The hidden toll of a death on the tracks: A train driver speaks out

Picture: Kate Healy
Picture: Kate Healy

Train drivers and rail workers are speaking out about the massive emotional and psychological impact of witnessing a death on the tracks. 

It follows the death of a 66-year-old woman on Thursday, after being hit by a train at the Forest Street rail crossing in Wendouree.

The fatality occurred at 1.10pm, with the V/Line service from Ararat to Southern Cross coming to a stop a few hundred metres from where the woman was hit.

Ballarat Police Senior Sergeant Peter McCormick confirmed to The Courier on Friday the rail fatality was “still in the investigation stage”, with an inquest brief being prepared for the coroner. 

Speaking to The Courier on the condition of anonymity, Victorian train driver James (not his real name) said drivers are told when they enter the profession they will almost certainly experience a fatality or ‘near hit’.

Recounting the experience, he said hitting a person without being able to slow down or stop is “an initial shock followed by self-doubt”, resulting in a debilitating “left-over trauma”.  

“[Every day] you get up and you're in survival mode. Your driving force might be the mortgage repayments or feeding the children ... you have to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving,” James said. 

“It’s just one of those things, because mathematically you’ll probably get one. You’re lucky if you don’t.”

The hardest thing ... Try driving a train over the same piece of track, day after day, where you've had the fatality.

Victorian train driver James

According to statistics from the Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator, in 2016-2017 there were 41 Victorian railway fatalities. Victoria accounted for 46.5 per cent of all rail deaths nationally in the 2016-2017 financial year. 

Rail, Tram and Bus Union Victorian secretary Luba Grigorovitch said “change needs to occur with the public” through an awareness campaign, because a fatality on the tracks causes a “ripple effect to multiple people”. 

“From the train driver, to the train controller who gets the call, the inspector who attends the scene over to the public who is the witness. And then many others that you might not even think about,” she said. 

“One of my rolling stock workers had to clean blood and guts off of a train, from underneath it. 

“It’s those workers that do keep the network running, who aren’t the driver, but are still very much impacted.”