Imagine being an engineer operating a 6,000 ton train going 55 mph and not being able to stop quickly enough when you see someone on the tracks ahead of you.

This engineer wants to remind you that there's somebody behind those controls.

Kevin Gniadek, a 35 year old Amtrak engineer from Oakland, CA, knows the feeling well. An engineer for 12 years, he's had six or seven incidents--hitting a person or a vehicle on the tracks—but his first fatality happened two years ago shortly after leaving the San Jose station. “It was mid-day, about 3:00, and we were just coming around a curve under an overpass,” Gniadek recalls. “I wasn't going that fast, maybe 40 mph, and realized there was someone, he might have been inebriated, lying in the middle of the track.” Gniadek immediately put the train in emergency mode and saw the man, curled up in a semi-fetal position, his feet hanging over the rails, his face tense with shock. 

“You can hear when you hit someone,” Gniadek says. “It's a deafening sound, a noise that can't really be explained. It sounds like somebody going through a meat grinder. I can hear it in my mind now.” Unable to stop quickly or swerve, Gniadek's train literally took the man's feet off. What happened next is common to most engineers after hitting someone. “Alone in the cab, you may curse or go through emotions: first adrenaline, then sadness, and finally, anger. You realize you just saw another person die, and that you were the last person to see them alive. You're exhausted afterwards, you analyze everything.” The entire crew is traumatized, especially the conductor who has to get out and investigate. “The conductors see the carnage of the bloody body,” Gniadek says. “They see the dismemberment, they see everything. That's awfully sad; it's tragic for all of us.”

According to Gniadek, what he refers to as 'strikes'--a train hitting either a person trespassing on or near tracks or a vehicle trying to race through a crossing before the train arrives—are a casualty of the profession, one that almost every engineer has endured. “It only takes about 5-10 seconds for a train going 79 mph to clear a crossing,” he says, adding it's a common sight to see drivers pull out and around closed gates in a mad dash to beat the train. “Their perceptions of trains coming at them on the ground are skewed. Before you realize how fast it's coming it's on top of you and it's too late. What can be so important to make them not wait 30 seconds? You're going to risk your life for that?” 

Education, Gniadek says, is key to preventing incidents. He warns his three kids that hanging out around trains and tracks is dangerous trespass, not a game. “The railroad tracks and the surroundings are not a playground, trains are to be respected,” he says. “It's a very big object moving fast and can't stop easily, and there's somebody behind those controls. We react very fast when we do see something because one second can make the difference between an incident happening or not. It's always in the back of your mind: Is this the day I'm going to strike somebody?"

Track Facts and Tips

  • Railroad tracks, trestles, yards and equipment are private property. Walking or playing on them is not only dangerous, it's illegal. Trespassers can be arrested and fined - the ultimate penalty is death.
  • The ONLY legal, safe place to cross tracks is at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings. Observe and obey all warning signs and signals.
  • Do not walk, run, cycle or operate all terrain vehicles (ATVs) on railroad tracks, rights-of-way or through tunnels.
  • There are approximately 160,000 miles of track operated in the United States (source: Association of American Railroads, 2010).
  • Do not  walk, jog, hunt, fish or bungee jump on railroad trestles. They are not designed to be sidewalks or pedestrian bridges; there is only enough clearance on the tracks for a train to pass.
  • Do not attempt to jump aboard railroad equipment at any time. A slip of the foot can cost you a limb, or your life.
  • Remember - rails and recreation do NOT mix!