, a rail safety organization, says it takes the average freight train more than a mile to bring a freight train from 55 mph to complete stop.

The number of people killed on the tracks nationwide dropped in 2009, when the total number of train miles traveled dipped. But they have been climbing.

Nationwide, 451 people were killed last year by trains when they got onto the tracks, the highest number since 2008, when 457 were killed. This year is on course to be the deadlier still. Through May, 214 were killed, about 27 percent more than the 169 killed in the same period last year. (Those numbers do not include people killed in train accidents involving cars and trucks.)

Those killed are almost always men. In a 2013 report, the Federal Railroad Administration found that 82 percent of the trespassers killed on the tracks were men. A large majority ?? two thirds ?? were 20 to 49 years old.

Train operators are trained to accept that they will likely be involved in a fatal incident at some point, said Dr. Howard Rombom, a psychologist who works with New York subway and bus employees when they deal with the deaths.

Some deal with it more quickly than others. But those who are deeply affected often suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, waking from nightmares and sometimes withdrawing from social situations.

"They are typically so uncomfortable at times that they feel that they can't relate to other people," Rombom said.

Although the engineer may be the last one to see the person alive, conductors are the ones who have to step off the train to find the body. It can be gruesome. Bottalico recalled an incident from more than 30 years ago when a businessman tried to hop onto a train as it was leaving the Greystone station in Yonkers.

The man fell between cars and suffered a severe head injury. He died, but not immediately. Bottalico tried to keep the man alert by telling him to count down from 100.

"When he got to around 85, he just went out and passed away," Bottalico recalled. (Modern electronic doors and current procedures discourage such attempts to jump onto the train.)

Some railroad workers can return to the job fairly quickly, others take longer. Some feel guilt and many second-guess themselves, even as they understand there was nothing they could do. In general, they are able to return to their jobs in six months or less, and the vast majority return within a year, Rombom said.

"The transit workers we've seen are very good at working through their problems," he said. "They're eager to return to work, they follow through with what we suggest and they really take the treatment seriously."

The federal government has recognized the importance of caring for employees involved in the situation. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 required railroads to offer time off, if requested, for employees involved in deadly track incidents.

The railroads whose trains ply the tracks in the Lower Hudson Valley - Metro-North, Amtrak, NJ Transit and the freight line CSX - all have policies offering time off and counseling for employees involved in the incidents. Spokespeople for the railroads said they were sensitive to the employees' reactions to the incidents.

"These incidents put locomotive engineers in a position where they are unable to stop the train," said Courtney Carroll, spokeswoman for NJ Transit. "And despite having done nothing wrong and having followed all the proper procedures, they have to live with what happens."



Copyright 2014USAToday

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